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Enable refers to the positive act of helping someone accomplish something that could not be done alone. Enabling also refers to the act of helping someone in such a way that rather than solving a problem, it is, in fact, being perpetuated.
It’s only natural for parents, spouses, and siblings to want to help the ones they love. After all, one of the reasons that we value family is for the compassion and support they provide, especially during difficult times. When your loved one is struggling with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, trying to help often leads to more harm than good.
It is common for family members to believe they are helping their addicted loved ones when, in reality, they are acting as enablers. To truly help an addict or an alcoholic, you should be ready, willing, and prepared to address the consequences of substance abuse. Your approach will require honesty and boundaries while being able to enforce consequences and accountability.
In this view, enabling behavior is any purposeful action or inaction that allows individuals struggling with addiction to continue their negative behaviors and bad habits without assuming any responsibility for the outcome.
When a spouse covers for a partner who is too hungover to go to work, he or she is enabling that behavior. This not only promotes unhealthy behavior but can also have dire consequences.
In this blog, we’ll look at the following topics pertaining to enabling:
- What is enabling?
- Signs of enabling
- Why do parents enable?
- The four patterns of enabling relationships
- How to stop enabling
- The link between enabling and codependency
- The truth about enabling
What Is Enabling?
Contrary to what many believe, enabling an addict or an alcoholic goes much deeper than simply providing them with money or a place to stay. Whenever you behave in a way that delays the moment when the addict or alcoholic is held accountable in order to see and feel the full gravity of the situation, you are enabling the addiction.
Some of the most common signs of enabling an addict include:
- Providing them with money to support their habit
- Providing them with shelter
- Downplaying the severity of the problem
- Providing emotional support
- Lying on their behalf to shield them from consequences
- Rationalizing their behavior or making excuses for them
Perhaps the worst type of enabling is when family members do nothing at all. When families pretend not to see such a glaring problem, they send the signal to the addict or alcoholic that there is nothing wrong with them or their behavior.
Signs of Enabling
When you are close to a person struggling with addiction, it can be difficult to accurately assess the role you play in his or her life.
Anytime you question yourself as to whether or not you are enabling the substance user, you probably are. Always ask yourself these questions:
Is what I am about to do or say helping them stay comfortable, or will it hold them accountable?
If your choice is to provide, enable, and comfort, then ask yourself why you are doing this and what it is doing for you.
These examples below are precursors for developing unhealthy family roles and are signs that you may be an enabler to a loved one struggling with addiction.
Do You Trivialize Bad Behavior?
When your loved one struggling with addiction commits hurtful acts or forgets about his or her obligations to others, do you brush it off as a minor infraction, even when it occurs again and again? This is enabling behavior.
Do You Prioritize the Desires of the Person Struggling with Addiction Above your Own?
You enable them by prioritizing their demands more seriously than the needs of the rest of the household. This can be a financial issue as well as a time issue.
Do You Often make Excuses for Your Loved One?
You may find yourself explaining away bad conduct as if it were an anomaly, whether it is with the person’s teachers, spouse, or boss.
Do You Blame Yourself for His or Her Behavior?
Often, an enabler feels guilty, as if he or she were the reason for the person’s addiction. This feeling of guilt can be at the core of the motives for enabling destructive behavior.
Do You Financially Support the Person Who is Struggling with An Addiction?
This can be a drain on family resources. As long as an enabler is willing to “help out,” there is little chance that the person suffering from addiction will feel the financial burden that addiction has on their life.
Do You Help Cover Up His or Her Actions?
When excuses won’t do, an enabler may try to cover up the behavior of the person struggling with addiction. If the enabler can’t hide what happened, he or she will often accept some blame as a shield.
Is it Difficult for You to Say No?
Often an enabler will be prepared to say no right until the moment when his or her loved one begs for a favor, forgiveness, or just one more chance.
Why Do Parents Enable?
Parents frequently rely on their children to bring a sense of purpose and meaning to their lives. When parents finally accept that their addicted child needs more help than they can provide, they may feel like they have failed to fulfill their most important role in life.
