Family is supposed to support one another no matter what right? Well what happens when that love and support becomes twisted and taken advantage of? When the person you trusted to be there for you becomes a person who uses you to their own benefit? Addicted family members, friends, and significant others sometimes cause their loved ones to develop what are known as enabling behaviors.
“Letting go doesn’t mean that you don’t care about someone anymore. It’s just realizing that the only person you really have control over is yourself.” - Deborah Reber
Enabling behaviors arise because we care about our loved ones, but they become harmful when the relationship dynamic grows one-sided. For example, in a healthy relationship, one person might agree to the do dishes during the week when the other person needs to study for a major test or meet a pressing work deadline. The chore is usually split between the two parties, but one steps up because they love the other person and want to help them. In an unhealthy relationship, one person might constantly do the dishes because the other person is taking substances. Enabling behavior can be extremely subtle, but gradually become more and more pronounced.
Another example of enabling behavior could be a son or daughter calling their parent to ask for money. This child sounds clear-headed and optimistic. They’ve gotten clean, they’ve found a job, they’re going to move into a new place. However, they just need $200 to cover the deposit. It’s a small sum and they promise to pay it back with their first paycheck, but they just need this one loan to get started. For loved ones of addicts, this scenario is all too familiar. The parent winds up relenting and agreeing to pay for the deposit. After all, the child swears they’re clean. If the parent doesn’t help them, they’re just going to wind up on the streets again. Thus the cycle of enabling behavior continues.
Signs That You Are Enabling
As the problem of substance abuse grows worse and worse, relationships become more tightly wound and fraught. The addict may have moments where they get clean and things seem hopeful, but then they slip back into the grip of addiction. Here are some quick, surefire signs that your relationship with an addict has turned enabling.
- You ignore or overlook negative or harmful behavior
- You place the addict’s well being before your own
- You lie about giving money or spending time with the addict
- You resent the addict
- You have difficulty expressing and prioritizing your needs
- You have loaned money to the addict that has not been returned
Toxic Behaviors Are Allowed
Enablement occurs due to the expectation that when we give our love to an individual, we expect love in return. With an addict, substance use takes precedence over returning that love. But those who enable an addict are continually hoping to receive that love back. They may catch glimpses of it in seemingly kind words or actions, but these are usually followed by moments of abuse or being taken advantage of. These are called toxic behaviors. Examples of toxic behaviors could be:
- Never returning texts or calls
- Being verbally or physically abusive
- Constantly taking money
The enabling person puts up with these behaviors because they love the addict and remain hopeful that they will change their ways. These behaviors go unchallenged and the addict continues to take advantage of the situation.
Funds Are Threatened
Giving money to an addict is always an extremely risky and inadvisable behavior. This is one of the most common forms of enabling, however, as many addicts find their financial situation has spiraled out of control and they usually turn to friends and family as a source of support. The difficult part about giving money to a loved one with a substance use disorder is that they are expert liars and will take advantage of your kindness.
You hope against all logic to the contrary that they wouldn’t stoop so low as to lie and steal money from you. After all, this is someone you love and who loves you back right? Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens time and time again. When you have a relationship with any addict who has borrowed money without paying you back, you are already enabling them. The question is, when will you decide to draw the line?
Ignoring or Overlooking Problems and Emotions
This goes along with allowing toxic behaviors to continue. If you are enabling an addict, you will likely have allowed problems to continue occurring and not said anything in the hopes that the addict will correct their behavior. Or you may be unable to say anything out of fear of physical assault, financial insecurity, or more. If you continually allow an addict’s toxic behavior to affect your life, you gradually learn to suppress your emotions and have greater difficulty expressing your emotions and feelings.
One of the most toxic aspects of having a relationship with an addict is the development of what’s called “codependency.” This is a psychological term for a set of behavioral characteristics usually found among people who have close relationships with addicts, though it is not limited solely to this demographic. The codependent person accepts toxic behavior because they love the addict and may be afraid of the addict taking away their love. They spend so long denying their own emotions that never build their own self-esteem and have a poor time expressing what they want.
