Helping Vs. Enabling an Addict

Close-up of a young woman consoling her friend

When you love someone, it’s natural to want to help. Parents help their children with everything from finances to relationship advice. Siblings offer love and support to each other whenever it’s needed.

You and your significant other help each other navigate through life’s challenges. But if you love an alcoholic or addict, whether it’s your spouse, parent or child, your desire to help may be causing more harm than good.

Your intention is probably to empower your addicted loved one. You want him or her to succeed. You want to do whatever you can to offer strength and support. You might even think if you help, life won’t be so overwhelming to him and he’ll stop abusing drugs or alcohol. So you probably do things like:

  • Call his place of employment and make excuses about why he didn’t go to work
  • Dig deep into your pockets to make up for her inability to pay her bills
  • Cover up her unacceptable behavior in front of other people
  • Do much more than your share of responsibilities to make up for your loved one’s failure to meet his responsibilities

The problem is, when you do this type of thing, you are contributing to the disease process. Your loved one will probably never get well as long as he doesn’t have to deal with the consequences of his actions. He will keep doing exactly what he’s been doing, and you will keep picking up the pieces and pretending that everything is OK.

Recognizing the Signs of Enabling

Sometimes it isn’t obvious that you are enabling an addict, because there is a fine line between enabling and being supportive. When you are just being supportive, you are doing things for someone that they can’t do by themselves, but when you’re enabling, you are habitually doing things for people that that they could and should do for themselves. Other signs of enabling include:

  • Putting your own needs aside to continually take care of the addict
  • Feeling resentful because you’re taking on more than your share of responsibilities
  • Lying to others, and possibly to yourself, about unacceptable behavior
  • Spending a lot of time and energy focusing on fixing the addict
  • Bailing the addict out of disasters he created, including bailing him out of jail or providing alibis

If you’re an enabler, you are participating in the disease process. You are creating and protecting an environment in which the alcoholic or addict can continue behaving in an unacceptable way. Whatever he breaks or destroys, you will move heaven and earth to put back together. You might think you are helping him, but by enabling his addictive behavior, you are only helping him to stay sick.

How to Break the Cycle of Enabling 

You may believe that if the addict would only get help, everything would be all right. But addiction is a family disease, and if the addict gets help but you don’t, unhealthy patterns may continue. Your behavior doesn’t cause his addiction, but it contributes to it. More importantly, your enabling behavior is a sign that the disease of addiction is affecting you.

Enablers need to get support for themselves through therapy or Alanon. If you are enabling, you need to stop doing things for the addict that allow him to deny he has a problem. That starts by paying attention to the unhealthy things you’re doing. Stop making excuses for him and lying for him. Don’t rescue him by bailing him out of jail or covering for his financial catastrophes. Avoid getting into arguments or begging him to change. If you make threats, such as threatening to leave, be prepared to do what you say.

Face the fact that your behavior may have contributed to his active addiction or may be making it worse. Get help for yourself, not because it’s your job to fix the addict, but because it’s your job to attain some inner peace and respect for yourself.

Breaking the habit of enabling isn’t easy. You love the addict, but when you are enabling addictive behavior, you are hurting the addict and yourself. Addressing your enabling is a way for you to work to change what you can: yourself.

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