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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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Boundaries and the Addicted Family

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Mar 14th 2012

Boundaries and the Addicted FamilyEmail:

"...My brother, who has an addiction problem that has become very serious, is very close to my kids, and he was my best friend growing up... My wife and I have become very divided on what is acceptable in regards to our relationship, and our kid's relationship, with not only my brother, but my family as a whole. It is her opinion that our kids should not be allowed at their grandparent's home because this is where my brother lives. She has become very cautious about our children's safety around any member of my family stating that, if they are allowing this to continue to happen, then their judgment is questionable and, therefore, could be lax in regard to the well being of our kids. She will not allow me to take any of our kids (ages 5,4,2, and 10 mos) to anywhere my brother may be..."

This Email typifies the problems and conflicts of the addicted family. Firm boundaries are essential for the normal functioning and health of every family. Within those boundaries are very clear role functions that define what behaviors are forbidden vs. what is permissible. For example, parents decide how the budget is allocated for entertainment, shopping and essentials. Children sleep in their own beds leaving the parental bed for mom and dad. This arrangement is essential so that husband and wife are able to be intimate without disturbing the kids.

However, in the addicted family, boundaries become fuzzy so that members are intruding into one another's role definitions. In the case above, the person who wrote the Email is arguing with his wife over allowing the children to visit the grandparents' house. Essentially, their argument is over a boundary issue.

The brother abuses drugs and alcohol and lives in the same home as his parents. The wife does not want her children visiting their paternal grandparents for fear that none of the adults present can provide adequate supervision because of the brother's addiction. Her concern is for the safety and well being of her kids. Yet, her husband insists that the kids be allowed to visit because he is close to his brother and parents.

What is wrong with this picture?

For one thing, the brother is enabled by his parents to continue to abuse alcohol and drugs by their giving him free room and board. In other words, there is little incentive for him to stop abusing substances and remain clean. He has yet to face the consequences of his drug and alcohol use. That is what is meant by "enabling" behavior.

The husband, father of four young children, wants to further enable the drug addiction by allowing the kids to visit the home where this drama is taking place. His love of his parents and his parents love of his brother, is clouding everyone's judgement.

In terms of boundaries, his brother should not be living with his parents, most certainly not while he is abusing substances. His parents should not be allowing this behavior to continue while he is in their house. The husband should not be quarrelling with his wife over people who live outside his marriage and family. His role and that of his wife is to support one another and protect the children. Seemingly, the wife is the only one who consciously or unconsciously grasps the gravity of the situation.

Addictions have this impact on relatives because it is natural for people to want to protect loved ones. No one wants to order their son or daughter to leave the house. This goes against all the instincts of a parent to want to provide for their adult children. Yet, love sometimes means making hard decisions. Putting the addicted brother out of the parental home is not an angry or vengeful thing to do. Rather, it sends a message that the addictive behavior will not be tolerated while living under this roof. In addition, these parents have a right to protect themselves from their addicted son. Under the influence of drugs and alcohol,it is common to act in ways that are abusive in nature.

The wife is right that these young kids not be allowed in their grandparents' home while the addict is there. Her role is to protect her children. Husband and wife need to close ranks so that they present a united front to the extended family. Everyone needs to understand that these are temporary measures until such time as the addict enters rehab and stays sober. Again, the purpose of setting limits is not to punish the loved one but to send a clear message that he is not welcome while he is using.

Your comments and questions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD


Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

A more flexible approach - - Mar 15th 2012

I disagree with the priorities and likely results of the application of Boundary theory in this case:

1.       The addict may never get well.  That is his choice and/or his disease progression.

2.       Is there evidence that the addictive behavior is harming the children?

3.       The parents’ enabling behavior is their own choice.  Out of concern for everybody in the family, the son could, and responsibly should, discuss his and his wife’s concern with his parents.

4.       The wife considers the parents’ judgment questionable on the basis of them allowing their son to live in their house.  Is there other evidence of questionable judgment?  The wife’s expectation that the parents be up-to-date with current views appears overly self-righteous to me.

5.       There is no way to control what will be the effect on the parents or the uncle if the children are not allowed to be anywhere the uncle might be.  All we can say for sure is that children will not get to know their uncle (bad and good qualities).

6.       A more flexible application of boundary theory is available:

a.       The son can tell the addict that he is not allowed to be anywhere near the children if he is under the influence.  The son and his wife can control this and leave if he appears to have been using.

b.      The son and his wife will not leave the children alone with the grandparents in their home.

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