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When Setting a Boundary Is the Message We Need to Send

Photo credit: Leonor Faria

Introduction CRAFT teaches us to be thoughtful, caring, and deliberate in the messages we send to our Loved Ones. But sometimes the message is best conveyed without words. When we set boundaries, we also have to help our Loved Ones understand that they’re for real. As Allies writer Laurie MacDougall discusses with Adrexpert, managing our own thoughts and feelings is a necessary precursor to this sort of work, and so much else.

My daughter called my husband yesterday and the conversation ratcheted up sentence by sentence. She insists that he’s siding with her husband in their divorce. She pressed the hot button, saying, “No one recovers without family support. All the messages you send mean nothing. Financial support, money, is what you owe me.” When she started cursing, he said he had to get off.

Today he wants to write to her, “You don’t want to live like this forever. I’ll be here to support you when you’re ready to make a change. I love you.”

Is this the most effective reply? What else can we do?

Hi Adrexpert,

I can feel the stress, frustration, and exasperation with these types of phone calls. We spend all our time worried and hoping with all our being that our Loved Ones (LOs) with addiction will show signs that they are taking even baby steps towards a better life—only to be discouraged when, once again, there’s no indication that they are. And to have our LOs hurl accusations and blame at us can lead to feelings of desperation and devastation, as well as uncertainty as to whether we’re doing the right thing. We certainly were not born with the skills to deal with something so challenging.

So, we have to develop those coping skills.

Pushing emotional buttons is a tactic that may have worked in the past for your daughter to get what she wanted. She is not comfortable in her situation, and she of course would prefer the easiest path to feeling better. That path may especially include something that

has worked in the past, something tried and true, so she can use or live her life in a way that is conducive to using, and feel better immediately.

First, let’s direct your attention to the positives in your husband’s response to your daughter. As soon as she started “pushing buttons”—saying that no one recovers without family support, that financial support is what Dad owes her, cursing—he got off the phone! Not an easy feat, but he did it.

Slowing down our own runaway trains

And why is it not easy? Well, Dad’s left with all of his own ruminating thoughts, anxieties, and fears after hanging up. Dealing with the whirlwind and chaos of our thoughts and feelings after an interaction with our LO is by far the MOST difficult thing when it comes to coping with their addiction.

What are some of the methods he’s using to help settle his own challenging thoughts and feelings? What does he do for himself once he hangs up that phone?

Calming your own system down and learning to emotionally regulate is quite a daunting task. But it is so critical in helping you to bring your best self to the table for both you and your LO. I wonder if your husband is giving himself time and space to engage in some sort of self-care. It might make it easier to continue to set down boundaries confidently with future calls.

Self-care is so difficult to practice. At the same time, it is so critical to healing for both Dad and his daughter. When we respond quickly, we’re often still grappling with our own intense emotions and thoughts. I would encourage him to take a break, press pause, and find ways to manage his internal strife first. Then, if he still wants to write her a letter, he can, but in a state less likely to be driven by mixed or confused emotions. By taking care of himself, he can work on a more calm and levelheaded approach.

Don’t overlook what he’s bringing to the emotional table

I suspect there are a few reasons that brought this interaction to an emotionally charged end: 1) the hope and anticipation that your daughter might be respectful and not try and manipulate Dad on this call for a change, 2) hopes that this might be the call in which she would ask for the kind of help he believes she needs, 3) feelings of guilt and other emotions triggered by the daughter’s comments, 4) the fact that your daughter wasn’t able to convince Dad to agree to her demands, and 5) the emotionally distraught and worked-up state she came to the call with, driving her to push buttons to get a response from Dad. There is frustration and disappointment for both parties. She isn’t doing what Dad was hoping for, and Dad isn’t doing what your daughter was hoping for.

We often look to the other person’s behavior as a way to soothe ourselves (even if we’re not aware that we’re doing so). But managing our thoughts and feelings is our responsibility.

Our feelings are ours to sort through and soothe, just as our LOs thoughts and feelings are theirs. Pressing the pause button by hanging up the phone gives Dad the opportunity to work on calming his thoughts and emotions.

