How to recognise enabling behaviour – good intentions gone wrong

Having a loved one struggling with drug and/or alcohol addiction is an emotionally complicated experience.

Families and friends of addicts are likely to experience intense feelings connected to their loved one’s substance abuse; anger, disappointment, fear for their loved one’s wellbeing and the overwhelming desire to help them.

Unfortunately, while wanting to alleviate your loved one’s suffering is a noble intention, it is also fraught with danger – as it puts you at risk of becoming an enabler.

What is an enabler?

Any behaviour on your part that makes it easier for your loved one to continue their substance abuse and ignore its consequences, is considered enabling behaviour.

No one consciously chooses to become an enabler to their loved one’s addictions; however, many people fall into enabling behaviours without noticing until they are trapped in an unmanageable situation. Watch our video explaining what an enabler is.

What are common enabling behaviours?

While there are countless subtle ways in which you can unintentionally enable your loved one’s substance abuse issues, some enabling behaviours are more common than others:

Financial enabling

Drugs and alcohol are expensive; and the more your loved one has to use to get the desired effect, the more of their finances will be chewed up by addiction.

Of course, you would never knowingly give your loved one money for drugs or alcohol; however, as their financial situation becomes more and more precarious, you might be tempted to “help out” in other ways, such as:

  • Paying more than your share of the rent
  • Shopping for your loved one’s groceries
  • Giving them money to pay off debts or providing funds for unexpected expenses (such as car repairs, fines or large bills)

Ultimately this allows your loved one to keep spending their money of drugs and/or alcohol without facing the consequences of their actions.

Emotional enabling

People with addiction struggle with their mental health and emotional state.

It is likely that your loved one will have moments of clarity during which they express guilt and shame at their behaviour – often vowing to make changes and amends.

Because it is hard to see someone you love suffer, it can be tempting to try and make them feel better.

However, this only serves to shield your loved one from the social and emotional consequences of their addiction.

There is nothing wrong with standing by your loved one during their struggle, but it is never a good idea to tell them that everything is okay when this is simply not the case.

Social enabling

There are many ways of enabling a loved one’s addiction in a social context – the most common mistake, however, is to make excuses.

Telling the kids “Daddy/Mummy’s feeling unwell, let’s give him time to rest” may be intended to spare the children emotional upheaval, but it mainly allows the addict to shirk their parental responsibilities.

The same goes for making excuses at work or school for your loved one’s lack of performance or failure to show up; downplaying their intoxication at social gatherings or making up reasons to explain why your loved one has effectively stopped attending meetings with non-addicted friends and family.

Are you unknowingly stopping them getting help?

It is almost impossible to avoid engaging in at least one of these enabling behaviours when you have a loved one struggling with addiction – so don’t feel as though you have failed them in some way.

It is natural that you want to alleviate your loved one’s pain and often, unfortunately, the quickest way to make them feel better is to enable them in their addiction.

The longer you continue to act as an enabler, the longer your loved one will be able to continue their destructive behaviours.

Catching yourself and putting a stop to your enabling behaviours can be difficult, but it can also be a turning point in your loved one’s battle with drugs and/or alcohol.

Ultimately, the decision to stop using drugs or alcohol is up to your loved one; however, by refusing to enable their addiction any longer, you can force them to face the unpleasant consequences of their substance abuse, which is often a catalyst for seeking help.

Find out more

Are you an enabler?
Addiction Support: the Dos and Don’ts
Establishing Family Boundaries

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