It is natural for people to want to help loved ones in distress. Giving money, offering a place to live, offering rides, and caring through illness or drastic personal change can all be vital in times of stress. But where is the line between helping a loved one in need and enabling harmful behaviors? For too many people, there may not be a difference between enabling and supporting their loved one. When a loved one is suffering from addiction and substance abuse, it is vital to distinguish between the two in order to support recovery.
What Is Enabling?
People called enablers often suffer from codependency; they do not express, and may not know, their own needs or wants, and they put the needs and wants of their loved one first. They lose their sense of self because they rely on their loved one’s approval to feel good about who they are. This means that they continually give money, time, or other resources in an effort to maintain the relationship. Enabling is problematic in any relationship, but when the relationship involves a person who is struggling with substance abuse, enabling and codependent behaviors can allow the substance abuse patterns to continue. They may even foster those patterns.
Enabling behaviors are often symptoms of a codependent relationship. The term codependency was developed to describe the relationship between men suffering from alcohol use disorder and their wives. While the concept has expanded to cover virtually any relationship combination, the pattern becomes clearest in relationships between people suffering from addiction and their loved ones.
Enabling as Part of Codependency
- Low self-esteem: This involves feelings of shame, guilt, and worthlessness unless the loved one reinforces a sense of worth. When a person is suffering from substance abuse, this expression of love may be gratitude for enabling, apologies while sober for behaviors while drunk, etc.
- People-pleasing behaviors: Beyond just wanting to be liked, these behaviors occur because the codependent partner experiences anxiety when they need or want to decline a request. They fear that denying a request from their partner will lead to the end of the relationship.
- Unclear boundaries: People who struggle with codependency have hard time setting boundaries, meaning they often make themselves uncomfortable or put themselves at risk to help a loved one.
- Attempts to fix the other person: Although boundaries in the relationship are not set clearly, the codependent partner may feel like they need to fix their loved one; this can lead to continued enabling behaviors in an attempt to change them with kindness.
- Control: A codependent person will need to control the environment around them. This may turn into workaholism or a need to monitor their loved ones.
- Dysfunctional communication: The codependent partner is unable to express their needs, boundaries, or wants. This is likely to be expressed in pretending that requests are okay, which can continue enabling behaviors. For example, if the person is asked for money and they know their loved one will spend it on drugs or alcohol, they are still unable to say no and will pretend like the given excuse is okay.
- Obsessions: The codependent partner often spends a lot of time worrying that they have made a mistake or will make a mistake.
- Denial: The codependent partner typically has just as hard a time acknowledging they have a problem as their loved one struggling with substance abuse does.
Those who are in codependent relationships want to help their loved ones, especially when the person struggles with substance abuse or addiction. However, enabling behaviors generally just allow the addiction to spiral instead of offering real support.
How to Stop Enabling
The first step is to acknowledge the signs of addiction in a loved one. Symptoms of addiction include the following:
- The person is unable to stop consuming drugs or alcohol.
- They compulsively take drugs or alcohol even when they say they will stop.
- They consume drugs or alcohol in larger amounts or for longer than they intend.
- They experience intense cravings when they cannot get the drug.
- They spend a lot of time recovering from binges on drugs or alcohol.
- They miss work, school, social events, or family obligations in order to take drugs or alcohol.
- Consumption of drugs or alcohol puts them in danger because they attempt to perform normal behaviors like driving.
- They experience withdrawal symptoms when they are not able to consume drugs or alcohol.
If a loved one fits the above description, an intervention might be necessary. It’s important for loved ones to identify and stop enabling behaviors. Oftentimes, this change in loved ones’ behavior can be what motivates a person to get help.
A therapist can help loved ones with this process. Therapists will work with a client to help them learn to say “no,” set boundaries, and develop an individual sense of self-worth. While it is possible to learn about enabling behaviors and stop them without a therapist, getting an outside point of view on the situation can bring vital insight as well as emotional support. A therapist can also give the codependent individual insight into addiction in general and offer resources to help.
How to End the Enabling Cycle
It is never a simple process to overcome a tough emotional cycle. People who are involved in codependent relationships with those suffering from addiction need emotional support to stop their own problematic behaviors. Friends, family, and therapists must all be part of the equation.
There are some basic steps to ending enabling behaviors. Here are three tips to remember:
- Talk about the problem. When a codependent person loves someone who is suffering from addiction, it is important to talk about substance abuse patterns and how they damage the relationship. During this talk, it is important to stay calm and focused.
- Set clear limits. People who struggle with addiction have a chronic illness of compulsion, and they may be unable to stop asking for help acquiring drugs or alcohol. Talking about the problem begins the process of setting boundaries, and it’s important that these boundaries are made clear.
- Maintain boundaries. A person suffering from addiction will continue to push boundaries in an effort to acquire drugs or alcohol and continue their addiction. It is important to stay strong, say “no,” and offer the person help in the manner of professional treatment.
Help Overcoming Addiction Involves the Whole Family
Family members and close friends are deeply affected by the behaviors of a loved one who is suffering from addiction. It’s important that the whole family and close friends are involved in the healing process. If a person exits treatment and returns to an unsafe home environment with family members who enable their addiction, relapse is likely.
Many rehab programs include family members in the recovery process via family therapy and other special events. Family therapy can improve communication between family members and help to rebuild relationships that have been impacted by addiction. In addition, therapists can help family members see where they may have been enabling their loved one’s addiction and help them change those behaviors accordingly. This type of therapy helps family and friends support their loved one in appropriate ways, so recovery can last a lifetime.