Bev’s Corner – “Tough Love vs Boundaries” – a book excerpt from BALM The Loving Path to Family Recovery
Since this week we are focusing on Principle 7: Don’t set a boundary unless you are determined to stick to it, I thought I’d share a book excerpt explaining the BALM view of the difference between tough love and boundary setting.
You can find the following passages in BALM The Loving Path to Family Recovery on pages 70-73. To go deeper into the BALM answer on how to get to that ‘no matter what’ level of determination, go to the bottom of page 73 in your copy and read about how the BALM approach will prepare you to stick to the boundaries you set!
TOUGH LOVE VERSUS BOUNDARIES
Of course, we’ve all heard about tough love. Cut someone off, isolate them to try to get them on track. The heart behind this is in the right place, but it isn’t effective for either party. Isolating doesn’t help. There’s a distinct difference between “tough love” and “healthy boundaries.” Healthy boundaries are essential. The difference, however, is that isolating someone in the name of “tough love” to get them to change is a control tactic; it’s about them, it’s not about you. Healthy boundaries, on the other hand, are for your own health and benefit — not necessarily for theirs. The actions might even be the same, but it’s the motivation that matters.
And if your loved one is a minor? Give them healthy limits along with boundaries. But not shaming, isolating, punishing, or tough love. There is a better way. The BALM, with its emphasis on staying aware of the underlying connection we have with our struggling loved ones, leads the way toward loving relationships in families.
A man came to speak to our group, and he told us about a relapse he’d had. It was a five-year-long relapse, and by the end of it, no one in his family was talking to him, just his best friend. Eventually, his best friend said to him, “I love you very much, but I can’t have you in my life at this point, because it’s really harming me to watch you kill yourself and be unable to convince you to get help.” The speaker said that was the behavior that led to his recovery.
Sometimes, after multiple relapses, families decide they are done being part of a use disorder they cannot influence. Again, the how in this decision is as important as the what. If it is done with love, a door is left open for the loved one to walk through when they’re ready to get help.
One of our BALM moms continually allowed her daughter to come to dinner parties and other events and was very loving throughout the using days. At a certain point, several years into her daughter’s use, her daughter’s active SUD had resulted in her living on the street. It was painful for this mom, a strong BALMer, to watch her daughter deteriorate — so painful that it eventually created physical stress and distress to the point of illness.
Mom, who had always been very close to her daughter, had a loving BALM conversation with her, explaining that as difficult as it would be to not see her, it was becoming unhealthy for her (the mom) to see her daughter in such bad shape. She said she would always be there to help her daughter find help, but until then, it would be best if they didn’t see each other.
This was a painful and challenging decision for the mom, but also very freeing. She had put her daughter through more than ten treatment programs, and her resources were depleted. As a result of her decision, she found herself able to focus on each day without her daughter’s challenges interrupting her peace, and she began to feel physically better.
One day, within weeks, her daughter showed up at her door, ready to go to treatment. Mom and her coach got to work and found the young woman a long-term treatment center, and things moved forward quickly from there.
Two years later (at time of this book’s publication), the daughter is still living a clean and sober life.
These are just two examples of setting a boundary with love; in each case, the relational connection was preserved because the motivation for pulling away was love. The message the friend and the mother sent was love and self-care. That’s not tough love. Tough love is, “We’re pulling away from you because your behavior is unacceptable and unless you change it, we’re not going to talk to you anymore.” There’s a subtle difference, and they’re certainly not the same. Tough love is about trying to dictate and control behavior deemed bad or shameful. Unconditional BALM love is about family members protecting their own physical and mental well-being while respecting the dignity of all the human beings involved.
When we think about contributing to recovery, the first thing we must do is get our own lives back. Put the oxygen mask on your own face before you try to help someone else. In other words, we must take care of ourselves so much that we are able to relate to the person in a healthier way. That’s part of maintaining an inner calm, so that the upset of involvement with this person isn’t dictating our lives. For many of us, when we’re involved with somebody who is acting out, every moment of our life is, Should I stay? Should I go? Will they live? Will they die? How do I save them? How do I do this? How do I do that?
It’s panic. Step back from that — on the inside.
The same action can be healthy in one instance and unhealthy in another. For example, take the act of having a conversation.
You could be having a conversation with your loved one about their behavior, and if you’re really caught up in the result you want for them, forcing your will on them, making ultimatums, being very aggressive and trying to control them, it’s unhealthy.
If you’re having that same conversation with them from a calm place, however, describing the facts of what you see, telling them how much you love them, encouraging them to find their path, and if necessary, setting a boundary, that’s technically the same action-having a conversation — but from a healthy, loving approach instead.
Boundaries are limits that we set around ourselves for our own health and peace of mind. So, if I’m setting a boundary, that results from deciding what I choose to have in my life and what I don’t choose to have in my life; what I choose to be part of and what I choose not to be part of.
For instance, let’s say your daughter is selling marijuana in your home, and you don’t want to have an illegal substance being sold there (assuming you live in a state where it’s illegal or she is a minor). You don’t want it in your home or in your life. You are allowed to set a boundary: that if she wants to live with you, she cannot sell marijuana. If she chooses to do it, she’ll have to find another place to live. If she lies about it, you will figure it out. When you do, she’ll have to find another place to live.
Now, that’s a boundary about you — it’s not about her. That’s a healthy boundary. You’re choosing to not be involved in illegal activity, just like you can choose to not have a smoker live with you and smoke in your house because you don’t want to breathe that air. (Of course, you can choose to not have marijuana smoking in your home for your own personal quality of life reasons as well, even if it is legal in your state!) It’s your boundary. It’s not about them, it’s about you.
If you’re not letting an adult loved one smoke in the house because it’s killing them, that’s an unhealthy boundary — you’re doing it to control them. They have the right to choose to smoke if they want to; it’s just that simple. If you’re doing it because you don’t want the secondhand smoke, that’s about you, because you have rights, too.
The reason it’s so hard to set healthy boundaries, however, is that people will push back. They will often respond as though you’re doing something awful, as though it is about them (even though you’ve been clear it isn’t), as though you’re being too rigid. They will call you names, they will yell, they will manipulate, they will do anything to protect their behavior and their “right” to do whatever they want — even if it infringes on you.
The above is excerpted from BALM The Loving Path to Family Recovery by Beverly A Buncher, MA, PCC, CTPC, founder and author of the BALM Family Recovery Method.
Join us this week on the Daily BALM, when Sam Bierman, Executive Director of MARC, the Maryland Addiction Recovery Center, (who you may have heard on the fall Family Recovery Conference) will join us to discuss the 7th Principle. (See below in the newsletter for more details.)