Rather than face these troubling emotions, many parents will continue enabling their son’s or daughter’s addiction. The reason behind this is the feeling of being needed in the relationship even though it is harming both family and substance user.
So, what is the difference between enabling and codependency? In short, codependency is the unhealthy relationship that develops from being too involved in an addicted person’s life, and enabling is the set of behaviors that define such a relationship.
It’s not what the Enabling is doing for the addiction, it’s what it is doing for the family.
When family members enable an addiction, they not only disable the substance users ability to face consequences, they also disable their ability to therapeutically confront the situation. Enabling comes in all forms and is not only when we provide support. We may be enabling when we are doing nothing to change or attempt to stop the person’s addiction.
Depending which role you take on within the family system, you may be enabling the primary enabler. People often engage in comforting coping skills, regardless of the long term consequences they may bring to themselves or the rest of the family. When a person with a substance use disorder is enabled it lessens the likelihood they will see the need for change. The same can apply when we enable a codependent enabler, if there are less consequences to the behavior the behavior almost always continues. For a substance abuser to move through the stages of change, they need to see both sides of the argument. The side that tells them they do not have to change, and the side that helps them see the need for change. The same applies to a family system.
When a family is in the grip of another’s addiction, the primary enabler often puts all of their attention on the substance user. This causes maladaptive coping skills and unhealthy roles to form. Rather than therapeutically confront the cause or the person who is giving all of their time to the substance user, family members often focus on the addiction. This can move the focus off of the ever growing problem which is within the family system. An enabler will almost always change their behaviors when the rest of the family holds them accountable with consequences and changed behaviors. This is a very similar pattern to what is almost always necessary to help a substance user see the need for help.
The hero family member may be enabling by sabotaging efforts to allow the substance user to receive help. This can often be done by enabling or convincing others to do nothing or fight off professional help. To the hero, if the substance abuser gets well, they risk losing the perfect child or perfect person role. A martyr family member may be an enabler to allow themselves to remain in a victim role or fear what will happen to them if their loved one becomes well. The addiction to drama and chaos is replaced with silence. For a person who has operated in this state for a long period of time, silence is considered uncomfortable unknown change. A codependent enabler may be enabling due to past experiences and does so to feel needed in the relationship. If the substance user gets well, what do they do next? What is their purpose?
If all of the family is in a different role, casting all their attention on the substance user being the problem, chances are they will not see the need to change. Without this change it is most likely the family will worsen as will the substance use. Families often tell us they are all on the same page. This may be true in regards to hoping for something better. Our experience and research show, families are never on the same page, not even close. They are all at various points emotionally and have taken on unhealthy roles that pits one against the other. As this occurs the substance is allowed to continue while the family is lost and at odds. Sadly they almost never know or see why.
The more someone is enabled, the more entitled they become. Any attempts at changing the enabling is met with guilt, hope, fear and victim manipulation by the substance user.
The Four Patterns of Enabling Relationships
A family member’s motivation to enable a loved one’s addiction can be broken down into four main categories: fear, guilt, hope, and victim. Each of these four motivations comes with different manipulation tactics on the part of the addict.
By appealing to these four thoughts and emotions, addicts are able to slowly train their loved ones to continue enabling their addiction:
Addicts might make a number of threats if confronted about their problem with substance abuse, such as cutting ties with their family or even performing acts of self-harm. Family members often fear that if they directly address their loved one’s addiction, it will create serious conflict.
Many addicts will blame their loved ones for becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol. They might say that you weren’t there for them when they needed help or that the way you raised them led them to become addicted. By placing the blame on their loved ones, addicts are able to demand help without having to accept personal responsibility.
From the perspective of hope-based enablers, the addict or alcoholic will always appear to be on the verge of making a positive breakthrough. Family members fear that if they stop providing support to the substance user, they will lose all of the progress that they’ve made. Of course, this progress is often a lie used to secure further enabling support.
Here are some of the claims a substance user might make to give false hope to loved ones:
- “I swear I’ll look for treatment or go to treatment tomorrow.”
