Boundaries are a necessary part of life and, for a person in recovery, boundaries are necessary for our success. It is hard to balance our wants and needs in all of our different types of relationships, but the ability to put ourselves first in ways that protect our sobriety is a skill we need to practice even when it’s uncomfortable — not just for us, but for the people who may not agree with our choices.

Maintaining meaningful and healthy relationships with people who drink when you no longer do is possible but it will take trust, communication, and self-care. Here are ways to set boundaries with friends, family members, and partners when alcohol is still part of the relationship. 

It’s Okay To Avoid Situations

It will be hard to say “no” to your usual activities but a friend’s dinner party, watching a game at a bar, or heading to the club will likely offer too much temptation to drink, at least at first. Politely saying “no” to a friend’s invitation is not necessarily saying no to the relationship with said friend, but it is saying yes to your recovery. And if you invite someone to your house for dinner or game night, remind them that your house is a dry house and request that they bring their favorite mocktail or non-alcoholic beverage. 

“Our boundaries around alcohol will change the longer we are sober.”

Veronica Valli, a former clinical psychotherapist who now works as a sober coach and is the creator of the Soberful program says, “Our boundaries around alcohol will change the longer we are sober. In the beginning, it may just be too hard to be around alcohol and people drinking. However, the more robust our sobriety becomes, we will find socializing with other people who drink easier and more comfortable.”

Change Your Routine

Until you feel comfortable being around alcohol, you may need to change the places and times when you socialize with friends. Meet up for coffee or tea. Head to yoga or meditation class or take a walk instead of meeting up for after-work drinks.

It took more than a year for me to stop craving alcohol every day, but certain times of the day were particularly hard. Dinner prep had always involved a drink and Friday afternoons triggered what felt like an insatiable need to drink. I listened to podcasts while cooking to take my mind off of the drink and committed to running on Friday afternoons instead of staying stationary while fighting my way through the urge to drink. Even though the adjustments I made to my routine put myself first, they were not selfish.

Keep The Conversation Positive

Ian Stockbridge, Accredited Counsellor, CBT Therapist, and Mindfulness Teacher & Life Coach, reminds us that we are under no obligation to share personal information, especially with someone we just met or with people we don’t trust. “Saying the words ‘I am an addict’ or ‘I have dependency issues’ can be amongst the toughest we will ever say. Partly, this can be about self-acknowledgment and partly about the judgments that we fear from others,” says Stockbridge. Talking to people about our substance use disorder (SUD) is an ongoing process and one that can be kept positive. When we are ready to talk about our journey, how we have the conversation is more important than the exact words we use. 

Talking to people about our substance use disorder is an ongoing process and one that can be kept positive.

“The goal of the conversation,” says Stockbridge, “is to help the other person understand that recovery is a pathway and that you are already on it.” When we tell others about our sobriety, they will likely want to understand. Stockbridge mentions that being able to answer questions about how we are dealing with it and how our decisions may impact them is a reasonable expectation. Folks may ask what they can do to support you. This can be a lovely sentiment but also a frustrating one. You may not have the answers but it’s better to admit that than to lash out in fear or anxiety. 

Make It Personal, But Don’t Take It Personally

When we get sober and start to create boundaries and make adjustments to the way we live, not everyone is going to like the changes we make. Some people will take our decisions personally. Valli says this is because our sobriety reflects their own drinking and that makes them uncomfortable. “[Some people] may not be ready to address their drinking, so will try and persuade you that you don’t have a problem. They will push your boundary and try and convince you that you ‘can just have one.’ Remember that when other people do this, they are not talking about your drinking, they are talking about their own.”

It is humbling and exhausting work to restate and set new boundaries but the process is vital to recovery. It helps us too to not take someone’s reaction to our boundaries personally. Some people may not respect our boundaries because, in the past, we have not always stuck to them. And other times all boundaries are being respected but we feel victimized. I am constantly evaluating my frustrations with being an addict when it comes to others who are capable of drinking responsibly. My friends and the person I am dating have every right to have a beer or glass of wine; just because I can’t stop at one doesn’t mean I should be able to control their drinking choices. At times, I am jealous and angry that I can’t do what my loved ones are doing but that is about me and not their decision to have a drink with dinner. 

Evaluate The Relationship

As we set boundaries for ourselves, we will need to evaluate situations and relationships. It is important to ask ourselves Does this serve me? Is this relationship right for me? We need to acknowledge that while we have the right to set up boundaries, others have the right to let us know those boundaries don’t work for them. It can be painful to lose people, but real friends and supportive partners will respect our decisions while also taking care of themselves. “Neither self-flagellation nor self-sacrifice is healthy or helpful,” says Stockbridge. 

The person I am dating does not have SUD, nor does she drink much, but we have had conversations about the boundaries I need when it comes to her drinking and how it may impact my choices about our activities together. Like most functions, the events we have gone to have had alcohol present. She knows I respect her decision to drink responsibly, but she also knows the smell on her breathe and taste on her mouth means kissing or other forms of physical intimacy will likely be off of the table if she smells like booze. I can be around alcohol, but I can’t be that close to it. This is not a threat or ultimatum, just a boundary I have set to honor my recovery. She understands and has decided that when we are together, she doesn’t drink because she doesn’t want to limit our experiences together. 

We need to acknowledge that while we have the right to set up boundaries, others have the right to let us know those boundaries don’t work for them.

I have also had to tell friends that I may need to leave early or earlier than their party or event ends because my ability to be around alcohol has limitations. I have surrounded myself with people who understand this and have let go of the ones who don’t. Unconditional positivity even during changes and shifts in the dynamics of our relationships is necessary for my sobriety. If someone can’t appreciate your needs or if they downplay any part of your recovery, that person isn’t serving you well.

There is a reason why you stopped drinking. Try to remember that the pain of being someone with SUD is much greater than the discomfort of setting boundaries. You are worth living a life that is best for you.