Updated on October 12th, 2020
Many times, family members and loved ones try to help an addicted loved one, but unknowingly make the situation worse. Dealing with alcohol or drug addiction in the family is a difficult and complex situation, many people find themselves enabling a loved one and ultimately contributing to the addiction.
So, if you’re reading this article because someone you love is addicted or in recovery, you’re probably asking yourself, “Am I an enabler?” Keep reading to find out.
What is Enabling Behavior?
Enabling behaviors are any behaviors that shield the alcoholic or drug abuser from fully experiencing the consequences of their substance abuse.1 Although you may feel like you’re helping the addicted person by protecting them from those harmful consequences, you’re actually contributing to their addiction and giving them more reasons to continue what they’re doing.
What Is the Difference Between Enabling and Helping?
Enabling behavior may feel like helping, but in truth, helping behaviors are much different. In contrast, helping an addicted loved one can be much more difficult than enabling them. It often means letting them experience the consequences of their drug abuse, such as losing a job, a spouse, or their home. It’s painful to watch someone experience these things, but if they never do, what will motivate them to get sober?
For example, if you are paying your son’s rent because he lost his job as a direct result of his alcoholism, you are enabling his behavior, therefore giving him no reason to seek help for his addiction. However, if you were to stop paying his rent, he would be forced to realize that he will be homeless if he doesn’t get his act together. No one ever wants a loved one to experience homelessness, but sometimes, that may be what it takes for someone to make a change.
Why Do People Enable Addicted Individuals?
Enabling behaviors often stem from a feeling of being responsible for their loved one’s addiction. For example, you may feel like your mom’s substance abuse is your fault because you weren’t able to provide her the comfort and security she needed. As a result, you may feel responsible to care for her and protect her from her own addiction.
Enabling behaviors may also come from a sincere desire to help, but a lack of knowledge and education can quickly derail these efforts and fuel the addiction instead.
What Is the Connection Between Enabling and Codependency?
Codependency is a maladaptive way of coping with negative emotions and a set of harmful, compulsive behaviors that are learned from loved ones. In a codependent relationship, one person relies on the other to provide all of their emotional needs and fuel their self-esteem. This type of relationship also enables a person to maintain harmful and addictive behavior.2
Codependency is common among people who have close relationships with individuals who are addicted. In many instances, codependency in a relationship involving addiction may involve:
- Partners who both abuse drugs or alcohol
- An adult loved one or family member of someone who uses drugs
- A significant other or spouse of someone who uses drugs
- A child or children of people who abuse or are addicted to drugs
If you think you might be involved in a codependent relationship, you might be thinking, “What are the negative effects of codependency?”
Research studies have shown that codependent relationships can have serious implications that affect everyone involved, not just the codependent individual or the person suffering from addiction. The entire family unit may experience significant health and wellness risks. For example, the codependent person may suffer from:
- Increased risk of addictions
- Loss of relationships with others
- Inability to sustain personal responsibilities to due demand from the codependent relationship
- Neglect that leads to health problems, low self-esteem, depression, and other mental health problems
The addicted person may also suffer negative side effects of a codependent relationship, including:
- Ongoing substance abuse problems
- Ongoing mental health problems
- Increased risk of relapse after treatment
Enabling An Alcoholic Spouse
Unfortunately, enabling an alcoholic spouse is easier than you might think. In fact, it’s extremely common for enablers to be completely unaware of their enabling behaviors. Often, when a spouse struggles with an alcohol or drug addiction, it completely dominates their partner’s thoughts and behaviors. Enabling addiction can cause much of the stress and frustration that result.
Enabling drug addiction is common among married partners, and not surprisingly, it’s also one of the leading causes of divorce in the United States. Fortunately, once you have acknowledged the presence of enabling behaviors in your life and relationship with your spouse, you can work to change them.
14 Signs You’re Enabling a Drug User
Amid all the chaos caused by the addiction, you may not even realize you’re enabling a loved one. According to the University of Pennsylvania Health System, there are many ways you can unintentionally enable a loved one’s addiction and some are more obvious than others.
Here’s how to know when you’re enabling an addict. If you recognize some of these common enabling behaviors in your own life, things likely need to change.
- Making excuses for a loved one’s behavior.
- Expecting a loved one to be able to control his or her use. (Essentially, denying that the addiction exists.)
- Using with the person in order to monitor their drug or alcohol usage and safety.
- Justifying a loved one’s addictive behaviors.
