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Did the Boundary I Set Make Him Drink Even More?

Jbernard116 has a fiancé with substance use disorder. She’s made an impressive start in applying CRAFT to this challenging situation. Unfortunately, the boundary she set didn’t immediately yield the behavior change she hopes for—and she even worries that it could have prompted her fiancé to drink even more heavily. Allies’ writer Laurie MacDougall responds with a careful review of CRAFT-informed options and strategies. Boundaries, she reminds us crucially, determine our behavior—not our Loved One’s.

I am trying to implement the CRAFT method in my relationship with my fiancé, who has an alcohol use disorder and also uses recreational drugs. Last night I tried to establish a boundary. We had plans to walk our neighborhood and deliver Christmas treats that I baked to our neighbors. He came home and smelled like booze and seemed intoxicated. I asked him if he had been drinking and he reluctantly told me he “might have had one drink.” I took a few minutes and then I told him I no longer wanted to do our plan because it was clear he had been drinking and also driving. He was surprised by this and also annoyed, and he said he only had one drink. I said, “You smell like booze and you have been at your brother’s house, so I don’t really believe it was just one. When I don’t know how much you have been drinking or for how long, I don’t know what will happen, so I would rather not hang out with you.”

He ended up leaving the house to “go work” and never called me or checked in for the rest of the evening. I called him before bed and he was too intoxicated for me to understand him. I reached out to his brother who confirmed he was there. He never came home that night.

I am glad I stuck to my boundary, but also feel like it pushed him into a situation of self-sabotage. What do I do now?


Hi Julia,

I know you might not feel much like it right now, but WOW! What a great start. You are diving right in and working on your CRAFT skills—boldly and confidently setting boundaries and (as per Module 6) deciding how to interact with your Loved One (LO) when they are using in the moment. I also hear that you stepped back and gave yourself time to calm down, think, and try and come up with a response rather than just react.

I also hear you saying that maybe you’ve lost a little confidence from being unsure and worried about your LO’s actions and response to you. Let me reassure you: this all falls into the “normal” category. You changed things up on your LO. He may not like it at first, so he may not respond the way you wish he would (especially at first). And because his actions seem like punishment directed at you, it feels like maybe it wasn’t the best option or that you might have done things wrong. I’ve emphasized the word feels because it’s important to note that feelings are not facts. Just because you feel a particular way does not mean it is so.

Time for reflection

I am hoping you might step back and take the time to reflect on this interaction. Acknowledge your efforts and wins, and find where you might improve your skills and strategies for next time.

First, What went well? Refer back to my first paragraph: there was a lot that went well in this interaction. Pat yourself on the back. Give yourself the credit you deserve. You really put on your boots and dove right in. Acknowledge all of what you accomplished.

Second, What needs improvement? Based on what you wrote in your question, I will outline a couple of things that, with a little tweaking, might help with future interactions. There are two areas to build on: boundaries and communication.

Keep your eye on the ball—meaning your behavior, not his

Before I go into boundaries and communication, I would like to point out that it is important to understand what your goals are when implementing CRAFT skills and strategies. We often take on faith that a strategy is “working” when it results in our LOs behaving the way we want them to behave. I am going to try to point you in another direction. Look to the changes in your behavior. Focus on improving how you interact and communicate with your LO as the measure of progress. For example, just the fact that you got up the guts to let your LO know that you would not be driving around town with someone who had been drinking is movement in the right direction.

There’s also (and here is a bit on catastrophizing) a perspective change that might help. When we can move from seeing “failures” to “opportunities to learn” for ourselves and our LOs, we can gain a more realistic approach and attitude. Developing a deeper understanding of boundaries and communication skills, and constantly practicing and reworking those skills, are what can really strengthen and build on your relationship with your LO. That’s where progress comes from.

Mastering those boundary basics

Boundaries have been extensively written about in the Discussion Blog and talked about on the podcast, Coming Up for Air. I would recommend a deep dive to learn all you can about them. When I first started on my journey with my LO, I thought I was clear on boundaries. But as has happened many times with other concepts, I found I did not have a strong grasp, and so I stumbled through a trial-and-error process. There are a couple of characteristics of boundaries that many families struggle with and that I wish I had understood better early on. Here are some key points:

  • Boundaries determine your behavior. They do not determine your LO’s behavior.
  • Boundaries are yours, so they are yours to manage. It is not your LO’s responsibility to follow the boundaries. Since a boundary determines your behavior, your behavior manages the boundary.
  • Boundaries are NOT a punishment. I often ask myself if I am intending to use my boundary to get my LO to do or behave in a certain way. If I am, then maybe I am using the boundary to manipulate the situation or to express my frustration with my LO. In these circumstances, I try to alter the boundary so that it’s about my behavior and what actions I am going to take.

Module 4 (How Do I Talk to My Loved One?) is the communication module. I would encourage you to watch the videos and do all of the activities over and over. I have completed this module countless times, and each time I do, I learn something new. Pick one of the strategies and spend some time practicing. Choosing a skill that may be easy to implement at the start may give you a sense of accomplishment. When skills are rewarding, we are more likely to keep trying.

I found the “I” statements exercise to be one of the easiest to start with. I challenged myself to change all of my “you” statements to “I” statements and found that was something I could accomplish quickly and easily. But remember that the skills you learn will not result in smooth sailing most of the time. It may take a lot of practice and reworking until you find a way to make them work for you. In time, though, they can become second nature.

Some important tweaks after a strong start

Let’s look at how to adjust the previous interaction with your LO, so that the next time something like this comes up you can try some new strategies:

CRAFT encourages us to address issues, but also to be non-confrontational when we do so. The question here would be how to address your boyfriend’s drinking without being confrontational. You had already smelled alcohol on his breath and noticed some behavior patterns (see recognizing patterns from Module 3) that indicated that he had been drinking. There’s actually no reason to ask him whether he has or not (this just opens the door for denial and defensiveness). It’s already pretty clear. Instead, since he has been drinking, make the decision that this is going to determine your behavior. You may still need a moment to think about your response. Take all the time you need.

What might your response to him sound like?

Hey, I see you’ve been drinking. I’m going to head out and deliver the baked goods to our neighbors and friends tonight on my own. We can talk about it tomorrow.

This is non-confrontational and not a punishment. It is also following Module 6, My Loved One is Using Right Now, Now What?, and ties the boundary to the behavior. He might be taken aback that you are not following the plan to walk around together, and get a little defensive. But a discussion about his drinking and your concerns when he has already been drinking is not good timing. If he tries to talk about it then and there, you might respond with something like, “I am happy you’re home and safe. Now is not the time; I am not ready to discuss this. We can talk tomorrow about it.” And then leave. Again, following Module 6, setting up a boundary for yourself for what you are comfortable with, and then  being responsible for your boundary through your actions.

Like he did in the moment you describe,  he may get upset, continue to drink, head to his brother’s, or just stay home and sleep it off. Whatever his behavior, look for a later time when he has recovered and is not drinking to discuss what happened (combining the approaches of Module 5 and Module 6). Review Module 5 on how to identify times of use and non-use to guide you as to when you should consider a discussion. Noticing your LO’s behavior and stating the facts are ways to help reduce a defensive response (although they may not eliminate it, and it may take a few tries):

I noticed that you were slurring your words, stumbling to get into the house, and I could smell alcohol when you came into the room. I am scared and concerned and was hoping you would share what is going on.

By following this example, you’d be using as many “I” statements as possible, only stating the facts of the behavior you observed and expressing the feelings you had that resulted from what you witnessed. You’re not blaming him; you’re just letting him know what you saw. There is also no reason to get into the battle of Were you? No I wasn’t…. Well maybe just one…. Well maybe more than that, etc. This new approach is also invitational: you’re inviting him to express himself and letting him know you are open to his explanation. He may not be used to this, so there may still be some denial, but it doesn’t really matter. You already know the truth. Your goal here isn’t to get him to behave in a particular way or to admit anything. It’s to build on your relationship so that he can come to you when he is struggling and know you will hear him out. That goal will take time and multiple attempts.

Being empathetic while still holding true to your boundaries is also important:

I am hearing that reducing/eliminating your drinking is difficult. It makes sense to me that you might feel the pressure to drink and struggle when you’re over at your brother’s house and everyone is having a couple of beers. Do you have any thoughts as to what you could do in the future that might help with this?

This is an empathetic stance on what he’s going through. From here you could move on to something like this:

I’m the one who worries when it comes to drinking and driving, so I need a solution to this issue for the future. What are your thoughts? I am proposing that you either stay at your brother’s, get an Uber, or call me and I pick you up. What do you think of these ideas? Are they something you would consider and commit to?

Also, depending on the solution agreed on, consider that it might not be adhered to:

Sometimes we say we are going to commit to certain things, and then when drinking, we don’t think as clearly. So I would also like to discuss what will happen if the agreement isn’t followed through on. What then? What do you think should happen if you drive home after drinking?

I often hear from family members that they will come to some sort of agreement with a LO and then it isn’t followed through with. Addressing these possibilities ahead of time will just make things clearer to everyone what the plan is and how things will be handled.

It isn’t clear whether he got in the car and drove back to his brother’s or if he found another way over there. But if he did drive, I would encourage you to address this too. This is one area that is very clear when it comes to CRAFT: everyone’s safety is of the utmost importance. Let him know in the kindest, most caring and calm way that you can that if there is drinking and driving you may consider a call to the police to stop him. What could happen otherwise is not something you wish to deal with.

What about that guilty feeling?

I am so glad to hear that you are feeling a sense of satisfaction in holding to your boundary. You did accomplish something that is incredibly difficult to do! On the flip side, I also hear in your post that you may be taking on some of the blame for his behavior in response to your boundary—as if your boundary caused his “self-sabotage” as you put it. This is a tough one, but you are not responsible for his behavior, just as he is not responsible for yours.

With each new boundary you set up or improve on, he may react in a similar way, but that is no reason to stop what you’re doing. Each time something does not go as planned, each time things blow up or you struggle to get through a situation, is an opportunity for both you and your fiancé to learn something new. And each learning opportunity is another chance to tweak your own responses and behaviors.

Things often get difficult before they get better. You are changing up your response, and he doesn’t know how to deal with it. So he goes back to an old coping skill: drinking. Staying calm, engaging with him consciously, building your interactive and communication skills, sticking to your boundaries: all these, with patience and persistence, will start to change things. There is nothing better than finding yourself in a productive conversation with your LO as all your efforts start to pay off.

This journey is not an easy one. It’s definitely not a straight-line process. In fact, it’s incredibly twisty, winding, frustrating, and exasperating. But when things progress, it can be so rewarding. I don’t know if you have already seen the added supports Allies offers to help you with applying CRAFT. We offer CRAFT skills groups on Mondays and Thursdays at 12PM (Eastern Time) and CRAFT educational groups on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights, focused on learning and understanding all things Substance Use Disorder and CRAFT. On Wednesday nights, we also offer a CRAFT family support group facilitated by Kayla Solomon, LICSW. All of these are very supportive and can help build a community of understanding.

When you are available, join us and check them out. You might find the groups to be quite helpful.

What I have written here are just thoughts and suggestions designed to inspire you to get creative about your situation with CRAFT. Stay with it! You’re already off to a good, solid start. If there is anything more we can do to help, we are always here. All you have to do is reach out.


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