Boundaries are a key issue when recovering from addiction – your own or the effects of someone else’s. Addiction, by it’s nature, includes behaviors that are boundary-less. Those who struggle with addictive behaviors are constantly violating their own and other people’s boundaries.
In this blog post, we will explore 10 types of boundary violations. The purpose of this post is to help you both identify when your boundaries have been crossed and also become more aware of how you may be violating other people’s boundaries. By recognizing these patterns, we can take better care of ourselves and be more loving and respectful to others. Having stronger, healthier boundaries enables us to stop crossing other peoples' boundaries AND helps us maintain our boundaries, even if other people try to push them or violate them.
FIRST, a refresher: what are boundaries, anyway?
If you haven’t already, consider reading our blog post on this subject, and watching the 8-video series on the BASICS of Healthy Boundaries. We use a little bit of a different definition for boundaries than what you may read in other places. Our definition is clarifying for both those who’ve been affected by someone’s addiction (or any other behavior) as well as those who are struggling with compulsive behavior. Boundaries may be defined as:
"What I will or will not do to take care of myself and my responsibilities.
Here’s an important note before we move on: Someone saying, “No” to a request (or demand) is not a boundary violation. This can be confusing and frustrating, particularly to loved ones who are affected by someone else’s addiction. They may demand or request, for example, that their addicted loved one seek help, go to treatment, or stop spending time with people who enable their addiction. The addict may say no to these demands or requests. This, in and of itself, is not a boundary violation. Why? Because boundaries are about me, for me, and about what I am going to do to take care of MYSELF. My boundaries are not about making someone else change their behavior… I don’t have the power to do that. I can make requests that someone change their behavior and if that person refuses (or agrees, but doesn’t follow through), I can take action to take care of myself – this action is my boundary.
So, then, what are boundary violations? Simply put, boundary violations are the prevention of or interference with someone’s duty, ability, or efforts to take care of themselves or their responsibilities.
I violate someone else’s boundaries when I try to stop them from taking care of themselves. Or I might interfere in some way, manipulate, or prevent their behaviors and efforts to protect themselves or make choices on their own behalf. Boundary violations include if I intervene when another adult chooses not to take care of themselves (i.e., cleaning someone’s room or office without their permission because I think its too messy). Let’s explore 10 ways boundary violations can happen. There are other variations of boundary violations, but watching for these 10 in your own life is a good place to start.
When someone lies to or deceives their loved ones, they are withholding important information. This becomes a boundary violation because the one who is deceived can’t make accurate decisions about her/his care or what boundaries they even need.
When our loved ones are unaware of our true intentions, they can’t really give consent or decide how they want to be in relationship with us based on reality. They form a relationship with us based on a manipulated perspective and thus can’t truly take care of themselves.
There is a lot of information about gaslighting online and in popular culture. Sometimes, this term is used to apply to almost any kind of lie or deception. However, true gaslighting is even more pernicious than the average lie. When I gaslight someone, I am trying to make them feel crazy and question their sanity. An example might be an addicted person who is trying to avoid consequences saying to a loved one, “What are you talking about? I told you last week that I would be 2 hours late tonight. You never listen to me. I guess I’m not that important to you.” Trying to cause someone to doubt their reality or doubt their capabilities can lead to terrible damage.
Watch this video about gaslighting to learn more about this phenomenon.
When someone constantly harasses you or brings up an argument over and over again, this may interfere with your healthy boundaries because you simply run out of energy to care for yourself. While you CAN maintain your boundaries in this situation (and even add new ones), the other person’s incessant behavior makes it more difficult.
Children and dependent adults (whether by physical/cognitive ability or due to age) are especially vulnerable to boundary violations. When someone takes advantage of people in these categories, they are exploiting the victim’s cognitive or physical inability to care for themselves and/or to say “no”.
Similar to number 5, victims in this category don’t have the ability to give true consent or to make intentional decisions about their own care. Boundary violators take advantage of these people by counting on the incapacitated state to get what they want
Power differentials occur in relationships where one person has perceived or real authority over another. Examples of this dynamic are employer-employee, teacher-student, doctor-patient, minister-congregant, law enforcement officer-civilian. Even if the victim’s perception of another’s authority is wrong or exaggerated, the boundary violator takes advantage by reinforcing the perception. The stated or implied threat is that saying "no" or speaking up about an authority’s behavior may result in some form of retribution. Alternatively, the victim may be unaware that a boundary violation is occurring (for example, a doctor’s boundary violation may be misunderstood as a typical medical procedure).
