Why using an ultimatum with a problem drinker may not work… and what you can do about it!
Bill and Betty had been dating for over a year and had made plans to meet for dinner. Bill arrived on time and waited. Betty called 30 minutes later letting him know she’d be late. There seemed so much potential for a relationship with Betty; Bill was smitten with her. However he was concerned with the amount and frequency of alcohol she consumed. The last time they had a date, he had expressed his concerns about her drinking. When she responded, it was as if bells were going off – like a garbage truck backing up. Bill ignored the bells and focused on what he believed was the potential in the relationship. When Betty arrived, Bill stood up and greeted her with an affectionate hug. He smelled alcohol on her breath.
When do you set a boundary about someone’s drinking?
You set a boundary or make an ultimatum when the relationship is important and the drinking has become a wedge. You give an ultimatum when the relationship is worth saving. You risk it in order to save it.
How do you set a boundary?
The purpose of setting a boundary is to clarify how you want to be treated. When you set a boundary with someone, you let them know:
- how a particular behavior affects you
- what you would like
- what you will do if you don’t get the behavior you request
If you don’t express these clearly, you won’t likely be understood, and a breakdown in communication may occur. This doesn’t mean the love is gone; it means the drinking has overshadowed the love.
What are the steps to setting a boundary?
Setting a boundary requires you to:
1) Know your values.
2) Communicate your values and boundaries clearly and calmly.
3) Trust yourself and stand your ground.
4) Do what you said you would do – be congruent in your actions and follow up.
When some of these are missing, you won’t feel as good about your communication, and the problem drinker is not likely to understand. At worst, your attempt to set a boundary may unintentionally support the drinking pattern.
Step 1: Know your values.
Everyone has personal values. You either live in alignment with them, or you don’t; both have consequences. Some of your values may conflict with one another and need clarification before going on. Coaching or counseling are available to assist you in your values relative to your situation.
When you’re not clear about your values, conflicting values may leak out in the form of sending mixed messages. Your behavior may swing from appearing helpful and supportive at one moment to being resentful, critical, or argumentative at another. If you’re not sending a clear message, it’s not likely to be understood the way you intend.
To send a clear message, clarify your values before going on.
Step 2: Communicate your values and boundaries clearly and calmly.
It is important to express your values in a way that doesn’t provoke the drinker. The first rule is to have important discussions when the drinker is sober and when you can remain calm. If you are in an agitated state with strong feelings pouring out, (1) the drinker will more likely respond defensively, (2) you won’t likely be heard or get what you want.
In any kind of confrontation, you want to:
- clearly name your feelings and needs
- be specific about what behavior you are asking for and any conditions related to this (e.g. a timeframe)
- identify what’s at stake
Step 3: Trust yourself and stand your ground.
Once you’ve had this conversation, it’s important to trust yourself. And continue to trust yourself. Trust that you made a good choice for good reasons. Although you may find yourself wanting to back peddle out of fear, if you don’t do what you said you would do, you will be sending a message that your word doesn’t have to be taken seriously.
Do your best to remain in alignment with what you communicated.
Step 4: Be congruent. Do what you said you would do.
Follow up is crucial. Your words may be interpreted as mere complaint if you don’t tag on a consequence. So, when you tell the drinker that you will take a specific action (reach out for support, sleep in a different bed, leave the house if they come home drunk, call a therapist, or any number of actions), it’s most important to do what you said you would do!
You have control over only one thing – what YOU do – but this one thing can change the whole system.
I know it’s not easy to confront someone you love about their drinking. When I work with clients, I hear a number of common responses. Here are some of them.
“What if the drinker doesn’t care how I feel?”
You won’t know this until you communicate what’s important to you and what you need. After you’ve shared your values and asked for what you want, if you are faced with denial or excuses, you’ll have some things to ask yourself, like “What type of relationship do I really want?” and “What am I willing to settle for?”
“I feel selfish thinking about my needs.”
If you can’t imagine having needs of your own, you may want to learn about codependent relationships. You have a right to your own needs and a right to have these respected!
“When it comes to doing what I said I’d do, I think I cave in too easily.”
This is not uncommon! Reread this article and ask, “How can I get the support I need to make the changes that will better my situation for me, my family, and my relationship?”
What about Bob?
Bob didn’t want to let go of what he saw as the potential in the relationship with Betty, so resisted facing the truth of Betty’s drinking for a long time. At some point he started to see that his being smitten with Betty also caused him to be blind to what wasn’t working.
Bob had several coaching sessions with a recovery coach to sort things out. He explored his deeper values about what he wanted in a relationship, as well as looking at what had drawn him to Betty. He wondered why he was attracted to women who regularly consumed alcohol to excess. This was not the first time.
He also used the coach to practice how to express his values when he set a boundary. Weeks later, he met Betty first thing in the morning in a coffee shop with the intention of setting a boundary. He expressed how he felt when Betty had shown up drunk or with alcohol on her breath. He calmly explained that in order for him to be in this relationship, he needed assurance that Betty would stop drinking. If she wasn’t willing to stop drinking, he would need to stop seeing her. Betty agreed to stop. A week later, Bob smelled alcohol on her breath and withdrew from the relationship. Betty was distraught and expressed how much she wanted the relationship to work. She was heartbroken and torn. Two weeks later, Betty signed into a treatment center.
You don’t need to do it alone.
Making this transition is best facilitated by the support of someone who knows the lay of the land – an addiction counselor or recovery coach who fully understands destructive patterns that occur for both the person who drinks excessively and the family members who are affected. A counselor or coach can walk with you through the dark valleys, shine light on the path, help you over hurdles, and celebrate your wins with you every step of the way.
Do you really prefer to do it alone?