It’s the Holidays – Are Your Boundaries with Your Alcoholic/Addict Wrapped up Tight?

Here we are again. No sooner have we unwrapped our last miniature Snickers from our Halloween candy stash, when we are bombarded with all things Christmas. Sometimes I think it would be nice if the holidays came around like the Olympics, every two or four years. Or if we could skip them altogether and just hang a sign on our front door saying “Gone fishing…please come back after January 3”.

But, since none of those options are really doable, we are confronted with yet another holiday season where we hope that all things – people, food, and presents – will be perfect. After all, that’s what the ads promise. Hmm…a lovely thought, but what if there is an alcoholic/addict in your life and you are both anxiously looking forward to spending all or part of the holidays together?

During this time of year, I have many clients look for guidance in how to establish and secure their boundaries with their loved one, whether it is a family member or a friend. They want to include them in the family festivities, but are anxious nonetheless, torn between the pull of family unity and the possibility of uncertain behavior. They have witnessed all too often other occasions, such as birthdays, anniversaries, or just plain Sunday night dinner when the alcoholic/addict arrived in their addiction, became intoxicated, or just sported a really poor and dower attitude, and all hell broke loose due to anything or nothing. Since the past is a teacher, we can’t help but be apprehensive, yet hope that maybe this time will be different.

Though it is your utmost desire for all to have a joyous and memorable holiday, you will be more comfortable and confident if you keep in mind that you are in control, not the alcoholic/addict. This active role on your part has you establishing fair, yet concrete boundaries well before the scheduled event, not a few days or even hours before your addicted loved one comes through the door.

Pick boundaries that are important to you and be adhered to by the alcoholic/addict or they will not be welcome to participate in the family festivities. Keep it simple, doable, short, and to the point. There is no need to defend yourself regarding your decisions, and if you don’t engage and stay neutral, you will be perceived as having a plan that is well thought-out and smacks of self respect. Please don’t bring up old examples of how the alcoholic/addict let you down in the past; doing so might provoke an argument that serves no purpose.

As with any boundary, it must be accompanied with clear ramifications if those conditions are not met. IMPORTANT: Make sure that you both understand what those consequences are so no one can dispute a misunderstanding or feign ignorance as to the intention of the plan. In addition, it might be a good idea to tell the other family members what that arrangement is so everyone is on the same page and there can be no surprises.

Don’t let your boundaries be built on quicksand, where you acquiesce because the alcoholic/addict spins an excuse as to why they have not lived up to his or her end of the bargain and resorts to tugging at your heartstrings or yelling and screaming. Please don’t fall prey to thinking, “Oh well, I’ll overlook this because it’s the holidays” or “It’s the holidays, and I just don’t want to be unhappy or make my loved one unhappy”. Nothing is more disastrous or can ruin a festive spirit faster than family and friends witnessing the alcoholic/addicts’ outrageous behavior or uncontrolled actions, being left with no outs other than trying to sweep it under the rug.

Here are some simple, respectful boundaries that you might want to consider implementing:

  1. Arrive at the designated time, be well-groomed and dress appropriately.
  2. Being clean and sober is paramount to participation. If you smell alcohol on their breath or they act intoxicated or high, you will not let them in. If they live there, you will ask them to stay away from the festivities until the event is over.
  3. A cheerful and kind demeanor is also an entry ticket; anger or a “woe is me”, chin-on-the-buttons attitude is not welcome.

If they don’t like your holiday rules and regulations, be committed to a response, such as “I am sad that you won’t be joining us, but that’s your choice”. They now have to shoulder all the responsibility for their decision even though they may try to blame you. As disheartening as that outcome may be, you are taking care of yourself and the other members of your family, and in the long run you will have earned a newfound respect, not only from the alcoholic/addict, but from family members and friends as well. After all, there is a bigger picture here; it isn’t your job to appease just one person in a larger family unit.

In contrast, suppose you’re loved ones’ clean and sober program is in its infancy; ask him or her about any reservations he or she has about the evening. Maybe he or she is anxious about Uncle Joe attending, because he always gets intoxicated, and this might pose a strong trigger of relapse.

Respect the recovering alcoholic/addicts’ discomfort if they share that a specific individual’s presence generates a strong resentment; or someone they used to party with, which can teeter them toward a slippery slope. It might be wise to formulate options that both you and your loved one are comfortable with, like not inviting Uncle Joe or others who may test or compromise the alcoholic/addicts’ sobriety, or with whom personality conflicts may spark an angry verbal confrontation.

Conversely, if there is someone who may be attending that has difficulty being in the same room with your loved one, don’t try to make that square peg fit into a round hole just for the sake of “good will toward men”. Even with good intentions, anything can blow up between people on a holiday who struggle with each other on any other day of the year.

Since you still might want to share some of the holiday with your loved one, an option might be to have a quiet pre- or post-holiday dinner alone, with just the two of you (or smaller family group), where there is no possibility for friction or an altercation.

Holidays can be wonderful and fun. But they are certainly more enjoyable if there is warmth and love, coupled with respect and dignity toward each other. After all, it should be a time of reflection on the abundance of gratitude that the year has brought. Hopefully, the alcoholic/addict can participate with his or her family and friends in a way that makes you all happy. However, it’s OK if it doesn’t happen this year for this particular holiday.

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