Setting Boundaries With Alcoholics Who Display Unacceptable Behavior


The process of learning how to protect yourself through setting boundaries takes time. Alcoholics can have a tendency to belittle those around them. Enabling them to heap unacceptable behavior upon us can become a way of life. We must learn a few emotional tools to use in order to protect ourselves from the many insults that can be hurled our way by the alcoholic in our life that we dearly love.

Learning how to set healthy boundaries with an alcoholic will produce a protective shield around our emotions. The result will be that we will experience much less guilt and shame in our lives.

How to Set Healthy Emotional Boundaries With an Alcoholic

Before we can begin to learn how to set healthy parameters, we should identify with the things that the alcoholic is doing in our lives that we consider to be unacceptable behavior. Emotional boundaries can be set once you are aware of the things that upset you that they do.

What are the things that really bother you the most in relation to their behavior in your life? For instance, swearing in front of the children, nasty name calling, yelling or screaming and constant antagonizing in efforts to start an argument.

A great way to get in touch with your feelings is by keeping a journal. If you do this on a daily basis you will begin to discover what the emotional triggers are that set you off. I like to call these emotional triggers, “buttons.” Alcoholics love to push our buttons.

1) Make a list of all of the things that cause you to get angry that they do. Write down how arguments begin and end.

2) Look at the list and see if you can notice certain things that they intentionally do to try and create difficulties in the home or workplace.

3) If you had buttons on your body that they were pushing in order for you to react in a negative way toward them what would those buttons be?

Once you begin to understand what the buttons are that are causing you to argue or get upset, start responding differently. For instance if your friend, spouse or child is the alcoholic and they often call you degrading names to try and initiate an argument, rather than defending yourself, just say things like:

“I’m sorry you feel that way”
“That’s not true”
“Stop calling me names”
“Stop calling me names in front of the children”

Setting boundaries with alcoholics is like declaring laws that they must follow. If they do not abide by your rules that you’ve designed to protect your emotions then you must reinforce the boundaries. It’s like having the authority of a law enforcement officer.

Imagine if you had a large shield in your hand and you used it to deflect the insults that are being thrown your way. That’s what your doing once you learn how to set healthy boundaries with an alcoholic.

What is it that we are protecting ourselves from by setting boundaries with alcoholics? I think mostly guilt and shame. If we feed into their attempts to upset us, then we get angry and say things that we really don’t mean to say. Afterward, there are feelings of guilt and shame that we must deal with.

If we can learn how to stop the triggers from going off and the buttons from being pushed, we will have a lot more self-control in these difficult situations.

Give yourself permission to plant your feet, stand firm and in a loving way let the alcoholics in your life know that you will not tolerate unacceptable behavior anymore. If they ignore your boundaries the next day that you previously set, then kindly remind them of what you said the day before. Setting parameters is difficult and maintaining your position is critical for protecting your emotional well-being.


51 comments to Setting Boundaries With Alcoholics Who Display Unacceptable Behavior

  • Elizabeth

    My story has plenty of similarities to others who have posted their stories here too. I’ve been with my husband 25 years (married for 7 of them) and we both are second-time wedded (I was married before and he was in a long relationship before we got together). He has an adult daughter from his previous relationship (she is 32) and a grandson and I have 2 daughters from my previous marriage (27 and 29). We have a 23-year old son together. All except one of my daughters has moved out of our home (she is a college student working hard to get ahead in life). I work full-time at the same firm for 22+ years and my husband has not worked since 2009 (declared disabled by Social Security).

    He has always been a drinker but when he stopped working, drinking became his new “job”. Every waking moment there is a beer in his hand. He will go to great lengths to get it (a major snowstorm is coming – I gotta stock up!!) no matter what. There is no public place we can go that he can be without that beer – the park, a movie theater, a musical concert, you name it, he always finds a way. He even had it with him in the ER one time when he got so drunk that he fell and hit his head so hard I feared he had a concussion and wanted him checked out.

