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EDUCATION - KEY TOPIC

Life as a Supporter

Healthy Boundaries: Sometimes Love Is Saying “No”

Boundaries are crucial for any healthy relationship. As we much as we may care for someone and want to support their well-being, it’s important to realize what is healthy for us to be responsible for, and what is not. We cannot work harder on someone’s sobriety or life change than they are, and we cannot be responsible for their choices. But we can love and encourage people to continue in their process. There can be great benefit in changing the status quo of relationships for a period in recovery, and relying on trained professionals, if the relationship has not been producing health and life. Sometimes, people we are trying to help may misread our efforts to help, or seek distance because our efforts to help feel like control.

Boundaries Enable Love

Boundaries are crucial for healthy, long-term relationships, and particularly in recovery settings. They protect and preserve one’s well-being, and create the opportunity for love by preserving our ability to choose. Boundaries may be an unfamiliar concept or experience in our family or romantic relationships. Various factors can contribute to a belief system that results in a lack of boundaries. 

Sometimes the concept of love is twisted to defend such unhealthy arrangements. Language like, “if you really loved me, then…..” may be a sign the individual is knowingly or unknowingly using manipulation. Love is not always saying “yes.” Love is given. For something to be given, it most be chosen, not forced. Love, in this form, is not possible without healthy boundaries between individuals. If love is required, obligation forced, or manipulated, it has stop being love — it is control. If we believe love is an unconditional requirement, an obligation, it can feel scary to really love because it feels like we’ll be at the mercy of their whims. But if love is a choice, made by an empowered individual with healthy boundaries, it is a beautiful act of sacrifice and service.

In recovery contexts, healthy emotional boundaries enable us to maintain love and support for individuals who may be struggling while not reverting to our own fears or anger. If our value or emotional well-being is too closely tied to another’s choices, it leaves us beholden and dependent on them for us to feel “okay.” Building emotional connection is an important and healthy part of relationships, but it’s possible to do so to an extreme where it can have significant negative impact on our well-being. 

What Are Boundaries?

Boundaries are limits we set in relationships in order to maintain our own personal mental, emotional, and physical health. This may be a physical limit, related to behavior or actions that we choose to take or not take to be around or on behalf of another person. Boundaries can also be a limit to our thoughts and feelings, where we don’t allow our emotions or mind to be dictated by the perceived or actual words or thoughts of another. We may need to express these limits to others with whom they are needed, or to supportive community. Sometimes, we need to simply remember them for ourselves. Having boundaries with an individual is not necessarily a negative reflection on them or on ourselves. Sometimes it’s a matter of time for trust and connection to grow.

In recovery contexts, boundaries can look like not tying our emotions to the short-term process and perceived growth of another. They may involve not providing cash or other forms of help to individuals, if that action enables unhealthy, damaging behavior. For a supporter, boundaries may include not speaking with or otherwise connecting with a loved one in the midst of treatment.

Why Do Boundaries Feel Hard?  

As discussed above, we may be very unfamiliar with the experience of healthy relational boundaries. We may have only seen co-dependency or other unhealthy states, or have a different understanding of love. Establishing boundaries can be difficult if our identity is tied to the approval or choices of others. Becoming healthier in this area may seem unappealing, because it can require us to limit behavior that previously gave us a positive sensation of being “needed.”

Most important, the individual with whom we are trying to set boundaries may be operating out of a powerless, victim mentality. Boundaries put requirements on the relationship. For instance, it may be expressing that we won’t be spoken to in disrespectful ways. “I love you, and want to support you, but I will not engage with you if there is physical or emotionally abusive language.” Putting boundaries in place can cause reactions in those around us, and it can require strength to maintain our boundaries.

Conclusion 

Real love is kindness generated and expressed without attaching strings — which can make it hard or painful when those that we love do things we hurt us. But love is not control. We cannot control other people, even into making healthy, positive decisions. Sooner or later, if we are trying to control, it will backfire. Boundaries empower people to take responsibility for our feelings, choices and thoughts. As a supporter of someone in recovery, it’s important that we recognize the limits of our abilities and responsibilities. 

While we live in contexts with many outstanding problems and challenges, in relationship with imperfect people, we don’t have to allow others’ conditions to control us. Instead, by caring for our own mental and emotional health well, we can extend beyond our boundaries to express compassion, care, and hope to others.

In the process of discovering, creating, and maintaining boundaries, you may find yourself overextended at times. Relationships can change. At times, you’ll recognize that you may have not stood by your boundary in a particular relationship and need to reinforce it. Or, you may grow in trust with an individual and allow them into a more vulnerable place in your life. That’s okay. Don’t be afraid to make a change, and to communicate that change with the person you’re supporting. However, don’t do it in a way that blames the person — that only increases their own shame. Use “I” language recognizing the needs you have.

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