Amy Morin, LCSW and bestselling author (dubbed “the self-help guru of the moment” by the Guardian), recently made a post on Instagram listing seven things to do when you feel intense emotions. The list really spoke to me:

  1. Name your feelings.
  2. Decide if your emotions are helpful or unhelpful.
  3. Let yourself feel uncomfortable.
  4. Reframe unhelpful thoughts.
  5. Experiment with healthy coping skills.
  6. Distract yourself.
  7. Act contrary to how you feel.

What about Dad practicing these steps when he ends the conversation with his daughter until his thoughts and emotions settle down?

Maybe, while on the next call with his daughter, he could consider not having any expectations of her. Let the conversation be only about touching base or checking in. If she has another agenda for the call, he could state what he is willing to offer. If she continues to press and starts in with triggering comments and requests, he ends the conversation. Just repeat what he has already done and work on making his boundary clear. By doing this he is:

  1. Creating a boundary. He is not going to be the whipping post for your daughter when he isn’t giving in to what she wants.
  2. Giving himself space to manage his own thoughts and feelings.
  3. Giving your daughter space to learn to handle her own challenging thoughts and feelings, and letting her find her own solutions to her problems regardless of what those solutions are.
  4. Giving himself time and space to prepare for the next call and what his response will be.
  5. Modeling for his daughter how to handle difficult thoughts and feelings as an adult.
  6. Empowering himself by not allowing his daughter to continue to hurt him, and sending the message to her that he won’t accept this behavior.
  7. Empowering his daughter by sending the message that he believes she can learn to interact with him and others in an acceptable way and deal with her own emotions and feelings.

And so much more.

At the same time, for a few reasons, your husband might want to reconsider writing your daughter that letter. If he sends the letter, it minimizes the impact of the action that he has already taken (setting that boundary, hanging up the phone). Writing a response can send an implicit message to your daughter that he is feeling unsure about his choices. Not writing a response letter sends the message that he is confident in setting up his boundary. There can be conversation when there is mutual respect, and as soon as he starts to feel the pangs of a conversation headed towards battle, that’s his limit. And it ends.

Sending a letter also reveals that he has an agenda when speaking with his daughter. It actually draws attention away from her difficult behavior, the blaming, shaming, and guilting of Dad.

Instead of writing a letter, what if Dad just continues to do what he did with this call? He sets down a boundary. He will not engage when she is saying hurtful things. It might sound something like:

I can the hear frustration in your voice, and I can feel my own frustration rising. I need some space from the conversation to deal with what I am going through. I’m not going to be good in this conversation. We can talk later, at a better time. Call me in a couple of days if you’re up for a talk.

Now I know she may quickly start in on Dad with accusations and attempts to make him feel bad for ending the conversation, but stick to it and hang up the phone. Just a quick response like, “Talk to you later.” And hang up.

Ending a hurtful conversation can convey your trust that she’s capable of better

She may be left with her own frustrations because what she’s used to doing is now not working. But it’s OK for her to start learning how to deal with this. Taking a calm approach sends the message that Dad believes she can handle things in the end. This may be the start of letting her be accountable for her behavior and learning that her behavior affects others.

Lastly, I would encourage Dad to steer away from comments like, “I’ll be here to support you when you’re ready to make a change.” I suspect that this conversation has happened many times. She already knows. If she brings up her needs outside of what has been offered, his response could be, “This is what I can offer…” or “You already know what I am willing to offer, and I’m sticking with that” or “Nevertheless, Mom and I have decided what we are willing to do, and that’s it.” If she starts pushing, get off the phone. Don’t be dragged into a back-and-forth of triggering comments meant to elicit a particular response from Dad and justifications by Dad for why he’s making the choices he’s making. Let the actions do the talking.

Keep trying to set this boundary. Practice, practice, practice. It may take a few tries, but there absolutely is potential for the situation (and those high-pressure calls) to change for the better. If she is well enough to learn to use these strategies to get Dad to do what she wants, she is also well enough to unlearn this behavior and learn better ways to interact with him.

Kudos to Dad. What he did by hanging up was in no way easy. I would encourage him to continue to hold to that boundary while finding ways to manage his own feelings. Stick with it. Over time, he can build his confidence with CRAFT skills.

Please keep us updated. We wish you, your husband, and your daughter all the best.

Laurie MacDougall


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In your comments, please show respect for each other and do not give advice. Please consider that your choice of words has the power to reduce stigma and change opinions (ie, "person struggling with substance use" vs. "addict", "use" vs. "abuse"...)