Helping a loved one with a substance use disorder such as alcoholism or drug use can be a harrowing experience for family members, friends, and relatives to navigate.
However, “helping” is the key word here; according to researchers, there is a fine line between helping a loved one with an addiction and enabling them.
What does enabling mean?
Typically, an “enabler” is someone who allows a loved one to continue risky or destructive patterns of behaviour.
An enabler might do things for someone with a drug or alcohol problem that they could (and would) generally do for themselves if they were sober (How to Stop Enabling an Alcoholic or Addict, Verywell mind, Buddy T, May 18, 2022).
Helping vs Enabling
However, key distinctions must be made here since helping someone with an addiction problem differs entirely from enabling.
Helping is doing something that the person with a substance abuse problem would or could not do for themselves if they were sober (How to Stop Enabling an Alcoholic or Addict, Verywell mind, Buddy T, May 18, 2022).
When a loved one has a drug or alcohol problem, it can be devastating for those who love and care about them.
You may experience intense sadness and grief about who your loved one was before the substance abuse took hold; you may even blame yourself or others for their destructive behaviours.
A family disease
Addiction often gets called a family disease because it affects the person’s entire family system – addiction is an obliterating disease that causes much destruction to the individual abusing substances and their loved ones.
If you have a loved one with an alcohol or substance use disorder, you may wonder if what you are doing to help your loved one is working or not.
How can you recognise if you are an enabler or if what you do is regular helping?
How do you stop if you have enabled your loved one for so long?
If you find yourself plagued with questions like these, it might be helpful for you to understand the signs of enabling to prevent these behaviours in the future.
Signs of enabling
As someone once said, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” and often, friends, family members and loved ones of an addict are doing their best to help.
Although however good someone’s intentions might be, a person’s family members or friends may unwittingly complicate things by enabling someone who misuses drugs or alcohol.
Enabling behaviours include:
- Providing financial support and help to someone with an alcohol or drug problem
- Covering for your loved one or making excuses for their behaviour
- Ignoring a loved one’s behaviour or destructive habits
- Taking over your loved one’s responsibilities
If you find yourself protecting a loved one who abuses drugs or alcohol from the consequences of their actions, you could be preventing them from getting the help they need or delaying a decision to seek treatment for their problem.
As mentioned, there is a fine line between helping and enabling.
Enabling is not helpful. However, helping a person to acknowledge the consequences of their actions can be the thing that motivates them to seek help for an addiction.
Therefore, you must be aware of enabling behaviours and stop whatever unhelpful behaviours you engage in; some of these behaviours may even happen without you knowing.
What causes someone to enable?
Various theories explain why someone may engage in enabling behaviours.
Writer and researcher Buddy T explains that enabling is often the result of codependency.
Codependency involves an excessive reliance on a person who often requires additional support because of illness or addiction. Enabling may emerge as a way to cope with or avoid emotional pain (How to Stop Enabling an Alcoholic or Addict, Verywell mind, Buddy T, May 18, 2022).
A desire to be helpful
In many instances, enabling occurs from a genuine desire to be helpful. For example, when we witness a loved one suffering in any way, our first instinct is to find a way to protect them, despite the negative consequences of their actions or behaviour.
Researchers have noted that although there are some risk factors, there isn’t an exact cause for enabling.
How to stop enabling
According to the American Psychological Association, enabling refers to patterns in close relationships that support any harmful or problematic behaviour that makes it easier for that behaviour to continue (What Is an Enabler? 11 Ways to Recognise One, Healthline, Crystal Raypole, June 27, 2019).
Enabling doesn’t mean you support your loved one’s addiction or other behaviours.
You might believe if you don’t help, the outcome for everyone involved will be far worse. So maybe you excuse troubling behaviour, lend money, or assist in other ways (What Is an Enabler? 11 Ways to Recognise One, Healthline, Crystal Raypole, June 27, 2019).
Various ways you can help
If you think you might be enabling a loved one, there are ways to stop. But first, you must go easy on yourself and acknowledge that enabling comes from a desire to help.
Researchers say it can be empowering when a person stops enabling a loved one’s alcohol or drug use habit.
Although there are things you can do to stop enabling specific behaviours, you cannot make a person change or prevent them from doing something harmful or destructive.
Valuable tips to help your loved one
Fortunately, there are various ways that you can prevent yourself from enabling in the future. They include:
- Setting boundaries with your loved one – this may involve not lending them money or spending less time with them to protect your well being
- Allowing the person to deal with the consequences of their decisions and actions – you are not responsible for your loved one’s behaviour or decisions. How they behave is up to them; you do not have to deal with the fallout.
- Offering support to your loved one for their recovery efforts – when your loved one is motivated to seek help and recovery, you may want to support them in the process by offering encouragement and motivation in the best way you know how
Things to avoid
Addiction specialists say that family members who want to help their loved ones and prevent enabling must try and avoid:
- Taking over their loved ones’ responsibilities
- Saving the person from financial or legal consequences
- Making excuses for a loved one’s behaviour and actions
Stopping enabling behaviours
It can be hugely challenging to stop enabling specific behaviours.
Our innate desire to help a loved one in pain can be intense, and we often tell ourselves that having boundaries is selfish or that not helping them in their hour of need is cruel or cold.
Of course, none of this is true.
By allowing certain behaviours, you are providing your loved one with a safety net that will enable them to mistreat people (and you), lose their job, or gamble all their money away on drink and drugs with no consequences.
If you find yourself making excuses for a loved one’s behaviour, paying their bills or providing them with shelter and food, you could be enabling them.
The difference between helping and enabling
It can be hard to discern whether you are helping or enabling a loved one.
However, experts say that family members and loved ones must avoid doing the things that the person with an addiction can do themselves.
For example, suppose your loved one’s car breaks down, or they have lost their driver’s licence due to alcoholism and need to get to a therapy session or AA meeting.
In that case, you may offer to drive them to their appointment. In doing so, you are helping, not enabling.
In contrast, if you circle job advertisements in a newspaper, research local AA meetings or help someone get their driver’s licence back, you are doing the things your loved one can do themselves. These are enabling behaviours.
Helping a loved one with addiction
It can be monumentally challenging to stop doing the things you thought were helping your loved one but aren’t.
However, addiction specialists say that the following may help your loved one to get the treatment they need and prevent you from enabling them in the future.
To stop enabling, you must avoid:
- Lending your loved one money
- Making excuses for them
- Rescuing them from financial or legal trouble
- Arguing or pleading with them to stop abusing alcohol or drugs
- Drinking or taking drugs with them
- Taking on a loved one’s responsibilities
Experts say that when enabling systems are removed, the shock and fear can force a person to seek treatment and help for an addiction, but there are no guarantees or absolutes.
Learning more about addiction
It can be difficult for an addict’s family and relatives to accept uncertainty.
However, support and help are available to the relatives and family members of addiction.
You may attend an AA meeting to understand alcoholism or research additional resources for families affected by alcoholism and substance abuse.
Family members and relatives can feel powerless when someone they love has a drug or alcohol use disorder. Still, many families and relatives often feel empowered once they stop enabling.
Accepting that you cannot control how someone behaves or their choices will help empower you, which can positively impact the entire family unit.
We specialise in treating various addictions and mental health disorders at Camino Recovery.
Our specialist team is always available to lend a friendly, compassionate ear.
Contact a specialist today if you want more information about this article or are concerned about your mental health.