Living with an Addict | How to Talk About "It"
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How to Talk About “It”

If we don’t know how to communicate in addiction, conversations turn to anger, avoidance or indifference.
When you feel yourself becoming angry, resentful or exhausted, pay attention to where you haven’t communicated or enforced a healthy boundary.

Boundaries are the most important thing to communicate in addiction. A boundary is a rule you set with a specific consequence if that rule is ignored. Setting boundaries may feel selfish or uncomfortable. Do it anyway. Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters and sensitive enough to avoid lectures and yelling.

Communication and boundaries (or lack thereof) will define your relationship in addiction. It’s not a topic to ignore.

1. Evaluate Your Current Communication

And, get tips to improve before, during and after.
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2. Learn to Guide the Conversation

Address distractions directly and redirect the conversation back to the real message. That ensures your points are clear and lets them know they can't manipulate the discussion. They may not even be conscious of these defense mechanisms.

Minimizing

Minimizing

Comparing to extreme examples, describing how it could be much worse or making their use relative to others.

“I hear you saying that you don’t drink as much as Jon, but my concern about your drinking has nothing to do with Jon. I want to stay focused on what’s going on with you and how your drinking is negatively affecting me.”

Deflecting

Deflecting

Turning the topic back to you, changing the subject or using humor.

“I appreciate you trying to lighten the mood, but this is a serious topic. When you joke, it makes me feel like you aren’t taking my concerns seriously.”

Avoiding

Avoiding

Pretending they didn’t hear you or saying that you worry too much.

“I am worried because addiction is a serious disease. As much as you may not want to be hurting me with your drug use, you are.”

Misleading

Misleading

Using words like probably, possibly or maybe.

“When I hear you say “maybe,” I feel like you really mean ‘no.’ I prefer you say ‘I will’ and make a real commitment to do what I’m asking.”

Rationalizing

Rationalizing

Explaining why something that’s clearly not OK is OK.

“I hear you say you only drink to be social, but last week I saw you sleeping with an empty vodka bottle in your bed. I’m worried that your drinking is no longer social. And, I hope you can remain open to hearing my concerns.”

Non-Verbal

Non-Verbal

They may not say “I’m feeling ashamed.” But, if you see that in their body language, you can adjust your approach or even address it directly.

“I notice you’re wringing your hands. Are you feeling anxious? Is there anything I can do to help you feel more comfortable while we talk?”

3. Follow-Through on Boundaries

You teach people how to treat you by what you allow.

Acknowledge to yourself that this happened. Take time to choose your response, rather than reacting with feelings of frustration and anger. If you set clear boundaries upfront, don’t settle for guilt or excuses. If you said you’d kick them out, you have to do it. You probably already gave them too many chances. Hold firm in your words and actions and don’t make idle threats.

“This week, you’ve missed your therapy sessions and meetings. I feel disappointed. We agreed that if you wanted to live in this house, you needed to follow through with your commitments. I must follow through with my commitment now and ask you to pack your things to go to the sober house that was recommended by your therapist.”

If your loved one is not in treatment, sorry is not enough. While they probably genuinely feel remorseful, they’ll continue to hurt you and abuse your compassion until they commit to recovery.

When your loved one is in treatment, healing will take time. Eventually, you will have to acknowledge and deal with the pain that was caused. This will allow you to truly forgive and move forward. Until then, “sorry” (even if heartfelt) is never enough to compromise on your boundaries.

If they regularly violate your boundaries, minimize contact to the point of potentially cutting ties. By standing firm, you stop being the victim, stop blaming others and start reclaiming responsibility for your own life and peace. Over time, you may naturally rely on them less and less. Unconditional love doesn’t mean you have to unconditionally accept bad behaviors.

Detachment with love is covered in much more detail in Session 7 of HopeTracker.

If conversations haven’t gone well in the past, try a letter. It’s better than nothing, but the goal is two-way dialog. Open communication removes the denial and secrecy of addiction.

“I notice whenever I try to discuss the use of drugs in the house, you seem unwilling to talk about it. When you do this, I feel frustrated. I’m asking again that you don’t use drugs in our home. I’m breaking the law by knowing it happens and not reporting you to the police. I believe it’s also a risk to the health and safety of us all. If you choose to continue to use drugs in our home and not discuss this, I will assume that you have withdrawn your cooperation. I will then withdraw my cooperation by not giving you money for any reason. I regret it has come to this and I would prefer that we talk about your drug use and its impact on the rest of the family. I want to end by saying that I still love and want to know you.”

