When a Loved One Is Addicted: Helping vs. Enabling
Drug and alcohol abuse and addiction are serious issues facing over 23 million people across the United States alone. Of these millions of people, just a small percentage actively seek help to overcome their substance addictions.
There are many reasons behind the resistance to get help. One of these reasons involves loved ones enabling someone’s drug or alcohol habit.
What Is Enabling?
When someone you love is addicted to substances, it can be confusing or frightening to know what you should do or not do. The first instinct may be to help the person suffering from addiction. Problems may ensue when the lines between helping and enabling get blurred. People often think they are helping those closest to them by doing things that are actually keeping their loved ones from getting the real help they need.(2)
Enabling someone with an addiction means engaging in behaviors that allow the substance abuse to continue, such as downplaying the disruption to family life, covering expenses and providing support in other ways.(1)
Helping or Hurting?
Co-dependency is a term used to describe relationships that occur in a variety of contexts, from marriage to workplace environments to substance abuse situations. Regardless of their specific setting, codependent relationships are dysfunctional ways of relating to other people, particularly having to do with attempts to help someone else.
Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with helping others, but when the ability and willingness to help is carried out in inappropriate ways, it creates a situation of enabling. When one person unintentionally supports another person’s addiction or poor mental health by their enabling behavior, not only is it unhelpful, it also actively causes harm and makes the situation worse.
Examples of Enabling
When loved ones ignore an addicted person’s dangerous behaviors, it is as though that behavior didn’t exist. An enabler will often overlook the problems being caused by substance abuse and perhaps they will deny that anything at all is wrong. If your spouse or child is arrested for drugs, immediately bailing him out of jail can be a sign of enabling. Giving money to someone abusing drugs when it is clear that money will be used to purchase more drugs is enabling addictive behavior.
Enablers are often not sure how to express their feelings to a loved one suffering from substance abuse. This is particularly true if the expression of those feelings will garner a negative reaction from the person. This lack of communication does not help anyone.
If a spouse or family member is enabling an addicted person, they often put that person’s needs in front of their own needs. This is only helping the person abusing drugs while the family members are neglecting their own needs and desires. Paying someone’s bills when your own go unpaid, running errands for that person when you need your own important tasks completed are examples of enabling.
Addiction often results in frightening activities, bursts of anger and other upsetting events. A person who is enabling the situation to continue will act out of fear to avoid these types of situations from occurring. They will make excuses for the person in need or rationalize their behaviors.
When you enable someone who is addicted to drugs, you may blame everyone for the situation except for the person abusing substances.
An enabler will probably end up resenting the loved one they think they are helping. Built-up anger and hurt feelings are bound to occur.
Marks of An Enabler
The underlying problem of enabling is that such behavior takes away any motivation for the one suffering with addiction to take responsibility for their actions. When that motivation is absent, there is little reason for the individual to acknowledge their need, let alone make the effort, to change.
Contrary to their legitimate desire to help, enablers actually cause people with substance abuse issues to dig themselves deeper into trouble. Here are some questions to ask yourself that may help you determine whether or not you are an enabling someone caught in addiction:
- Do you often ignore unacceptable behavior? For example, if you dismiss drug use or problem drinking as just “unwinding after a long day” or “just part of growing up.”
- Do you have trouble expressing your own emotions? Withholding your opinions or hiding how you honestly feel, especially if you’re concerned about negative reactions, can be a sign of enabling.
- Do you set aside your own needs and desires to help someone else? It is natural to want to help loved ones, but enabling takes this too far. It causes you to prioritize someone else’s needs, while neglecting your own.
- Do you sometimes act out of fear? Addiction can cause frightening situations or intense responses. If you do (or don’t do) certain things because of concern about causing a blowup or other unpleasant event, it could indicate you are an enabler.
- Do you lie to cover someone else’s mistakes? Enablers hide the truth to keep the peace and to present the false appearance of acceptable, healthy situations.
- Do you blame others for problems actually caused by the one with the addiction? This enabling behavior is an attempt to protect the substance abuser from the consequences of their own actions by pointing the finger at others.
- Do you find yourself resenting the responsibilities you take on? You may not express it for fear of setting off an emotional reaction, but feeling angry or hurt may indicate deep resentment, even while continuing to enable the addiction.
Stop Enabling and Start Empowering
Although starting with the best intentions, enabling can be a serious problem for everyone involved with addiction. Thankfully, it is possible to break the enabling cycle and to begin practicing behaviors that will empower the one struggling with addiction. Here are some practical suggestions for promoting healing and recovery in productive, meaningful ways:
- Stop providing money that allows an addict to gamble, purchase drugs or alcohol or participate in any other addictive behaviors.
- Avoid paying bills, fines, loans to friends, etc. It is your prerogative to refuse, and if they don’t feel the impact of being unable to cover these costs, no true hardship is experienced.
- Don’t lie, cover up or trivialize addictive actions or behavior. There’s no need to announce it to the world, but don’t hide the truth under the misguided concept of protecting them.
- Stop making excuses or helping them avoid consequences. If they can easily check out of life, it pushes them deeper into addictive behavior.
- Set boundaries and stick to them. Don’t make idle threats and then back down.
- Carefully consider short-term versus long-term pain. Will helping them one more time actually cause more pain in the long run?
- Follow through with plans. Even if they refuse to participate, you should not cancel but continue as planned without them.
Rather than allowing the cycle of enabling to continue hurting everyone involved, the real act of helping the addicted person needs to begin. Helping rather than enabling will encourage a person to seek rehab and heal in significant ways.