    He spends his entire SS check on himself, not contributing to the household budget in any way whatsoever. I have asked for something to put toward a bill or two and he says “go ahead take it” but 2 weeks later, he is broke and asking for money…so I gave up on that. I haven’t gotten a birthday present or a Christmas present in years (nor have the kids) and I don’t expect to any time soon. I earn enough to pay all the bills and have a little savings.

    He is not healthy and complains all the time, but does nothing to change. Every doctor he has gone to over the years has told him the exact same thing, stop drinking or your going to get sicker and sicker and die. He says they are all quacks and don’t know what they are talking about, and then stops going to the doctor for months at a time, and later gets a new doctor and the cycle starts again. We had gotten married seven years ago after a big fallout in our relationship and I thought that would “fix” the situation because he “promised” to go to counseling with me so we could have a real marriage. I was trying to keep my family together (all my kids were still living with us at the time). Needless to say, he got what he wanted, but I didn’t. Yes, we got a marriage certificate, but he only went to counseling 2-3 times. My kids moved out as quickly as they could afford to.

    Fast forward to the past three years. I had planned a nice vacation in the hopes of some relaxation and on the promise he would go to rehab (he had gone twice with no success but would try again). We had gone on a cruise a few years back and he spent well over $1,000 in alcohol, and I didn’t want a repeat of that. I pushed off the trip twice because of his health, finances and the rehab. Last winter, I spoke very nicely and calmly to him that if we are to go on this trip, he would have to improve his health, cut out the drinking, and save money each month to contribute toward the costs. So by the summer this year, he had done none of those things (he absolutely refuses to go to rehab now), even though I had repeated the expectations in a nice way to him at least once a month. I was very depressed about life because of his lifestyle and got up the guts to go to a therapist (and I’m still going too). I’ve been learning about co-dependency and setting boundaries and being the alcoholic spouse. I want it to so work out and our lives to be “normal”. But after a disastrous birthday dinner for his daughter at an upscale restaurant (he had to be escorted/carried out by the bouncer he was so drunk and belligerent), I made the decision that I would still go on the trip, but go with a family member instead and not him. I booked and paid for the trip and told him a couple weeks later, when I finally got the nerve to do it. He went absolutely ballistic!! How could I do that to him? That was supposed to be OUR trip? He has equated the situation on the same level as marital infidelity and that I had better buy him a ticket or else! I have told him a calm voice each time he brings it up that he did not save money, take care of his health, or go to rehab, so that is the consequence. I have spoken with his own mother about it and one or two of his close friends (in front of him, so he isn’t surprised or alarmed) and they all agreed with me – nobody agreed with him (but that doesn’t matter to him, of course). So now every opportunity he has, he is badgering me about it to buy his ticket, do it now, don’t leave him behind, I don’t love him, how could I do this, I’m just wrong, it’s my fault he’s angry, blah, blah, blah. It seems to be intensifying as the trip date comes closer and closer. I’m standing firm on this because I’ve given in on boundaries I’ve sent for years and I can’t do that to MYSELF anymore. I know some days are good and some days are bad and I had to learn that it is not ME who has the problem, but HIM and how I handle myself is what really matters. So I continue to detach as best I can and see things for what they truly are. I don’t argue with him; I remain calm when he starts shouting and threatening and stomping around. I’m struggling with maintaining the boundary I’ve set and have to keep repeating to myself when he acts up that “I’m stronger than this!!”

    You probably think I’m the crazy one for living with this, but love has been blinding my way and the hope that he will change. I know now that he won’t change unless HE really, really wants to and is willing to admit that he is powerless over alcohol and needs extensive help. I don’t know what the future holds, but I can only take it day by day. This website has been very helpful as I continue on my journey toward self-love and understanding. I know this is a long post, and I’m grateful to have a place to write it out and gain some perspective. Thank you! ~Elizabeth

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