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“Tough love” has become a catchphrase in the recovery community. It can have various connotations but in its broader sense is a way to answer the question of how to love someone with addiction while exercising healthy boundaries.
Naturally, this can be very challenging. As it is, knowing how to love anyone can be hard. Loving someone with a drug or alcohol problem adds a whole new layer of complexity to the relationship.
Art Jacob has both personal and professional experience with these questions. In his role as FHE Health’s Director of Patient Experience, he is used to coaching families who have loved ones in early recovery. Years ago, before his own recovery from drug addiction, he also saw firsthand how his parents dealt with his substance problem. In a recent interview, Jacob shared these insights for anyone seeking to support their loved one with healthy boundaries and tough love.
Most Important Advice for Someone Seeking to Love an Addict
Jacob’s most important advice for someone seeking to love an addict well was this: Join an Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, or Families Anonymous group—”any 12-step fellowship designed for loved ones”—and find a sponsor.
“The first thing you’re taught in Al-Anon is, ‘You didn’t cause it and you can’t fix it.’” That can provide a healthy perspective from which to approach your relationship.
A 12-step support group can also help you deal with your loved one and with your emotions and feelings, according to Jacob. For example, fear is a very common emotion and can get in the way of healthy boundaries. Naturally, parents are scared about their child’s welfare when they are in active addiction and could be in danger of overdosing or other threats to their safety.
This is one way in which a 12-step support group can help, Jacob explained: “You get support from the group and from your Higher Power” so that those big emotions are more manageable.
Working the same 12 steps as a loved one in early recovery is also good because it gives you “something to talk about,” Jacob added. A shared language for recovery can help families better support their loved one.
Common Issues in Relationships Affected by Addiction
Enabling, which Jacob defined as doing things for the alcoholic or addict that they can do for themselves, is very common in relationships affected by addiction. Here is how he described it:
You never want to do for an addict what they can do for themselves, so if you do things for them, that’s enabling. I don’t consider it enabling to help the person into treatment—that’s not enabling. Enabling would be buying them a car when they complete treatment or, while they’re in a halfway house, paying all of their bills.
Jacob said “the biggest question” he had gotten from families vis-à-vis loved ones was whether to pay their credit card bills, out of fear their loved one might ruin their credit.
Other common fears among families, according to Jacob: fears of their loved one overdosing or losing their job. In the second case, for example, a wife whose husband is an alcoholic and who is dependent on him for his income might worry about the financial fallout of him getting fired.
Here again Jacob emphasized the importance of being in a 12-step group or seeing a private therapist— “so you don’t enable your loved one.”
How to Set Healthy Boundaries
Not enabling belongs to the hard work of setting healthier boundaries. But how do you set healthy boundaries?
Jacob returned to the example of the wife whose husband is drinking so much that he is risking their livelihood. “You have to say, ‘I can’t live like this anymore, and if you don’t stop or go to treatment, you’re going to have to move out.” Or “sometimes the wife has to leave.”
The key to setting healthy boundaries is following through with one’s word: “If you tell the addict something, you have to stick to it,” Jacob said. In other words, “If you tell the person, ‘If you don’t stop drinking, I’m going to leave, then you have to follow through with it.’”
Creating a boundary also means no bargaining. “You don’t want to get into making a deal with the person,” Jacob said.
He pointed to another scenario that he often sees. A son or daughter calls Mom or Dad from treatment, asking them for money or a ticket to leave. In situations like that, Jacob said the healthy response is to let them know they are an adult and free to leave treatment if they want to—but “you can’t come home and I’m not sending you any money.”
Sometimes setting healthy boundaries can be as stark as saying to a loved one, “Don’t call me again unless you’re back in treatment,” or “If you need help getting into treatment, you can call me.”
Ultimately, “the pain of addiction will force them into getting help,” Jacob said. This can be tough love in in its truest sense. Nobody wants to see their child or partner go through tremendous pain, yet holding the line when it is scary, painful, and costly is their loved one’s best chance of recovery.
Tips for Setting Boundaries and Staying Firm with Them
Some family members worry that by setting a boundary, they may offend their loved one and drive them away. “You may have to offend them,” Jacob said, “but you need to tell them this is how it’s going to be.”
Simply put, staying firm with boundaries just means sticking with the “how it’s going to be.” Jacob was quick to note that “every case is different, and these are general guidelines,” but went on to reiterate that “whatever you say, you have to stick with it … You don’t want to go against it, since that gives the addict wiggle room.”
When It May Be Time to Cut Ties
Is there a time when tough love requires cutting ties? If so, how do you know when to cut ties?
Jacob gave this answer:
Everybody’s breaking point is different, but when it comes to addiction you want to do whatever possible to get in front of the addiction. Is it acceptable to have someone use drugs in your house? No. In this case, you need to cut ties immediately. You can make suggestions but if your loved one is not doing it, you need to give an ultimatum.
When you can’t take it anymore is when you cut ties. You can always say, “I support your recovery, but I can’t live like this. I will not support your addiction, so go get help.”
You Are Not Alone
One of the hardest things about loving someone with substance addiction is the sense of loneliness that many family members feel. They need to know “they don’t have to go through this alone,” Jacob said. “They need support like the addict needs support. If they think they know the answers—you never want to do this on your own.”
Are you wondering how to help a loved one with a drug or alcohol problem? Our counselors are available 24/7 to listen and answer questions. Call us today.