It’s natural to want to help a loved one and provide support to make life easier. But in some instances, what you might think is helping, may, in fact, have the opposite effect. If your loved one is addicted to drugs or alcohol, you may be enabling his or her actions without even knowing it. Before we delve into the most common signs of enabling, here is a brief explanation of enabling behaviors.
What is Enabling?
Dictionary.com defines the word enable as “to make possible or easy.”1 In terms of substance use disorders, enabling behaviors are those that contribute to a person’s substance abuse and keep them from fully experiencing the consequences of their drug and alcohol abuse.
Often, parents, siblings, spouses, or friends unknowingly enable their loved one’s addiction because they’re trying to be supportive or helpful. Unfortunately, this will only make it worse, and instead of helping, you’re actually harming.
Codependency and Addiction
Codependency also tends to develop among the loved ones of addicts. Family members frequently adopt codependent behaviors to cope with a loved one’s substance abuse, giving up their own needs and wants in the process to satisfy the needs of the substance abuser.2
In many cases, the addicted person manipulates his or her family members and friends into fueling the addiction in various ways, and the loved ones comply out of fear of abandonment or because of low self-esteem.
Codependent and enabling behaviors typically occur simultaneously in situations involving addiction, and both types of behaviors allow the addict to define the reality of their lives and the lives of those around them. People who habitually enable an addicted loved one are displaying codependent behaviors, and as a result, the addict will continue to abuse drugs and alcohol with little or no reason to change.
11 Key Signs You’re Enabling a Loved One’s Addiction
If you recognize some of the following behaviors in your own life, you may be enabling your loved one’s addiction.
- You lie to family and friends about your loved one’s substance abuse.
Covering up your loved one’s drug or alcohol abuse may seem easier and less embarrassing than admitting there’s a problem, but it’s much more damaging in the long-run. In short, you are shielding your family member or friend from the consequences of his or her behavior by pretending that it never happened.
- You blame other people or life circumstances.
The stress of divorce, the grief that accompanies the loss of a family member, or the pain of heartbreak are all emotionally challenging life circumstances, but they are also a normal part of life. Blaming your loved one’s substance abuse on these circumstances only teaches the person that it’s okay to abuse drugs or alcohol to cope with life’s problems instead of practicing healthy coping strategies.
- You fix your loved one’s problems for them.
Calling your wife’s boss to fake an unexcused absence or fighting your teen’s school to get him out of a suspension may feel like the right thing to do to, but it’s only contributing to the problem. It’s natural to want to protect our loved ones from physical or emotional harm, but in some cases (like addiction), it’s better to let them experience those consequences so they become more motivated to change their behavior.
- You make threats but never follow through.
“If you come home drunk again, I’m leaving!” “You can’t continue to live here if you keep using drugs.” Sound familiar? A life-changing consequence like homelessness or divorce can sometimes be a catalyst for change. However, empty threats will do nothing to initiate recovery.
- You avoid confronting your loved one to keep the peace.
Avoiding the problem is often easier than confronting a loved one about his or her addiction because the fear of being alone or rejected is powerful. Your loved one may choose to leave if you confront them or you may be forced to take a step back and let them continue down a destructive path, but ultimately, the best way to care for them is to let them learn by dealing with the consequences of their actions on their own.
- You get your loved one out of legal trouble.
Bailing someone out of jail, paying off their tickets, or covering up criminal behavior will only encourage the person to continue the same behaviors because he or she knows that you’ll always be there to rescue them. Without that safety net, the risk of continuing the unlawful behavior is much higher.
- You make excuses for your loved one.
If a person is addicted, he or she is more likely to miss work, be intoxicated or high in social situations, or miss out on group functions and events. Intervening on your loved one’s behalf is not going to help. Instead, letting them lose a job, experience a breakup, or suffer from social embarrassment will have a lasting impact that could ultimately push him or her to get help.
- You give your loved one money or support them financially in other ways.
Many addicts choose to spend all their money on alcohol or drugs and forego basic necessities like food and shelter to support their addiction. Paying your loved one’s rent, buying their groceries, or loaning them a car may seem like a good way to help them get by, but these actions are doing more harm than good. Helping your loved one locate a treatment facility or substance abuse program is a much healthier way to provide support.
- You take on your loved one’s responsibilities.
If you take on a sibling’s chores at home or you work long hours to compensate for the job your spouse lost because of his or her substance abuse, you are only giving your loved one more reason to continue living an addictive lifestyle. Although addicted people often try to manipulate their loved ones into taking care of them by assuming their responsibilities, this mitigates any opportunity for them to take responsibility for their own actions.
- You try to drink or use drugs with your loved one to build a connection.
Although it may seem like joining a loved one on his or her level will strengthen your connection and establish a more trusting bond, this couldn’t be further from the truth. If your loved one is struggling with substance abuse, it is detrimental to your own health to join in, and it’s unlikely to do anything other than cause more issues.
- You give your loved one unlimited chances.
It’s tempting to give your loved one unlimited opportunities to change, but addiction affects a person’s decision-making abilities and changes the way the brain works, making it difficult for them to overcome the urge to drink or use drugs with sheer willpower. More than likely, he or she will continue to make the wrong choice and you’ll be left to clean up the mess.
Helping an addicted loved one is a challenging endeavor and it often takes a physical, emotional, and spiritual toll on the ones closest to the addiction. Stopping all enabling behaviors may be difficult, but it is a necessary part of the recovery process. Instead of making excuses or covering up your loved one’s substance abuse, hosting an intervention and helping your loved one locate a drug and alcohol detox program or rehab is a great way to help without enabling.3
Although every situation is unique, recognizing and eliminating enabling behaviors is a key aspect of establishing a healthy relationship with an addicted loved one.