- “I just need to get drunk or high one last time, and then I’ll stop.”
- “I’m so close to finding a job. Just give me a little more time.”
Addicts will try to paint themselves as blameless victims of circumstance. In their mind, nothing is their fault.
They might say, “If you were forced to live my life, you would be drinking too,” or, “I would never have started using drugs if I hadn’t been in that accident.”
By shifting the blame away from themselves and convincing their family to go along with it, they are able to continue their pattern of substance abuse with a clear conscience.
How to Stop Enabling
Enabling sacrifices the long-term happiness of an individual for short-term satisfaction. In the end, you can hurt yourself as well as your loved one.
Find Support for Yourself
There are support groups for people with loved ones who struggle with addiction. You can go and sit quietly; no one will force you to share anything you do not want to. It can be helpful to know there are others in your situation. Also, the support group will help to teach you coping skills.
Consider an Intervention
You are unlikely to be the only person worried and hurt by the person struggling with an addiction. By presenting them with a caring but unified front of people who care about their welfare, you can encourage them to get the help needed.
Cut Off the Financial Support
Funding a habit allows addicted people to avoid the full consequences of their behavior. Sometimes a person needs to run out of money before a treatment program seems like a viable option.
Do Not Tolerate Abuse
People struggling with addiction can be verbally, emotionally, and even physically abusive. It is time for you to draw a line in the sand. If the addicted person is your spouse or an adult child, you may need him or her to move out until he or she can start to heal. You may need to detach from the relationship until the substance user seeks help.
Get Comfortable with the Word NO
This is about boundaries. This is about you prioritizing your own life. An addicted person often needs to hear the word no, to face the finality of it before fully realizing how much he or she needs help.
Do Not Reward Bad Behavior
Families often believe that comforting the substance user is somehow moving them toward change. All the data and evidence do not support this theory. It is ok to reward positive behavior, and it is never a viable option to reward negative behavior.
The Link Between Enabling and Codependency
One of the primary causes of enabling relationships is codependency, which develops when two people rely on one another to satisfy needs they cannot satisfy themselves.
Dependency on substances on the part of the addict or alcoholic is fairly straightforward. Because the cycle of addiction is difficult to maintain alone, substance users rely on the people closest to them to enable their behaviors. As we have previously discussed, this dependence usually manifests itself as receiving financial and emotional support.
It is important for substance users who enable family members to realize that they, too, are locked in an unhealthy pattern of dependence. For instance, an alcoholic or addict’s parents usually feel a deep sense of responsibility to ensure the well-being of their child. This need can be satisfied, at least in the short term, by making sure that the alcoholic or addict’s basic needs are being met.
The Truth About Enabling
- Enabling hurts the families of those who struggle with addiction because it prolongs the addiction and the suffering of everyone involved.
- The more someone enables, the more he or she encourages toxic behaviors. This delays the day when treatment starts, and recovery can get underway.
- Enabling can mean that someone struggling with addiction commands too many resources and attention.
- It can mean the family’s budget is in jeopardy, which hurts everyone.
- It can mean all the enabler’s attention goes to the one with the addiction problem while other family members are neglected.
- It is incredibly difficult for an addict to begin the process of recovery without first addressing the family’s codependency and enabling.
Discover Family First Intervention for Recovery
At Family First Intervention, our team of professional coordinators, counselors, and interventionists can teach you how to help the substance user without enabling their substance abuse.
We know how to address enabling parents and spouses in a way that leads to long-term changes in behavior. This ensures that your whole family can start healing from the damage caused by addiction.
Enabling may seem like kindness at the moment. However, in reality, it prolongs the process of coming to terms with addiction and finding help to recover.
The most effective thing you can do for yourself and a loved one who is struggling with addiction is to put up boundaries, hold the substance user accountable, and offer them help.
If you identify enabling behaviors in yourself, please take the necessary steps to change your behavior for your own good and the good of the person you care about.
Published on April 10th, 2019
Updated on December 27th, 2022