If you have a loved one with a substance use problem, your first instinct may be to assist them in any way possible. However, your well-intentioned behavior might actually be harming them. Understanding what enabling is and why it is a problem can help you break the cycle of negative behavior. By ending enabling, you can encourage your loved one to get the treatment they need.
What Is an Enabler?
Simply put, an enabler is someone who supports and worsens another’s substance use disorder. Enabling behavior makes it easier for someone with an addiction to continue on their current path instead of getting help. Some enablers are fully aware of their behavior while others may accidentally end up enabling.
An enabler can be anyone close to a person with a substance use disorder. It can be a romantic partner, family member, friend, or even a co-worker. There is a stereotype of enablers being weak-willed, codependent people who put up with anything because they are so desperate for love and attention. However, the reality is far more nuanced. Plenty of strong, confident people participate in enabling behavior. Even those who think they are calling out the user and not encouraging any substance abuse may be contributing to the problem.
One thing that most enablers have in common is that they almost always put the user’s needs above their own and everyone else’s. Some may just prioritize the addict’s comfort and preferences over their own happiness and convenience. Others may take it a step further, prioritizing the user’s needs over important things like their children’s safety or their own physical well-being.
There are all sorts of motivations for enabling. Some enablers do so out of fear. They are either directly scared of the user or the consequences of the person’s addiction. Another common emotion in enablers is shame, with many feeling worried about the stigma of substance abuse. An enabler may also be motivated by feelings of sympathy or love, so their behavior might be a misguided attempt to help the user.
Examples of Enabling Behavior
Enabling is any sort of dysfunctional behavior that makes substance use disorders worse. The most obvious behavior is directly giving a user drugs or alcohol, but most enabling is more subtle. These are a few of the many ways that a person can enable someone with a substance use disorder.
Shifting Blame for the Addict’s Behavior
A very common enabling action is shifting blame. An enabler often does not like the idea of their loved one being a user, so they try to point fingers at other causes. For example, parents might imply that their son only drinks so much because his wife is controlling, or someone might say that their friend just uses stimulants due to a heavy course load at school.
Enablers may make these statements directly to the addict, telling them that their behavior is entirely understandable. When discussing the substance use disorder with others, they may try to downplay the situation by blaming others instead. Some enablers may even harass or attack the other people they think are responsible for the substance abuse.
Taking Over Responsibilities
When people have a substance use disorder, they often neglect major responsibilities, including hygiene, childcare, meal preparation, and more. An enabler may start doing more and more of this work for the user because they feel sorry for them. They may start to feel like they have to handle all aspects of their loved one’s life.
This method of enabling is particularly common in female partners. Research indicates that women are more likely to step in and handle chores and other responsibilities when a partner is abusing substances. However, parents, male partners, and other friends can also do this when they try to help out while a person is struggling. It might seem fairly harmless, but taking over responsibilities puts a lot of strain on relationships and protects the user from negative consequences.
Not Calling Out Sketchy Behavior
Most addicts try to hide their activities by doing things like sneaking out at night, missing work for no reason, or lying about how much they have used that day. For those close to the user, it is tempting to just accept the lies. This can make it easier to avoid arguments and maintain the pleasant fiction that everything is fine.
Some enablers may have their doubts about the user’s activity but avoid saying anything to keep the peace. Others may go a step further and lie to themselves as well. By denying the facts and not facing the truth, enablers try to pretend that there isn’t a problem.
Making It Easier to Use Drugs
Some enablers go beyond just ignoring drug use or covering for substance use problems. Some may be actively helping the addict to get drugs. In certain cases, this can involve picking up alcohol at the store or giving the addict some of their prescription medications. Enablers tend to do this because they feel sorry for how bad the user feels without their substance.
Some enablers may not provide drugs and alcohol directly, but they give the money needed to do so. Even if this money is used to cover the addict’s food or rent, it is still indirectly enabling the person because it allows them to spend all their other funds on drugs.
Covering for the User’s Poor Behavior
Many people with substance use disorders will end up facing legal, social, or career problems due to their substance abuse. When they encounter these problems, an enabler will usually rush in to help.
They may avoid calling the police when the user steals money from them, or an enabler may lie for the user when they skip work to do drugs instead. Enablers may spend a lot of time and money helping the user to avoid consequences for their substance abuse.
The Problem With Enabling
If you recognize any of these behaviors in yourself, you might be thinking, “So what? I’m not hurting anyone.” However, the reality is that there are several dangers associated with enabling behavior. Enabling hurts your own mental and emotional health, and it may worsen your partner’s addiction.
When you’re an enabler, you’re participating in an unhealthy relationship dynamic. Over time, you take on more and more of the work in the relationship while the user takes on less of the physical, mental, and emotional labor. This leads to a lot of resentment. The enabler feels pressure to constantly handle everything. When they do not, they may face negative reactions from the user. This intense pressure can further harm the enabler’s own mental health.
Enabling is also bad for your loved one. When you enable an addict, they are more likely to keep using drugs. A fairly important part of the recovery process is just realizing that you have a problem and need treatment. With an enabler constantly sheltering them, addicts may never reach this step. Instead of recognizing that substance abuse is harming them, they are shielded from any consequences. Instead of recognizing all your contributions and hard work, an addict may continue using because they think they can control their addiction.
Are You Enabling Your Loved One?
Recognizing that you are enabling can be hard. Here are some questions to ask yourself if you are in a close relationship with a person who has a substance use problem:
- Do you spend a lot of time apologizing to or about your loved one?
- Does it feel like no one can handle the user’s issues as well as you?
- Do you feel guilty when you cannot help the user?
- Are you aware of substance abuse but think the user does not have a substance use disorder?
- Do you keep trying to cut off your loved one but cannot follow through with the consequences?
- Is it hard to maintain your boundaries when you are with the user?
- Does it feel like your needs are never met?
- Do you feel resentment toward your loved one with a substance use disorder?
- Are you embarrassed at the idea of anyone finding out about your loved one’s problem?
- Do you think there are understandable reasons for why the person abuses drugs or alcohol?
- Have you ever neglected yourself or your children’s needs to care for the user instead?
- Are you often left to make excuses or handle problems that your loved one caused?
How to Stop Enabling
If you are enabling someone with a substance use disorder, you need to change the way you interact with them. Try to think of it as switching from enabling to empowering. Instead of supporting drug abuse through your assistance or inactivity, you should try to encourage them to get the proper care. Follow these tips to stop unhealthy enabling patterns and encourage your partner to get care.
Talk About the Issue
One of the first and most important things to do is simply discuss the problem. Many enablers are scared to even bring it up, but you need to be open. Take the time to talk with your loved one about the ways their drug or alcohol use has become problematic.
Set Firm Boundaries
Many enablers will find their life is far too intertwined with the user. You need to create clear boundaries, saying things like “I don’t want to spend time with you when you are high” or “I’m not giving you money anymore.” Many addicts are used to an enabler who caves and does what they want if they pressure the enabler enough. You need to be willing to actually uphold the boundaries you place.
Remember “No” Is a Full Sentence
As an enabler, you need to become a lot more comfortable saying “no.” Avoid justifying, arguing, defending, or excusing yourself when you say no. When you offer reasons for why you cannot help the addict, they can just pick apart your arguments or criticize your logic until you give in.
Let the User Face Consequences
An important step in stopping enabling behavior is letting consequences affect your loved one. This can be challenging because it may mean your loved one is hungry, depressed, or in jail. However, it needs to be done. If you always step in to make consequences go away, your loved one may never realize they need help.
Discuss Substance Use Treatment
Any enabler needs to take some time to talk to their loved one about treatment. Do a little research in advance so that you can discuss various treatment options with them. Remember that it can take some time for a person with a substance use disorder to get used to the idea of treatment, so you may need to bring it up more than once. Discuss it positively and explain how treatment can solve the problems the user is facing without you to assist them.
Find Therapy for Yourself
If you’ve been in an enabling relationship for a while, it can be difficult to rebuild your own life. Whether or not your loved one gets treatment, it is often a good idea to find your own therapist. They can provide unbiased feedback and help you find healthier ways of interacting with others.
Get Help at NFA Behavioral Health
At NFA, we understand how complicated family and friend dynamics can be. We specialize in helping people to rebuild relationships and improve their own well-being. Our residential rehab facility provides a wide range of evidence-based clinical treatment options. In addition to standard psychotherapy, we run weekly family recovery workshops and offer all sorts of healing activities. Start on the path to recovery by giving us a call today.