Since one out of every 13 American adults struggled with addiction in 2016, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), there are millions of families across the United States impacted by the disease.
Addiction not only affects the person battling the disease but also their partner, children, friends, coworkers, extended family members, neighbors, and others. Family and loved ones often unwittingly act as enablers to difficult behaviors, including drug and alcohol abuse.
Enabling is when bad behaviors are overlooked, compensated for, or excused by a family member or loved one. You may feel like you are helping a loved one out; however, enabling only allows the person to continue making poor choices. Enabling permits an individual to keep abusing drugs and/or alcohol and not pull their own weight at home, work, school, or in other situations.
Addiction has real and dangerous side effects, and enabling behaviors can blunt some of the natural consequences of the disease, causing the person doing the enabling to suffer the effects. By enabling someone to continue feeding their addiction, an enabler does not allow the person to fully realize the impact of the disease and get necessary help to make positive changes and recover.
Enabling fosters a negative and unfair relationship balance, which can skew the family dynamic, causing resentment to build up along the way. There can be a fine line between helping out a friend or family member and enabling them. It is important to understand what constitutes enabling and how to stop doing this in order to foster healthy relationships and family situations.
Recognizing Enabling Behaviors and Their Hazards
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. You may make excuses as to why your partner was late to work, helping them to cover up the fact that they were drunk and passed out, to aid them in keeping their job. Another example of enabling is cleaning up the messes of an addict, such as washing the sheets they vomited on, throwing away all the “evidence” like beer cans, or hiding drug paraphernalia so it is not discovered after use.
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. For instance, one spouse may do all the housework and chores due to the inability of the other to consistently fulfill obligations because of drug or alcohol use. An enabler will often feel resentment because of this, further damaging the relationship. Any excuses or compensations made to protect a loved one from the consequences of behaviors related to their struggles with addiction are considered enabling behaviors.
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, potentially even resulting in aggressive or violent behaviors. Someone struggling with addiction will likely use manipulation to get what they want. They may pressure family and loved ones to keep accepting their actions, allowing for their continued use of substances.
The journal Psychology Today publishes that family members often enable loved ones because they don’t want to rock the boat, cause hurt feelings, be perceived negatively, or suffer retaliation as result of saying “no.” You may be worried that if you don’t help them, your loved one will end up in jail, get into an accident, or suffer some other negative consequence. You may keep doing things the same way out of fear or with the belief that things will be different this time.
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, however. 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 help and moving forward into a healthy recovery.
Tips for Ceasing to Enable a Loved One
In order to stop enabling a loved one, you must understand that continuing in the same fashion will merely prolong the disease of addiction, Psych Central warns. The long-term gain will outweigh the short-term difficulties of stopping the enabling behavior.
Enabling is extremely common, and it may seem easier to just keep doing things the way you always have; change can be hard. In the long run, however, by taking back control of your own life and stopping the enabling behavior, you may actually make things better and easier down the line. 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. By removing the enabling behaviors, your loved one will have to take responsibility for their own actions and suffer the consequences of their addiction.
Listed below are some tips on how to stop enabling a loved one:
- Stop helping out financially. Continuing to give someone who battles addiction money only means that you are helping to fund 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, and you can stem some of the financial strain on your family as a result of the addiction.
- 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. Make them feel it instead. This can help them to stop denying that a problem exists.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Make a plan to cope with your loved one’s unreliability. 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.
- Make concrete boundaries and consequences and stick to them. Let your family member or loved one know that their behaviors will not be tolerated, and if they continue to drink or do drugs, they may not be welcome in the family home.
- Attend family support group meetings. Groups like Al-Anon can give families and loved ones resources, support, and tools for coping with someone battling addiction.
- Take back control of your own life and do things you want to do. Stick to a schedule, whether or not the loved one decides to participate. For instance, keep up with family dinners and regular obligations even if they try to cancel at the last minute to attempt to manipulate the situation. You should go or make it happen regardless of their actions.
- Seek help from a professional. Medical and mental health providers can offer referrals and resources for families struggling with addiction. The journal Social Work in Public Health explains that addiction negatively affects entire families, changing the dynamic, and professional help can aid in positively restructuring relationships and behaviors.
By ceasing to enable a loved one, you can begin to feel better about yourself and hopefully get them into a treatment program that can facilitate a long and healthy recovery.