- Suppressing feelings of concern, fear, or anger regarding a loved one’s substance abuse.
- Avoiding problems simply to keep the peace.
- Minimizing the situation and refusing to accept the severity of the substance abuse.
- Protecting a loved one’s public image to make others believe everything is okay.
- Avoiding the addiction by self-medicating with drugs, alcohol, exercise, food, etc.
- Blaming, criticizing, and lecturing a loved one.
- Taking over responsibilities for a loved one such as paying the rent, buying groceries, cleaning the house, etc.
- Treating a loved one like they are a child instead of an adult.
- Attempting to control every aspect of a loved one’s life.
- Convincing yourself to “just be patient” or “wait it out” because things will get better.3
The Damage of Enabling
Some of the behaviors listed above are well-meaning and are done with the intention of helping a loved one. However, they actively cause more harm than good.4 Some of the biggest ways enabling behaviors cause damage is by:
- Taking away the person’s motivation to change
- Keeping the person from taking responsibility for his or her own actions
- Making it easier for the person to abuse drugs or alcohol
- Turning the household into an unsafe environment for other family members
- Causing financial stress
- Causing other members of the family to feel neglected
- Delaying addiction treatment5
A dysfunctional family dynamic can also contribute to codependency among family members who are affected by addiction, and the stress of it all can cause trauma, anxiety, depression, or even substance abuse among other loved ones who feel unable to cope with it all.
Clearly, the damage caused by this enabling is widespread. Enabling behaviors don’t just hurt the addicted individual—they harm the entire family, affecting the overall health, well-being, and happiness of everyone involved.
How to Stop Enabling An Alcoholic or Addict
When you find out that your actions have been contributing to a loved one’s addiction, it can be difficult to figure out how you can help instead. Although your intentions may be good, foregoing your need to take care of your loved one’s substance abuse problems is the best way to help them.
Naturally, you may be wondering, “How do I stop enabling bad behavior?” or “How can I be supportive but not enabling?”
The first step of healing is to identify any enabling behaviors that are present in your own life and start making changes immediately. For example, stop offering to pay for a loved one’s rent, don’t make excuses for the person when their boss calls asking where they are, and leave the vomit-covered clothes on the bedroom floor instead of washing them. Changing enabling behaviors is hard, but in the long run, it will provide better opportunities for your loved one to get the help he or she needs to recover.
You may also want to see a counselor or therapist to discuss the impact of your loved one’s addiction, how you can be supportive without enabling, and how it has affected your own life. If you’ve been enabling addiction, it’s common to feel angry, scared, hurt, and a million other confusing emotions, but a licensed counselor can help you work through them and establish a plan of action as you move forward.
As you work with a therapist to manage your emotions and behavior, you may also want to take advantage of free resources and community meetings, such as Al Anon, Nar Anon, and Celebrate Recovery, which offer support and fellowship for families of addicted individuals.
Before making any behavioral changes to stop the enabling, you should also consider what happens when an enabler stops enabling. Often, when someone stops enabling, the addicted person will feel like they’ve lost control and go to extreme lengths to regain that sense of control. They may also become very angry. For example, a person may threaten to harm themselves or make verbal threats directed at you once they realize you are done enabling their addiction. If this happens, you must stand firm and take action if necessary, such as calling the police.
Once you stop enabling, change may not happen right away, but by refusing to enable the addictive behavior, you no longer support it and it will have one less leg to stand on. Your addicted loved one may continue to use drugs or abuse alcohol for a while, but if and when he or she is ready for treatment, you’ll still be there to help.
Addiction Recovery Is A Family Process
If you’re struggling to change harmful enabling behaviors that are affecting a loved one who is actively addicted or in recovery, there is help available. Family therapy is a highly effective way to address enabling behaviors, identify them, and actively work to change them alongside your loved ones. A counselor can also help you establish healthy boundaries that will minimize the stress and harm caused by a loved one’s substance abuse by helping you to detach yourself from the addiction.
Attending support groups like Al-Anon may also provide valuable resources and peer support at a time when you need it most. These groups can provide you with a connection to other people who have similar life experiences and can offer practical advice and wisdom to help you cope.
Recovery is a lifelong process for the entire family. Fully committing to your own health and wellness while your loved one works to sustain his or her recovery is essential for lasting recovery and personal growth.
If you or a loved one is looking for recovery support or treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, contact Eudaimonia Recovery Homes today for help.