Motivate Your Loved One Without Nagging, Threatening or Blaming: Stepping Away

Stepping Away

A very effective strategy to use when a loved one is doing something we don’t like is to ‘step away’ from them when they are doing it. Stepping away withdraws your attention and the possibility of positive interactions; it can send a clear message that you won’t reward that behavior. It also avoids fights that can happen when you respond to behavior you don’t like with negativity of your own, which can mistakenly reward fighting.

How to Step Away

  1. Tell your loved one you don’t approve of the behavior by using an ‘I-statement’, e.g., “I don’t like being around you when you’ve been drinking.” (Communication will be a topic in an upcoming month on Sober Families).
  2. THEN WALK AWAY. You need to leave the situation or stop engaging in the situation. For example, leave the room or stop paying attention to your loved one when s/he is drinking. When you step away, with you goes the possibility of your love, attention and other rewards.
  3. Do not yell, accuse or bargain. Remember, fighting can be a reward for behavior that you don’t like or you don’t want more of. Also, remember why you are stepping away: because you want your loved one to get sober and that you no longer want your life to be controlled by their drinking. You can choose whether you want the short-term reward of revenge and a fleeting sense of satisfaction, or to move toward the long-term goal of helping your loved one get sober.
  4. An additional bonus – when you step-away do something that is rewarding for you. Read a book, take a bath or just take a break. Rewarding ourselves works similar to rewarding others. You can reward yourself for stepping away to avoid another fight. By stepping away you are choosing ‘not to be a buffer’ and absorb the harm of your spouse or child’s drinking or drug use.

It is your loved one’s choice to use, but it is NOT your job to protect them from all the negative effects that are a part of drinking or drug use. You do not need to save them from embarrassment when they are drinking or drugging too much at social outings, nor do you need to protect them from the hurt they may experience when you choose to step away.

Stepping away is one method for taking back the power from your loved one’s addiction. It disrupts the vicious cycle of your involvement in their addiction and gives you the chance to focus on your own life and living well.

Applying Reinforcement and Stepping Away


  • Think of a sober behavior that you’d like your addicted loved one to do more of. It can be something that s/he already does but only infrequently, or it can be something s/he used to do when they were drinking less/not at all. For example, going for walks together after dinner, doing an activity with the kids or seeing movies together.
  • Now, think about how you might reward this behavior if it occurs or how you might create the opportunity for the behavior to happen. For instance, you might ask your partner to go on a walk with you after dinner (provided she’s not drinking) or set up a movie date at a location where alcohol is not served.
  • Brainstorm several potential rewards for the sober behavior, as well as many potential ways to create opportunities for sobriety.

Stepping Away:

  • Think of a behavior that your addicted loved one does that you’d like to stop or decrease. For example, when drinking, your husband may start complaining about how you nag him and that your nagging is the reason why he drinks. Or, your adult daughter comes to family dinners high and talks about inappropriate topics at dinner.
  • Now, come up with an ‘I-statement’ you will use when your addicted loved one engages in this behavior (e.g., “I know you’ve had a tough day at work and want to relax. I don’t like being around you when you’re drinking. I’d like to talk with you about how I can help support you when you haven’t been drinking.”).
  • Next, plan how you will step away. Will you leave the physical location? Where will you go? If you withdraw attention, how will you do it? What will you do if your loved one tries to get your attention again or follows you?
  • Finally, plan what you will do when you step away. What self-care activity will you engage in to reward yourself for stepping away and for getting yourself free (momentarily) from their addiction?

General Tips

  1. Using these strategies takes time and practice. As with any new skill, you will need to practice it several times and it will take time to learn. Don’t give up!
  2. Reinforcement and stepping away may not work at first. You need to come up with several rewards and may need to try them many times before it succeeds. You may need to practice several I-statements and ways to step away before it works. Remember your long-term goals of helping your loved one get sober and breaking the hold of their addiction on you and the family; it takes time to achieve long-term goals.
  3. To the best of your ability, be consistent. If you’ve decided you no longer want to be around your loved one when s/he is drinking, try your best to do that most of the time. Rewards are powerful, and even intermittent ones can have powerful effects. To the extent that it makes sense, keeps you safe and is in line with your values, be consistent in applying rewards and stepping away.

This is just a brief introduction to this idea of how to use rewards and stepping away to improve your relationship with your loved one, motivate them to seek treatment and to get back more control of your life. We’ll go into more detail in future posts about how you can implement this strategy.


Take some time to consider the things listed above.

Leave a comment here about some of the rewards you identify to motivate behavioral change in your loved one. Also, discuss some ways you will reward yourself for stepping away.