It’s the Holidays – Are Your Boundaries Wrapped Up Tight?

It’s the Holidays —
Are Your Boundaries Wrapped Up Tight?

By Carole Bennett, MA


Well, here we are again.  No sooner have we unwrapped our last miniature Snickers of Halloween candy when we are being bombarded with Christmas.  Sometimes I think it would be nice if the holidays came around like the Olympics every 2 or 4 years; or if we could skip them altogether and just hang a sign out our front door saying, “Gone fishing … please come back after January 3rd."

But, since none of those options are really doable, we are confronted with yet another holiday season where we hope that all things; people, food and presents will be perfect.  After all, that’s what the ads promise.

Hmmm … a lovely thought, but what if there is an alcoholic/addict in your life and you are both anxious and looking forward to spending all or part of the holidays together?

During this time of year, I have had many clients look for guidance in how to establish and secure their boundaries with their loved one whether it is a family member or friend.  They are desirous of including them in the family festivities, but are anxious none the less; torn between the pull of family unity and the possibility of uncertain behavior. They have witnessed all too often other occasions like birthdays, anniversaries or just plain Sunday night dinner when the alcoholic/addict arrived in their addiction, became intoxicated or just sported a really poor and dower attitude and all hell broke loose due to anything or nothing.  Since the past is a teacher, we can’t help but be apprehensive yet hope maybe this time will be different.

Though it is your utmost desire for all to have a joyous and memorable holiday, you will be more comfortable and confident if you keep in mind that YOU are in control, not the alcoholic/addict.  This active role on your part has you establishing fair, yet concrete boundaries well before the scheduled event; NOT a few days or even hours before your addicted loved one comes through the door.

Pick boundaries that are important to you and MUST be adhered to by the alcoholic/addict or they will not be welcome to participate in the family festivities.  Keep it simple, doable, short and to the point. There is no need to defend yourself regarding your decisions and if you don’t engage and stay neutral you will be perceived as having a plan that is well thought out and smacks of self respect. 

Please don’t bring up old examples of how the alcoholic/addict let you down in the past as in doing so might provoke an argument which serves no purpose. 

Like with any boundary, it must be accompanied with clear ramifications if those conditions are not met. IMPORTANT ... make sure that you both understand what those consequences are so no one can dispute a misunderstanding or feigned ignorance as to the intention of the plan. In addition, it might be a good idea to tell the other family members what that arrangement is so everyone is on the same page and there can be no surprises.

Don’t let your boundaries be built on quick sand where you acquiesce because the alcoholic/addict spins an excuse as to why they have not lived up to his or her end of the bargain and resorts to tugging at your heartstrings or by yelling and screaming.  Please don’t fall prey to thinking “Oh well, I’ll overlook this because it’s the holidays” or “It’s the holidays and I just don’t want to be unhappy or make my loved one unhappy.”

Nothing is more disastrous or can ruin a festive spirit faster than family and friends witnessing the alcoholic/addicts outrageous behavior or uncontrolled actions and left with no outs other than trying to sweep it under the rug.

Here are some simple, respectful boundaries that you might want to consider:

1)      Arriving at the designated time, being well groomed and dressing appropriately. 

2)     Being clean and sober is paramount to participation.  If you smell alcohol on their breath or they act intoxicated or high you will not let them in, or if they live there, you will ask them to stay away from the festivities until the event is over.

3)     A cheerful and kind demeanor is also an entry ticket as anger or a “woe is me”; chin on the buttons attitude is not welcome.

If they don’t like your holiday rules and regulations, be committed to a response like “That makes me sad that you won’t be joining us, but that’s your choice”.  They now have to shoulder all the responsibility for their decision even though they may try to blame you.  As disheartening as that outcome may be, you are taking care of yourself and the other members of your family and in the long run you will have earned a new found respect not only from the alcoholic/addict, but family members and friends as well.  After all, there is a bigger picture here, than just appeasing one person in a larger family unit.   

In contrast, suppose you’re loved ones’ clean and sober program is in its infancy; ask them if they have reservations about the evening.  Maybe they are anxious about “Uncle Joe” attending, for he always gets intoxicated, as this might pose a strong trigger of relapse.  Respect the recovering alcoholic/addicts’ discomfort if they share that a specific individual’s presence generates a strong resentment, or someone they used to party with which can teeter them toward a “slippery slope.”  It might be wise to formulate options that both you and your loved one are comfortable with, like maybe not inviting “Uncle Joe” or others where the alcoholic/addicts sobriety may be tested, compromised or personality conflicts may spark a verbal angry confrontation.

Conversely, if there is someone that may be attending that has difficulty being in the same room with your loved one, don’t try to make that square peg fit into a round hole just for the sake of “All good will toward men.”  Even with good intentions, anything can blow up between people that struggle with each other on any other day. 

Since you still might want to share some of the holiday with your loved one, an option might be  to have a quiet pre- or post-Christmas dinner alone; just the two of you (or smaller family group) where there is no possibility for friction or altercation coming from that specific person.

Holidays can be wonderful and fun.  But they are certainly more enjoyable if there is warmth and love, coupled with respect and dignity toward each other.  After all, it should be a time of reflection on the abundance of gratitude that the year has brought.  Hopefully the alcoholic/addict can participate with their family and friends as they would like and as you would like as well.  However, it’s OK if it doesn’t happen this year for this particular holiday.  After all, there is a myriad of other occasions to celebrate from Groundhog’s Day to the 4th of July that are right around the corner.

© Carole Bennett


If I can be of service, please contact me, and I invite you to explore my latest book Is There a Dry Drunk in Your Life?