Addiction affects everyone in the user’s life. With 1 in 8 American adults suffering from addiction, that’s 12.5% of families also suffering.

Contrary to what many people believe, drug and alcohol dependence do not only affect the individual who is using alcohol or drugs. It also affects everyone in the individual’s life. With 1 in 8 American adults suffering from addiction, that’s 12.5% of families also suffering. Over 70,000 Americans died from drug overdose in 2017. No doubt, their families are still feeling the pain of these losses.

It’s likely that most of the families of these struggling individuals want to help. But, this isn’t always an easy task. Unfortunately, loving an individual who suffers from addiction comes with the temptation to enable them.

If you know someone who is struggling with addiction, you probably want to show your loved one that you care and won’t abandon them. Of course, this is absolutely normal and certainly commendable. But, this desire to always ensure that your loved one knows you’re there can cause you to relax your boundaries and limits. As a result, you could be doing more harm than good. Instead of helping your friend or family member, you could be enabling this individual.

Wondering what is an enabler, anyways? Keep reading to find out if you’re enabling your loved one’s addiction and how to stop.

What is an Enabler?

Those who are dependent on drugs and alcohol become controlled by their addiction. It changes their sense of right and wrong. It also changes or eliminates an individual’s boundaries. People who suffer from addiction may try to use drugs under your roof and expect you to turn a blind eye. They may ask you to lend them money for their habit. They may expect you to lie for them.

When you engage in enabling behaviors like these, you endorse their substance use. Most likely, you do not intend to do this. However, these behaviors prevent you from being helpful to your loved one. In a sense, you’re essentially telling them to keep using because you’ll take care of them regardless.

Why is Enabling Harmful?

Enabling an individual who suffers from substance dependence can prevent the person from seeking help. This behavior is very harmful to the user’s health and wellness, as well as your own. If the person does not see the truth about his or her substance use disorder, it’s unlikely that the individual will be interested in getting treatment. Also, if you continue to enable your loved one, you will likely experience emotional, mental, and physical fatigue. It can be both difficult and dangerous to keep up with enabling behaviors.

But, for many people, it’s hard to know how to avoid enabling their loved ones. Figuring out how to be there for your loved one without encouraging or facilitating substance misuse can be very challenging. But, the truth of the matter is that you can love and care for them without enabling their substance use. However, before we discuss the ways in which you can do this, let’s talk about some common enabling behaviors. Perhaps you will identify some of them in your own life. If so, know that you do not have to be ashamed. Instead, use this knowledge to help you make healthy and helpful changes! 

Types of Enabling Behaviors

You may still be unsure if what you’re doing is enabling your loved one. It can sometimes be hard to identify enabling behaviors, especially when you’re behaving out of love or even pity. But, it is definitely important to be able to recognize the actions in your life that may actually be enabling your loved one’s substance dependence.

There are five common enabling behaviors to look out for and how you can avoid them.

1. Providing Shelter to Use In

Is your loved one allowed to use drugs or drink alcohol in your house? If your loved one lives with you, make your house a sober-zone. Don’t buy drugs or alcohol. Lock up your prescription drugs.

Make it a firm rule that they cannot use in their bedroom, or anywhere on your property. Yes, that means they’ll likely go elsewhere to use. This may be hard for you, but it’s a crucial first step.

Your home needs to be a safe space for them to come back to. Allowing them to drink or use drugs there is enabling their use. It is also making your home a place where the individual feels secure enough to use, which can prevent you from being able to help the person end substance dependence.

2. Lying for Them

Do you make up an excuse for why they can’t come to Christmas dinner? Do you tell their job that they’re feeling ill when they don’t show up for work? Do you tell yourself that it’s only one more hit and they’ll stop?

Lying for them or “covering” for them is enabling them to continue using. You’re making it possible for them to use without consequences.

What happens if you tell the rest of their family the truth? Consequences will occur that could potentially help them. They might lose their job, but that might be what needs to happen.