This category includes technology and what is stored within our devices. When someone uses something of ours or reads our emails, text messages, journal, etc. without our permission, this is a boundary violation.
Touching someone else’s body without permission is a boundary violation. In these situations, victims may be unprepared for the violation if it happens suddenly. They may also be unable to prevent or protect themselves for a variety of reasons (i.e., physical ability, emotional development, lack of power, lack of awareness). Therefore, physical and sexual abuse can occur. We most often hear about these kinds of abuses between a parent and child, however, they can occur in other situations (i.e., bullying, random assaults, between partners, etc.). It’s important to remember, however, that physical boundary violations can be as simple as hugging someone without permission.
When we tell someone we will or won’t do something, they make decisions based on our word. They decide how they will care for themselves and their responsibilities, trusting that we will do what we said. If we don’t keep our word, the other person’s efforts to care for themselves is thwarted. Of course, we all make mistakes and forget a promise we made. At other times, there may be an addiction or mental illness happening that causes someone to break their word regularly. Sometimes, a person breaks their word because they are mad or are seeking retribution for something.
Please note, it is o.k. to change our mind about something we initially stated we would do. In these situations, however, it is important to let the other person know so they can make different decisions about their care. Changing our minds sometimes is o.k., but if we do this regularly in a relationship, trust will still be compromised.
If you have violated another person’s boundaries (or even your own), it is important to do something about it. Boundary violations will erode trust in our relationships, however, if we don’t acknowledge and correct it, the trust will be eroded even more and will take longer to get back. Once you are aware of violated boundaries, try the following:
If your boundaries have been violated, acknowledge this to yourself. This may sound basic, but if you’ve been in relationship with an active addict, it can be easy to ignore unacceptable behavior or even question if what we saw/heard really happened! This is especially true if our loved one lies to or gaslights us.
Sometimes I recommend that loved ones of addicts write down things they know to be real and keep a running list. This is not to keep a list of all the negative things about the addicted other, but to have a black and white list of dates, time, and specific behaviors/facts so that the loved one can stay in reality. Here are some examples of what a partner may write down:
WHAT I KNOW IS REAL OR MY REALITY
9/2/2018 – This morning, I know my husband was locked in his home office for 2 hours. This is despite the fact that yesterday he told me he had to be at the office by 9. If this was true, he was at least an hour late. He said he had a video meeting in his home office, but in the past when this has occurred he was looking at porn.
7/23/2019 – $200 was missing from our account. Records show it was withdrawn by my wife, but she says “I don’t know how I spent it. I just needed the cash, o.k.!”
2/19/2020 - Jason was an hour late picking up the kids from school. He refused to tell me where he was. The school had to call me to come pick them up. I had to leave work early. This is 4th time in 3 months. My boss wasn’t happy.
After acknowledging that your boundaries have been violated, consider what to do next:
a. gaining clarity
b. not lashing out at our loved ones,
c. and taking actions for our own self-care.
2. Confront your loved one? This is probably a good idea if:
a. You are practicing using your voice and not avoiding conflict – even if you don’t think your loved one will hear you or care what you have to say, do it anyway. You’re not doing it for them, you’re doing it to build trust with yourself.
b. This is a new boundary and you’re not sure the boundary was clear to you and/or your loved one.
c. You are practicing honesty and intimacy with your loved one.
If you choose to confront your loved one, share your observation about the violation and how you feel about it. Make a request for different behavior in the future (i.e., “Jack, I know we talked about calling or texting each other if we were going to be more than 15 minutes late getting home. Last night, you were 40 minutes late and you didn’t call or text. I felt scared something had happened. It reminded me of other times you were late. I now know those were times you were with your affair partner. I’m requesting that you tell me where you were last night. Also, I’m asking that you honor our agreement and let me know if you are going to be late.”)
If you and your loved one have talked about this over and over again and there’s been no change, don’t keep talking about it. Instead, take action. Establish your boundaries that will help you take care of yourself and then follow through.
3. Establish new or additional boundaries. If my original boundaries are being violated, I may need new or additional ones to be able to take care of myself. Using the previous example, Jack’s loved one may say, “Next time you are late without letting me know, I’m going to go to bed and you can sleep in a different room. I will do this so that I can deal with my feelings and take care of myself.” The new boundary is sleeping in separate rooms.
Boundaries are essential tools for recovery from betrayal trauma as well as recovery from addiction. They are very much like muscles, the more we use them and practice them, the stronger and more effective they become. However, they are not always easy to know, put into place, or maintain. If you need help establishing and maintaining your boundaries, contact us today.
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