Throughout the first sixteen years of my marriage my husband, Dean, struggled with his addiction to alcohol, prescription pain pills, and crack cocaine. As his addiction continued to get worse, my ability to set healthy boundaries failed. This didn’t happen overnight -- it was a gradual process that eventually left me feeling powerless.
In the beginning of our relationship, I was a confident young woman. Unfortunately, I had failed to recognize the signs of Dean’s addiction until we were married and I was pregnant with our son. As Dean began to take on addictive behaviors, I attempted to ‘lay down the law’. We were married now, and it was time to act like grown-ups. I would make threats to leave if he didn’t change his ways -- and he would make empty promises that helped me feel better in the moment.
Each time I allowed Dean to pass a boundary -- rather than standing my ground -- I would allow my boundary to get pushed further. I was stuck in a cycle of making threats even when I knew I didn’t have the courage to follow through. Dean quickly learned that my boundaries didn’t really exist, and, as a result, my self-esteem was slowly chipped away.
What is a boundary?
A boundary is your own limit -- an invisible line that you will not allow others to cross. If it is crossed, you take action in order to protect your boundary. For example: you may have a boundary that you will not allow others to put you down. If somebody crosses that boundary, you respond by letting them know you will not tolerate being put down, and then you get up and leave the room.
In my own experience, I attempted to set many boundaries, but my failure came at taking action when those boundaries were crossed. Until I could find the courage needed to stand by my words, I would continue to have others take advantage and disrespect my boundaries.
following are four key steps to follow when setting healthy boundaries:
1. Respect you own boundaries. If people are not respecting your boundaries, it is because you are allowing it. In my relationship I told my husband over and over again what actions I would take if he crossed my boundaries. But over and over again, I failed to follow through. I was teaching him to disrespect my boundaries, because I did not respect them myself.
2. Don’t make threats you aren’t prepared to follow through on. Many times I threatened divorce, threatened to leave, threatened to call the police, but I never made good on those threats. I knew in my gut, even when making those statements, that I wasn’t really going to follow though -- I just wanted to scare my husband into believing it. It didn’t take him long to figure out my game. I had to learn to stop making those threats unless I was prepared to keep my word.
3. Work on building up your self-esteem. The courage needed to protect your own boundaries comes from a healthy self-esteem. So how do you build up your self-esteem? This was my biggest challenge. My plan included exercise, journaling, meditation and visualization. As I began to turn my focus inward, I grew more and more confident. Eventually, I was able to stand by my boundaries, and Dean slowly learned that he could no longer disrespect the boundaries I set.
4. Reach out for help. Turn to the people who care about you. Remember that you don’t have to do this on your own. When you’re lacking strength you can borrow it. Pick up the phone and reach out to a friend. Join a family recovery group such as Al-Anon. There you can find a sponsor to help give you the courage needed to stand by your boundaries.
Lisa Espich is the author of the multi award-winning book, "Soaring Above Co-addiction: Helping your loved one get clean, while creating the life of your dreams" and co-author of "Nothing's Impossible: Inspirational stories that prove it." After the remarkable transformation in her own family, she is now passionate about helping other families to heal from the devastating effects of addiction. For additional articles, resources, and a Free Guided Meditation download visit her website at www.soaringabovecoaddiction.com