Tell your loved one that you will not lie for them anymore. Make them answer or lie for themselves; they must take ownership of their addiction. This encourages accountability in the struggling individual’s life. It also gives you freedom from the stress that comes with constantly having to make excuses.

3. Financially Supporting Their Habit

This is a common one for the parents of those who are suffering from addiction. Your son or daughter asks you for $20 for the fifth time this week. He or she promises to pay you back but never actually gives you any money. It’s highly probable that your child is using your money to buy alcohol or drugs. Supporting an addiction can be very expensive and it’s not uncommon for people to experience financial challenges. So, individuals who suffer from addiction often turn to loved ones for money.

Withdrawal symptoms can be very intense. They occur after the effects of drugs or alcohol begin to wear off. These symptoms can include headaches, irritability, tremors, delirium, nausea, vomiting, and much more. Withdrawal symptoms are what cause people to return to substance use. But, if an individual doesn’t have the funds necessary to purchase more drugs or alcohol, he or she will have to ask a family member or friend. This is where you might come in. 

It can be extremely difficult to see your loved one suffer from these symptoms. But, it’s important to realize that you don’t want to fund their habit for life. Their substance use could cut their life short. So, it’s necessary to nip this in the bud. Tell your loved one that you will not be providing any more money. They cannot take advantage of your love anymore.

4. Using Empty Threats

You might not think you’re an enabler because you kick them out when they use. Maybe you stopped paying their phone bill. But only for one month. After that, you might have felt bad and decided to help out again.

Empty threats are consequences that don’t last or don’t even happen. They tell the suffering individual not to worry about your threats because they most likely aren’t real.

It’s time to stick to your guns and set boundaries. If you stop paying their phone bill, don’t resume until they’ve gotten help. If you threaten to kick them out if they use drugs or drink alcohol in your house, enforce it. The trick is not to make threats that you cannot enforce. Think about real consequences you can set and stick to.

5. Fulfilling Their Responsibilities

You don’t have to pick up their slack in your household. In many marriages, the sober spouse often takes over the other’s duties. That could mean you start working an extra job to pay their half of the bills. You take care of the kids and the property. Your “me-time” is virtually non-existent.

This isn’t fair to you and it’s enabling your loved one. By fulfilling his or her responsibilities, you’re encouraging the individual to spend their time using drugs or alcohol. If you have children, it can be severely damaging to grow up with an individual struggling with addiction in the house.

How to Stop Enabling

Give your loved one a heads up that things will be changing in your household. Tell the person that you’re planning on setting new boundaries and enforcing them. This gives the individual time to decide if they want to get help now or deal with the consequences.

Focus on creating a positive, safe environment. Consequences are there because you love the person who is suffering from addiction, not because you want to punish this individual.

It may also help if you get your entire family on board with your plan. If there’s one weak link, they’ll get taken advantage of. Your loved one isn’t a bad person; they have a disease that causes harmful behavior. But, you can help by avoiding enabling behaviors.

Help is Always Available

If you’re wondering, “what is an enabler?” use the list above. These are the most common enabling behaviors you could be doing. If you find that some of these behaviors are present in your life, now is the time to make a change.

You don’t have to navigate this alone. Start meeting with a counselor or therapist to help you get through this. Your own personal wellness is as important as your loved ones.

Here at Discovery Institute, we offer family counseling and individual therapy. Consider going together as a family. We also have effective and compassionate treatment programs for adults and young adults. 

You are not alone in your struggles. Many others are dealing with the challenges that come with loving someone who suffers from addiction. But, regardless of the difficulties, you’re facing, know that we are here to help you. Reach out today to get your family the help it deserves.

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Dr. Jeffrey Berman, MD

Dr. Jeffrey Berman, MDDr. Jeffrey Berman is a psychiatrist in Teaneck, New Jersey and is affiliated with Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. He received his medical degree from State University of New York Upstate Medical University and has been in practice for more than 20 years. He also speaks multiple languages, including French and Hebrew.

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