What are boundaries? They are a dividing line between you and anyone else. These lines represent physical, emotional, and spiritual limits that other people in your life may not violate. It may help to envision a psychological fence that separates you from others in your life. You may have different boundaries for loved ones, friends, acquaintances, and strangers, depending on the area of focus and the situation. Boundaries are meant to protect you from physical danger, anger, hurt, fear, or any other painful emotions that you would experience if someone violated these limits. They keep us from agreeing to things that we really don’t want to do and then feeling resentful. They help to regulate the personal space in relationships. With good boundaries, you’ll feel more empowered and less like a victim.
Boundaries help to keep you safe and communicate your expectations to others. They are one way that you show respect for yourself and the other people in your life. They help you define your “self” and establish a healthy platform for interacting with others. Every individual has worth and deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. Nobody deserves to be treated abusively, or lied to, or betrayed. Learning to set boundaries is essential to letting others know that you have clear expectations for how you want to be treated.
There are usually two main parts to a boundary:
- The description of the unacceptable behavior, and
- The steps you will take if the boundary is violated.
When you describe the unacceptable behavior, you should be as specific as possible. The steps that you will take should consider both immediate action and long term plans should the unacceptable behavior take place.
Some behaviors are so heinous that there are definite actions that must be taken. An example might be: If you ever hit me, I’ll call the police and press charges. If you continue to threaten or harass me in any way, I will file for a restraining order and defend myself in whatever ways are necessary.
However, the consequences for other behaviors must take into account the circumstances of the specific situation. For example, you might have a boundary such as: If you miss a 12-step meeting, I’ll expect you to go to three other meetings during that week in its place. The addict may have already attended weekly meetings without fail for 6 months and his/her car broke down earlier that day. You might choose to not implement your stated consequence in this case because the addict has a good history of recovery and there was a very good reason for him/her to miss the meeting. The important thing to remember is that you must remain reasonable and flexible in creating boundaries and consequences.
It’s also important to match the significance of your boundary with the severity of the consequences. For example, you probably wouldn’t want make the boundary: If you ever lie to me, I’m going to leave this relationship. That’s like using a bazooka instead of a fly swatter to kill a fly. One lie is probably not a sufficient reason to end a relationship. Also, the addict may indeed have forgotten a detail of his/her past, rather than lying to cover up something. Addicts often lie by nature, so one slip in this area may not have been premeditated. A better boundary would be: If you ever lie to me, and I find out about it before you tell me, I’d expect you to contemplate your actions, “confess” to the truth, and apologize. I’d like the apology to include your plans for keeping it from ever happening again.
It may sound like a contradiction, but strong boundaries are flexible and can be easily adapted to the situation. Boundaries are a problem when they are so rigid that they have no flexibility, or when they are so flexible that they have no power. You have to find the right balance of reason and flexibility in setting your boundaries.
You must also keep in mind that idle threats destroy the process of establishing boundaries. You must set boundaries that you are willing to enforce with realistic consequences. It is easier to state your expectations and limits, but much harder to enforce them with your consequences. If you do not enforce your boundaries, they will soon lose meaning. Not only do you have to be willing to follow through, but also the consequences must be within your power.
Children learn at a very young age that their parents don’t really mean it if they don’t follow through with consequences. For example, if a parent tells a child that there will be no dessert if (s)he doesn’t eat the vegetables, but then gives the child a piece of cake when (s)he didn’t even sample the vegetables, the parent is telling the child that it’s OK not to eat the vegetables (in spite of what they had said to the child). Likewise, other people in your life learn that your boundaries can be crossed without repercussions, if you don’t enforce them. If you tell someone that they better not call you after 9:00 PM, but then have pleasant conversations when they call at 9:30 PM, you’re essentially telling them it’s fine to call after 9:00 PM (in spite of what you said to them). You MUST follow through with action to support your words.
Keeping in mind that addicts usually have a history of crossing boundaries, it is essential that you, as the partner, define and consistently enforce your boundaries. This may be very difficult because in all probability you did not do this in the past. Learning to set healthy boundaries can feel uncomfortable and scary at first. But, it is vital that you take the steps to form boundaries to protect yourself and start the process of recovery.
As a partner to a sex addict, you must establish a list of non-negotiable items that will become the core of the boundaries you create. This list may change and evolve as time passes and you become more knowledgeable about sex addiction and your role as an enabler. The primary purpose of these boundaries will be to provide you with safety. However, they will also help to reduce your fear of future relapses.
The non-negotiable boundaries may include such things as:
- no sex outside the marriage
- no forcible intercourse
- regular visits to the therapist
- participation in 12-step recovery group (x number of times per week)
- no alcohol or drug use
- no masturbation
- installation of a filter on all home computers
- reading (at least x number) of books per month about sex addiction to get a better understanding of the disease
Since these are non-negotiable, the consequence may be a therapeutic separation. However, if you’re not prepared to take such a drastic action, you shouldn’t make the threat to leave. You might want to consider less drastic measures, such as a week on the couch, moving in with a friend, a period of celibacy, etc.
Other strong boundaries may include:
- no contact of any kind (email, texting, blogs, facebook, phone calls, letters, meeting, etc.) with former sex partners
- no use of pornography
- no lying
- a limited amount of cash spending money
These may not require such a drastic consequence as separation because situations may arise that interfere with your partner’s ability to comply. For example, your partner may accidentally bump into the person with whom he acted out. If this happens, you may require your partner to tell you about it within a specified period of time.
When there’s a new disclosure or you discover the addict has slipped, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “I’m upset and need time to think about it.” There’s no “law” that says you must respond immediately. In fact, it’s better to take some time to respond instead of reacting without much thought. Form appropriate logical consequences with which you are comfortable. The extra time you take also gives the addict time to think about what he/she has done. However, it may also give the addict time to think of “excuses” for his/her behavior. You must be firm and deal with the reality of what has happened, rather than be drawn into the addict’s distorted perception.
It is important to remember that boundaries are not meant to control the addict. They are, rather, bottom line conditions that you can tolerate. They are meant to keep you safe and conform to your own basic principles. You might want to ask yourself: What am I going to get out of this boundary? How will it affect my wellbeing? If there isn’t a gain for you, you just might be trying to control the addict. Although the primary purpose of a boundary is to help you, they will probably also help your partner with his/her recovery because you will no longer be enabling the addiction.
You may still love the addict, but you do not have to tolerate offensive behaviors. If your partner should slip, remember to use your own tools: calling your sponsor, going to a 12-step meeting, prayer and meditation, journaling, slogans, etc.
Suzanne Rucker, Licensed Mental Health Counselor
EMDR & ASAT Certified