Family Roles & Codependency
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.
Common manipulations to a family system to encourage enabling.
When a behavior that appears beneficial is repeated over and over it is likely to cause those involved to expect the continued behavior. As the behavior and comfort being provided to the addict or alcoholic allows them to continue with less consequences and more comfort, it only makes sense for them to encourage, manipulate and defend the continuation of those behaviors. Over time the relationship between the substance user and the enabler becomes necessary for both to receive the fulfillment it brings. To the substance user, it provides comfort and lack of consequences and leads to a sense of entitlement. For the enabler, it provides them much needed comfort in their codependency and provides them the illusion of control and being needed in the relationship. The illusion is almost like a gambling addiction. The gambler feels in control as they control the bet, the team or the horse, the amount wagered, and where it is wagered. This illusion of control becomes the focus with blinders on as they lose their spouse, friends, family, their home, their children, their money, integrity and self respect.
These are the four most common manipulations a substance user applies to the primary enabler to encourage them to continue their enabling. Any efforts to stop these behaviors are often met with an angered reaction. These reactions and manipulations are in an effort to “teach” the primary enabler it is best they not change or try that again for if they do, they will be the one suffering the consequences.
Guilt – This is an attempt to coach family members it is either their fault or is caused by some other person, place or thing. Addicts can say some hurtful things while exercising guilt upon a vulnerable family. Families scared and wakened are often taken over by emotions and may even start to believe what the substance user is saying is true.
Fear – This is a difficult one for even the strongest of Families. The addict and alcoholic attempts to have you believe that if there are changes there will be consequences to the family, themselves or others. Some common manipulations are if you try to intervene, set rules and boundaries, or make them move out or go to treatment, they will hate the family forever, be homeless, will go to jail, never talk to you again, commit suicide, or die. This is when families can start to believe that their enabling is keeping them safe and it has to continue or else.
Hope – With this manipulation, you are lead to believe they can or will stop on their own. They may offer you a variety of plans they “will” do at some point. This is meant to keep families in a state of wait and to back off any attempts of taking the necessary steps to change themselves. Sadly, most families believe them despite all the failed attempts or no attempts at all. The family hopes for a consequence such as an arrest, a new partner, a job or for that right person, place or thing to come along that will make this all go away. The substance user is showing you how to wait and do nothing to help them or yourself.
Victim – This is where the substance user attempts to have others feel sorry for them. At some point, addicts and alcoholics become professional victims. At various times they seek validation and sympathy in the hope you understand if you had their life you would use drugs or drink alcohol too. This is also where they seek to create a diversion and to blame others such as a spouse, a difficult job, a judge or law enforcement or earlier traumatic experiences as a justification for their behaviors and substance use. The victim is very devastating to a substance user because it is when most resentments are held. When addicts and alcoholics are resentful, they feel justified to use substances in the hopes others will be harmed emotionally by their actions. Some may have heard the saying where resentful alcoholic or addict victims drink or ingests poison waiting for the person with whom they are resentful at to perish.
At Family First Intervention, we hope to educate families and to build self awareness. Our goal is to not proactively hurt the addict or alcoholic, it is to help families see why they are doing what they are doing and what is doing to the rest of the family. It can be very helpful to see how this internal family problem is enabling the substance abuser to not see the need for change.
Our experience and research show those who enter treatment with a strong and knowledgeable family, have far greater successful outcomes than those who enter treatment and return to their family who have not changed. There are always unintended consequences to our actions and behaviors. In the moment what a family is doing may appear helpful and necessary. It is often not until later they realize things have become far worse as a result of today’s actions.