Enabling addiction involves lessening—or removing entirely—the consequences of an addict’s behavior, often unintentionally, in an attempt to help them.
Addiction has real and dangerous side effects. Enabling behaviors can blunt some of the natural consequences of the disease, consequences that may lead the addicted person to realize the need for treatment.
Enabling can foster a negative and unfair relationship balance, which can skew the family dynamic, causing resentment to build up along the way. Resentment and anger can build particularly quickly for those who enable, as they often end up bearing the consequences of their addicted loved one’s addiction.1
Keep reading to understand what constitutes enabling and how to stop doing this in order to foster healthy relationships and family situations.
Examples of Enabling an Addict
When a family member, friend, or loved one struggles with issues involving drugs and/or alcohol, it can be difficult to admit the scope of the problem. Denial is often a big component of the disease that is addiction, both by the person battling it and those around them.
Enabling behaviors often come from a place of love, out of a real desire to help. Enabling often leads to one person taking up the slack of the other, which in turn creates a shift in a relationship that should be two-sided.
However, codependency could be at the center of you or your family’s enabling actions. When someone is codependent, it could mean they become overinvolved in the addiction process. Enabling behavior not only negatively impacts the addicted individual by permitting the disorder to progress without resistance from the family, it also can cause harm to codependent family members, who may feel trapped.2
Continuing to act as an enabler allows your loved one to keep doing what they are doing and makes it harder for them to recognize that their substance abuse is even a problem. They may even expect you to keep covering for them and get upset when you don’t, and they may lash out in aggressive or violent ways. Someone struggling with addiction will likely use manipulation to get what they want.1
Some signs that you may be enabling someone’s addiction include:
- Rationalizing the person’s behavior by blaming other situations or yourself.
- Cleaning up after the person’s messes (e.g., making a car payment for someone because they can’t afford it after spending their money on drugs).
- Putting the other person’s emotional, financial, and other needs ahead of your own needs.
- Ignoring obviously detrimental behaviors of your loved one, including stealing, lying, and other forms of deceit.
- Making excuses and/or lying to cover up for the other person’s behavior.
- Performing activities or assuming responsibilities that the person should do for themselves, such as shopping for them, loaning them money, giving them rides, cleaning up after them, etc.
- Frequently coming to the rescue of the person when their addictive behavior gets them into trouble.
- Frequently making ultimatums or rules and then backing down from them because you know you cannot stick to them.
- Frequently feeling emotionally and physically drained and/or exhausted.
Enabling a person to keep abusing substances and continue to act in ways that are harmful to them and those around them only makes things worse. Addiction can lead to financial difficulties, medical and mental health problems, isolation, criminal behaviors, and an increased risk for accident, injury, or even death. Learning how to stop being an enabler is a step toward getting a loved one to seek help and it can be very healthy for you, as well.
Tips to Stop Enabling
In order to stop enabling a loved one, you should understand that continuing in the same fashion can prolong the disease of addiction. The long-term gain will outweigh the short-term distress of creating boundaries and letting your loved one bear the burden of their choices.
A person battling addiction may be able to finally recognize that their behaviors are unacceptable and that addiction has side effects and ramifications that impact everyone in their lives. When you stop enabling, your loved one may have to take responsibility for their own actions and suffer the natural consequences of their substance use.
Listed below are some tips on how to stop enabling an addict:
Stop helping out financially. Continuing to give someone who battles addiction money means you could be funding their drug or alcohol habit. When a person suffers from addiction, they will likely go to great lengths to obtain their drug of choice, and they will be less likely to keep working and making their own money. By withholding financial support, they will be forced to be more self-reliant.
Let them see and feel the brunt of their actions. Don’t clean up after them when they come home drunk; stop making excuses for their intoxication; and stop shielding them from the consequences of their bad behaviors. When you shoulder the burden, they are free to use without consequences.
Try to talk to your loved one about their substance abuse when they are sober and in the best state of mind. Be assertive and firm about your boundaries and expectations without nagging or slinging accusations. Express nonjudgmental support and encourage treatment.
Seek help from a professional. Medical and mental health providers can offer referrals and resources for families that have been impacted by addiction, and their recommendations may be better received better than that from friends or family. Addiction negatively affects entire families, changing the dynamic.1 Professional help can aid in positively restructuring relationships and behaviors.
If you believe a friend or loved one has a substance abuse problem, and you’d like more information on how to help them, reach out to our compassionate and knowledgeable Admissions Navigators at 813-551-3608.
Take steps to protect yourself and other members of your family. Don’t get in a car with someone who has been drinking, for example. This doesn’t mean to keep offering to be the designated driver, which continues to enable them, but instead consider taking yourself and your family home and leave your loved one to deal with their own ride.
Make a plan to cope with your loved one’s disease. This takes back the power and helps you to stop feeling like a victim. Follow through on what you need to do for yourself and what needs to happen in your own life. This plan may include steps like setting boundaries, getting therapy, attending support groups, and more.
Make concrete boundaries and consequences and stick to them. Let your family member or loved one know which behaviors you will no longer tolerate and directly express what the consequences will be for those behaviors. For example, you could say that if they continue to use drugs that they can no longer visit your home.
Participate in counseling and therapy both for yourself and for the family. Even if your loved one refuses to go or participate, you should continue to engage and work through the sessions on your own, for your own physical and mental health wellness.
Take back control of your own life and do things you want to do. Stick to a schedule, whether or not your loved one decides to participate. For instance, keep up with family dinners and regular obligations and avoid rescheduling if your loved one tries to cancel or delay plans at the last minute.
By ceasing to enable a loved one, you can begin to feel better about yourself and hopefully help them recognize that they need help. Try to remember that helping resolve short-term difficulties for your loved one won’t help them stop using and that not fixing things for them may help them much more in the long run.
- Lander, L., Howsare, J., & Byrne, M. (2013). The impact of substance use disorders on families and children: from theory to practice. Social Work in Public Health 28(0), 194-205.
- Herron, J.H, & Brennan, T.K. (2015). The ASAM Essentials of Addiction Medicine, Second Edition. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer.