Published: Oct. 24, 2018 | Updated: June 16, 2022
Are you helping or enabling?
Family is there to support one another no matter what, right? What happens when love and support are twisted and taken for granted? When the person you trusted to be there for you becomes a person who uses you to their own benefit?
Addicted family members, friends and significant others sometimes cause their loved ones to develop what are known as enabling behaviors.
“Letting go doesn’t mean that you don’t care about someone anymore. It’s just realizing that the only person you really have control over is yourself.” – Deborah Reber
What are enabling behaviors?
Enabling behaviors happen because we care about our loved ones. However, they become harmful when the relationship dynamic grows one-sided. For example, in a healthy relationship, one person might agree to do dishes during the week when the other person needs to study for a major test or meet a pressing work deadline. The chore is usually split between the two parties, but one steps up because they love the other person and want to help them.
In an unhealthy relationship, one person might constantly do the dishes because the other person is taking substances. Enabling behaviors can be extremely subtle, but gradually become more and more noticeable.
Another example of enabling behavior could be a son or daughter calling their parent to ask for money. This child sounds clear-headed and optimistic. They’ve gotten clean, found a job and they’re going to move into a new apartment.
However, they need $200 just to cover the deposit. It’s a small sum and they promise to pay it back with their first paycheck, but they just need this one loan to get started. For the loved ones of those struggling with addiction, this scenario is all too familiar.
The parent gives in and agrees to pay for the deposit. After all, the child swears they’re clean. Besides, if the parent doesn’t help their son or daughter, they’re just going to wind up on the streets again. Therefore, the cycle of enabling behavior continues.
Signs That You’re Enabling an Addiction
As the problem of substance abuse grows worse and worse, relationships become more tense and complicated. People with substance use disorders (SUDs) may have moments where they get clean and things seem hopeful, but then they slip back into the grip of addiction. If that happens, here are six surefire signs that your relationship with them is enabling:
- You ignore or overlook negative or harmful behavior
- You place their well-being before your own
- You lie about giving money or spending time with the person struggling with addiction
- You resent the person with substance disorder (SUD)
- You have difficulty expressing and prioritizing your needs
- You have loaned money to the person who misuses substances that has not been returned
Toxic Behaviors Are Allowed
Enabling occurs when we expect that when we give our love to an individual, love comes back to us. When people develop an addiction to drugs or alcohol, substance use takes precedence over returning that love. However, the enabler hopes and continually expects to receive that love back.
They may catch glimpses of love in seemingly kind words or actions, but these are usually followed by moments of mental or physical abuse or being taken advantage of. These are called toxic behaviors. Examples of toxic behaviors include:
- Not returning texts or calls
- Being verbally or physically abusive
- Constantly asking for and taking money
Enablers put up with these behaviors because they love the person with SUD and remain hopeful that they will change their ways. For that reason, the toxic behaviors go unchallenged and the addict continues to take advantage of the situation.
Funds Are Threatened
Giving money to someone struggling with addiction is extremely risky and inadvisable. Money is one of the most common forms of enabling, however, as many people with a drug or alcohol addiction find their financial situation has spiraled out of control. At that point, they usually turn to friends and family as a source of support. The difficult part about giving money to a loved one with SUD is the risk of being lied to and manipulated.
When you have a relationship with any person with an addiction who has borrowed money without paying you back, you are already enabling them. The question is, when will you decide to draw the line?
Ignoring or Overlooking Problems and Emotions
This goes along with allowing toxic behaviors to continue. If you are an enabler, you have allowed problems to go unchecked in the hopes that your loved one’s behavior would change. That, or you may be unable to say anything out of fear of physical assault, financial insecurity, or more. If you continually allow their toxic behavior to affect your life, you gradually learn to bottle up your emotions and feelings.
One of the most toxic aspects of enabling behavior is the development of what’s called “codependency.” This is a psychological term for a set of behavioral characteristics usually found in people who have close relationships with people with SUDs. The codependent person accepts toxic behavior because they love their family member or friend, and may be afraid of the love going away.
Codependent people spend so long denying their own emotions that they never build their own self-esteem and have a hard time expressing their wants and needs.
Helping vs. Enabling Addiction
There is a fine line between knowing what will help a loved one through their addiction versus knowing what will enable them. Friends and family members can actually make a situation worse by trying to help. Helping typically becomes enabling when friends and family solve problems unrelated to their loved one’s addiction, like repeatedly doing laundry because they are too hungover. In other words:
Helping: Helps the addict WITHOUT shielding them from the consequences of their actions
Enabling: Helps the addict AND shields them from the consequences of their actions
Anything you do that protects your loved one from the consequences of addiction will only delay their understanding of their problem and the help they need. Therefore, it’s in the best interest of everyone involved to stop enabling behaviors as soon as possible.
“If the addict is pleased with your help, you’re probably enabling. If the addict is pissed as hell, you’re probably helping the person you love.” – Sandy Swenson
8 Tips on How to Stop Enabling Addiction
The longer a person with SUD is allowed to continue their destructive behavior, the more likely that they may wind up hurting themselves permanently or never seeking addiction treatment. Seeking help for addiction is vital before all of the relationships in their lives become so toxic that there is no longer room for healthy or productive conversations. Listed below are eight concrete steps to take in order to stop enabling behavior from occurring:
#1 Stop Doing Anything That Allows Their Behavior to Continue
This means anything that provides a safety net for them to continue their behavior. This could be providing a place to sleep, paying their bills, or covering for them at work when they are too high to show up. Anything that protects them from the consequences of their own actions.
#2 Stop Doing Anything That They Could Do If They Were Sober
Don’t help with anything that the addict could handle if they were sober. For example, if they don’t have a license, could drive them to a nearby meeting. However, you should not research local meetings or find employment opportunities for them, because this is something they would be able to handle on their own.
#3 Stop Lying or Making Excuses for Them
Stop lying about helping the addict or covering for them when their consequences have caught up with them. Have you ever called into work to explain that there’s a family emergency or that they have a cold? Start being honest with yourself and even with others about the extent of your loved one’s problems and stop covering for them.
#4 Stop Giving or Loaning Them Money
This is a simple place where you can draw the line when it comes to enabling behavior. No matter what the addict says or promises, giving them money will only enable them spend money on substances. This includes paying for tickets, fines, or for bail money. If your addict winds up in jail, it may actually be a chance for them to get sober before returning to the real world. Just be sure that no one bails them out and if they do get bailed out, have a plan in place to get them in structured treatment.
#5 Stop Scolding or Arguing With Them
It may seem like the only way to get through to the addict is to continue hammering home the point until they accept your advice. The thing is, it’s wasted effort. The addict likely knows they have a problem and ultimately they must make the decision to cease or continue their behavior. Plus, if the only consequences of their actions are a verbal talking to.
#6 Do Not React To Their Behavior
This is an important concept taught in Al-Anon circles. You need to learn or find out a way to separate your emotional well-being from their own. This can be difficult if you live with or love a person who is addicted to substances. However, by learning to disconnect from them, you can save yourself from the hurt of their behavior. You will also rob them of the opportunity to turn your negative reaction into an emotional out.
#7 Set Boundaries Immediately
Addicts can put intense emotional and financial stress on their loved ones. As master manipulators, they are generally skilled at getting their loved ones to cave to pressure one way or the other. You will need to learn how to set boundaries to make sure that the addict is aware of the lines they cannot cross. It may help to develop some assertiveness techniques to help you put your foot down. For example, this could mean refusing to lend any more money, or letting them know you’re uncomfortable performing a task for them.
#8 Accept That You Can’t Control Them
At the end of the day, the only person you have control over is yourself. The old saying, you can lead a horse to water, applies to this survival tip. You simply do not have control or responsibility over the actions an addicted person takes. The serenity prayer is a useful tool used in Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon for reminding yourself that you cannot control the addict, as much as you would like to. It goes:
“God grant me the serenity. To accept the things I cannot change. The courage to change the things I can. And the wisdom to know the difference.”
If you can successfully implement these tips into your relationship with the addict, things will hopefully turn out for the better. Once the addict’s enabling system has been removed, there are only a few options left to them. One, they will have to find a new enabling system, which is difficult because every relationship in their life will gradually turn negative. Two, they will have to confront their addiction and finally seek treatment. Or three, they will continue down this road of self-destruction until it ends in death.
Learning About Al-Anon
Friends and family members of addicts often find that joining a support group can help alleviate stress, inform the recovery process, and overall make it easier living and loving an addict. In the Al-Anon program, which is based on AA’s 12 Steps, those who live with another person’s addiction learn how to relinquish their false sense of control let go of attempts to control or influence them, and allow themselves to live happier, more manageable lives. Don’t delay in finding a support group like Al-Anon. It’s free to attend and participants are not required to share if they don’t want to. Millions have found serenity within the walls of Al-Anon and many more join every day, sharing stories and healing the wounds of alcoholism.
If you identify with the behaviors related to enabling addiction and wish to find help for overcoming it, then our blog was a useful resource. If you believe that your loved one has a problem with substance abuse, Landmark Recovery is a drug and alcohol rehab center that helps people struggling with addiction take the first steps toward maintaining long-term sobriety. Our caring staff is trained in residential treatment, individual and group therapy, as well as intensive outpatient and medical detox.
For more information, call 888-448-0302 to speak with a recovery specialist in your area.