Enabling is a behavior pattern common to people who have close relationships with addicts and alcoholics. It happens when the spouse, parent, sibling or friend of an addict behaves in ways that protect the addict from the consequences of their addiction. The enabler believes they’re helping the addict, but in fact they’re making it easier for the addict to remain in denial.
People who enable addicts have good intentions. To truly support their addicted loved one’s recovery, however, enablers must learn to stop enabling. This means understanding the difference between helping and enabling, and refusing to shelter the addict from the ramifications of their addictive behavior.
Enabling Is Different From Helping
When you help someone, you do something for them that they can’t do on their own. When you enable someone, you do something for them that they not only can, but should do on their own. When you understand this distinction, you can be there for your addicted loved one without becoming an enabler.
Don’t Give the Addict Cash or Goods
Giving an addict cash is like giving them permission to use substances. No matter what the addict says the cash is for, they’re most likely going to end up spending it on drugs or alcohol. Even if they genuinely intend not to, they will do it because they’ve lost control of their use.
Don’t give an active addict any goods or material gifts, either, especially not valuable things that they can easily pawn or sell for cash. But don’t be fooled into thinking that an addict can’t turn an object with little value into some cash. It only takes a few dollars to score the next hit, and addicts are very good at selling even the cheapest, most common goods.
Don’t Pay the Addict’s Bills
You may be tempted to help your addicted loved one by paying their bills, buying their groceries, or settling their debts yourself – after all, if you don’t give them the cash, they can’t buy substances, right? But your loved one should be able to pay their own bills, settle their own debts and stock their own pantry. So doing it yourself is enabling, not helping.
Don’t Make Excuses or Lie for the Addict
You may be tempted to protect your addicted loved one from the repercussions of their substance abuse by covering up for them or making excuses when their addiction interferes with their responsibilities or causes them to break promises. Examples include making excuses for why your addicted loved one didn’t show up to a dinner party or calling in sick to work on their behalf.
Many people, especially those who live with and are interdependent on an addict, see this as protecting not only the addict, but themselves from the consequences of substance abuse. A wife who calls in sick for her husband to cover up the fact that he’s too hungover to work may fear the consequences if he loses his job, for example. But it’s those consequences that have the power to break through an addict’s denial and — show them it’s time to get help.
Don’t Use Substances With the Addict
When you join the addict in using substances, you’re sending mixed messages. You can’t complain about your loved one’s substance abuse and then use substances yourself; even if you’re capable of using in moderation, your loved one will likely see this as hypocritical. Let your actions back up your words and show by example that you don’t approve of your loved one’s substance abuse.
Set Healthy Boundaries
If you’re in a close relationship with an addict, you’ve probably taken over many of their responsibilities and may have a lot of your identity invested in caring for them. It’s time you regained your sense of self.
Be very clear about the nature of your responsibilities toward your addicted loved one and what behaviors you will and will not tolerate from your loved one. Remember to take care of yourself – putting your own needs first and keeping yourself safe isn’t selfish, it’s your responsibility as an adult.
Don’t let your loved one put you in danger or manipulate you into foregoing your own needs and responsibilities. In this way, you can continue your relationship with the addict, if you so choose, without feeling like a victim.
If someone in your life is an addict and you’ve been acting in ways that protect them from the consequences of their addictive behaviors, that makes you an enabler. While your intentions are good, protecting your addicted loved one in this way only allows them to remain in denial and addicted. When you stop enabling, you open the door to change, healing and growth for both your addicted loved one and yourself. To learn more about addiction and how you can help an addicted loved one, check out this blog.
About the Author
Contributing blogger Laura Monaghan was inspired to become an addiction counselor with RehabHotline.org after watching her mother struggle with alcoholism.