The letter:

  • Talks about their behavior, not them as a person.
  • Gives the impact of the boundary being broken.
  • Asks for the boundary to be respected instead of demand or avoid it.
  • Is open, honest and direct.
  • Is balanced between saying what is difficult and what is liked about the person.
  • Sets out clearly what the boundary is and the consequences of breaking it.
  • Gives them responsibility for their behavior and the choices they make.

Our Stories

Sandra, Boundaries in Addiction
Parent
Spouse
Adult Child
Sibling

I let my son “hide” his disease for too long. I tried to convince myself it was just a phase. I’d lecture him about it from time to time, but I might as well have been talking to a wall. He’d barely say anything. When he did, it was related to ending the conversation. I was frustrated and uncomfortable, so I’d go with it when he changed the subject.

Even when I was consumed with worry living with an addict, I suffered in silence. I was attending Al-Anon every week for years, and he had no idea. I didn’t realize telling him that would let him know that I was both genuinely concerned and suffering and trying to understand and support him.

In the end, he went to treatment without even telling me. Everyone in my support groups asked if that hurt my feelings, but it really didn’t. I was so happy he was getting well. When he did call in the last week of his treatment, we had an honest, deep conversation about his addiction and his plans.

Through this experience, we’ve learned to really talk about our feelings. It wasn’t something that came naturally to me. We now connect on a more profound level. And, if I’m wondering about his recovery, I ask.

- Sandra D.

My husband and I would constantly argue about his addiction. I was so angry. It was anger I couldn’t shake. I’d carry it with me everywhere I went, and it affected my whole life. For way too long, I didn’t recognize that my anger was at the disease, not at him. I couldn’t see that the person I loved was still there, just being stifled by the drugs. My anger and unwillingness to listen was robbing me of the love I had for him.

Ultimately, he got help without my support. It wasn’t until a few sessions into our therapy together that I began to recognize that I had been less than helpful when he was suffering. I’d yell, shut him down and talk down to him. I acted like it was his problem that had nothing to do with me. But, that’s not what marriage is. That’s not what we vowed.

We are picking up the pieces slowly but surely. We are both becoming better people every day — more conscious of our own feelings and the ability to express them. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy, but it’s definitely a better way to live.

- Kristie K.

When my mom started drinking every day, our relationship suffered significantly. Our once friendly and supportive mother-daughter relationship changed drastically, to the point where every time I brought up treatment our conversations would escalate into screaming matches. It was gut-wrenching to realize how far apart we were growing.

I wish it were as easy as saying, “If you don’t go to treatment I’ll be forced to move out.” But when I tried using leverage it only made things worse. She started drinking more just to prove that she was the adult and I was the “child.”

It didn’t take long for me to grow resentful and become distant. I started to internalize all my feelings, letting them fester and boil. It reached the point where I was making myself physically sick, and soon, I became a shell of my former self.

Eventually, I took a chance and decided to write her a letter, which was my version of an open and honest plea. I set boundaries and laid it all out on the line and doing so made me feel empowered. Finally, she saw that her actions weren’t just impacting her life, they were impacting mine. It was that unexpected action that caused her to seek help.

- Joelle F.

My family learned the hard way that addiction doesn’t just go away. It gets worse. When my brother went off to college, my parents cleaned up his room and found some disturbing stuff. Foil, lighters, baggies and needles. They didn’t know what to make of it, so they decided to say nothing. I was told to stay out of it every time I spoke up. I would hear my parents arguing about how his grades were slipping and he looked gaunt every time he came home. He was always sick, and my dad wanted to bring him back home and confront him, but mom would get angry and burst into tears and they would drop it, as if not talking about it meant it wasn’t really happening. It was awful.

Even though Mike wasn’t at the dinner table, he was the topic of every conversation and the reason for every argument. Soon enough he wasn’t talking to any of us, and my parents and I were barely talking to each other either. Thanksgiving was interesting, and we managed to hide any trace of the chaos his addiction was causing us. By the time he came home for Christmas, it was obvious that something needed to be done.

We all sat down around him and before we could get a word out, he burst into tears and asked for help. The funny thing is that he thought we had no idea what was going on, and I truly believe that if we had communicated our concerns to him sooner, it would have spared us all a lot of misery. So far things are better. He’s seeing a therapist on a regular basis and taking some time off from school.

- Dave E.