Boundaries: One Path to Respectful Relationships in Recovery… and Beyond

By Andre Vilarinho, LMFT
Andre is a family therapist at New York Center for Living.

Boundaries are the guiding principles that govern healthy and respectful relationships. In the context of substance abuse recovery, understanding the importance of establishing and maintaining boundaries is foundational for all family members. Our boundaries define what is acceptable, promote self-respect, and contribute to the growth of loving and authentic connections.

Let’s talk about the definition of boundaries, their significance in the recovery journey, and how to identify, implement, and maintain them.

Defining Boundaries:

Broadly, boundaries can be seen as the limits we set for ourselves within relationships. Boundaries are how we communicate to others what we will and won’t tolerate in connection with others. Ideally, these aren’t barriers to keep people away, but rather a way to maintain self-love and respect. Healthy boundaries enable us to say “no” when necessary while also allowing for intimacy and closeness. The limits we set may vary depending on a variety of internal and external factors. Externally, the context of the relationship, such as parent-child or friend-to-friend interactions, for example, or internally, what we need to do to keep ourselves safe and whole.

Boundaries and Self-Love:

“Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.”
(Prentis Hemphill, and often quoted by our clinical director)

They represent a fundamental expression of self-love and respect, providing space for us to care for ourselves while also acknowledging and witnessing others in their authenticity. By setting boundaries, and prioritizing our needs, we show respect for ourselves. It’s important to note that our limits for behaviors in the context of a relationship, our boundaries, wouldn’t typically indicate disrespect for others.

Identifying the Need for Boundaries:

Identifying the need for boundaries can be challenging, especially in the context of recovery, where it might be true to say that we often violated our own boundaries for what we felt was acceptable, and maybe even learned to filter out the warning signs. This often starts with self-reflection and acknowledgement of our emotions in various contexts. We can start to notice the signs, when something makes us too uncomfortable, anxious, or hurt. Similarly, if we notice a pattern of unhealthy behavior in our relationships, it could indicate the need for clearer boundaries. We want to be careful about jumping to easy conclusions or assessments of another person, such as that the person across from you is disrespectful, a bad listener, or does not care about you. That judgment relegates us to a place of disempowerment, where we have no ability to affect outcomes.

Implementing Boundaries:

Creating boundaries involves understanding our limits, needs, and values. Begin by reflecting on the behaviors or actions that make you feel respected and loved, as well as the inverse. As you identify your boundaries, some may require you to communicate your feelings and preferences to others in a calm and assertive manner, to inform. This can be how we want to be treated, what we want to talk about, and can include things like sexual preferences. Others, like the way you spend your time, and what you share with others, often do not require communication. You may prefer peaceful mornings and therefore choose to keep your phone on ‘do not disturb.’ Certain situations or people may lead to the urge to use substances as a way to cope with difficult emotions and may therefore require distance for a time. Aligning your boundaries with your recovery journey and personal growth is vital, empowering you to nurture your well-being and maintain progress on your path to lasting recovery.

Our Role:

It may not sound out of the ordinary to say that setting a boundary is our responsibility, but it is essential to also recognize that others may not always remember – or even respect – them. Our role goes beyond merely establishing boundaries; we must also be the ones to maintain them. This often requires courage and a sense of self-empowerment. When someone crosses our boundaries, we don’t engage in immediate conflict (You crossed my boundary!), but rather assert our needs by reiterating the boundary (I don’t let people speak to me that way.) and reinforcing its importance to us (if you can’t , then I’ll have to ). Since the leverage by which we hold boundaries is respect for ourselves, we can never ‘command’ that someone follow a limit that is our own (You’re not allowed to yell at me!). That would make them coercive and defeat the point, one of which is to respect self and others (more on that later).

Maintaining Boundaries:

Implementing and maintaining boundaries requires consistency, self-control, and assertiveness, arguably the most difficult part of this process. Start by communicating your boundaries clearly and honestly and then, be prepared to enforce them when necessary. Often, the person most responsible for boundary violations is ourselves; when we stay up too late before an early morning commitment, when we act counter to our value-system, or when we put the needs and wants of others before our own. The most common boundary is a simple “No.” Other boundary-making refusals include: “I can’t commit to that”, “I have plans but thank you anyway”, “Thank you but I can’t”, “I won’t be able to , but I can offer .”

If someone else violates a boundary, address it calmly but firmly, emphasizing the importance of the boundary to your well-being and recovery, and be willing to negotiate, within reason. Enforcement may mean being prepared to utilize the leverage of removing yourself from a situation if your self-respect, or especially bodily autonomy, is at risk.

Importance of Boundaries in Substance Use Recovery:

For parents with adolescents in substance Use recovery and for young adults themselves, boundaries are vital for several reasons:

  1. Protecting Recovery: Boundaries help safeguard the recovery process by establishing a supportive and stable environment that promotes healing and growth.
  2. Building Trust: Healthy boundaries promote trust between parents and children. When both parties respect each other’s boundaries, it fosters a sense of safety and security in the relationship.
  3. Avoiding Enabling Behaviors: Boundaries prevent parents from enabling their children’s addictive behaviors, allowing them to take responsibility for their recovery.
  4. Encouraging Self-Advocacy: Setting and maintaining boundaries encourages young adults to advocate for themselves and their needs, empowering them in their journey towards sobriety.
  5. Nurturing Healthy Relationships: Clear boundaries help cultivate healthier relationships based on mutual respect and understanding, crucial for sustained recovery.


Boundaries are a cornerstone of healthy relationships, especially in substance abuse recovery. They serve as expressions of self-love, respect, and mutual understanding. By identifying, implementing, and reinforcing boundaries, parents and young adults can strengthen their connections in a real way and support one another in the journey towards sustained recovery and personal growth. If you have questions or want help developing a more specific and practical application of boundaries, we always recommend asking a therapist!