Enabling vs. Helping an Addict
There is a fine line between knowing what will help an addict vs. knowing what will enable them. Friends and family members can actually make a situation worse by trying to help when they wind up actually enabling the person. Helping typically becomes enabling whenever the behavior crosses the line from solving a problem for the alcoholic not related to problems caused by addiction (helping them to do laundry because they have work) to solving problems related to their addiction (constantly doing the laundry because they are out partying or hungover when they get home). In other words:
Helping - Helps the addict WITHOUT shielding them from the consequences of their actions
Enabling - Helps the addict AND shields them from the consequences of their actions
Anything you do that protects the addict will only delay them from understanding the full extent of their problem and to get help for it. Therefore, it’s in the best interest of everyone involved to cease enabling behaviors as soon as possible.
“If the addict is pleased with your help, you’re probably enabling. If the addict is pissed as hell, you’re probably helping the person you love.” - Sandy Swenson
How to Stop Enabling an Addict
The longer that an addict is allowed to continue their destructive behavior, the more likely that they may wind up hurting themselves permanently or never seeking out treatment. Addicts need to seek help for their disease before all of the relationships in their lives become so toxic that there is no longer room for healthy or productive conversations. Here are some concrete steps to take in order to stop enabling behavior from occurring.
#1 Stop Doing Anything That Allows Their Behavior to Continue
This means anything that provides a safety net for them to continue their behavior. This could be providing a place to sleep, paying their bills, or covering for them at work when they are too high to show up. Anything that protects them from the consequences of their own actions.
#2 Stop Doing Anything That They Could Do If They Were Sober
Don’t help with anything that the addict could handle if they were sober. For example, if they don’t have a license, could drive them to a nearby meeting. However, you should not research local meetings or find employment opportunities for them, because this is something they would be able to handle on their own.
#3 Stop Lying or Making Excuses for Them
Stop lying about helping the addict or covering for them when their consequences have caught up with them. Have you ever called into work to explain that there’s a family emergency or that they have a cold? Start being honest with yourself and even with others about the extent of your loved one’s problems and stop covering for them.
#4 Do Not Give or Loan Money to the Addict
This is a simple place where you can draw the line when it comes to enabling behavior. No matter what the addict says or promises, giving them money will only enable them spend money on substances. This includes paying for tickets, fines, or for bail money. If your addict winds up in jail, it may actually be a chance for them to get sober before returning to the real world. Just be sure that no one bails them out and if they do get bailed out, have a plan in place to get them in structured treatment.
#5 Stop Scolding or Arguing With the Addict
It may seem like the only way to get through to the addict is to continue hammering home the point until they accept your advice. The thing is, it’s wasted effort. The addict likely knows they have a problem and ultimately they must make the decision to cease or continue their behavior. Plus, if the only consequences of their actions are a verbal talking to.
#6 Do Not React To Their Behavior
This is an important concept taught in Al-Anon circles. You need to learn or find out a way to separate your emotional well-being from their own. This can be difficult if you live with or love a person who is addicted to substances. However, by learning to disconnect from them, you can save yourself from the hurt of their behavior. You will also rob them of the opportunity to turn your negative reaction into an emotional out.
#7 Set Boundaries Immediately
Addicts can put intense emotional and financial stress on their loved ones. As master manipulators, they are generally skilled at getting their loved ones to cave to pressure one way or the other. You will need to learn how to set boundaries to make sure that the addict is aware of the lines they cannot cross. It may help to develop some assertiveness techniques to help you put your foot down. For example, this could mean refusing to lend any more money, or letting them know you’re uncomfortable performing a task for them.
#8 Accept That You Can’t Control Them
At the end of the day, the only person you have control over is yourself. The old saying, you can lead a horse to water, applies to this survival tip. You simply do not have control or responsibility over the actions an addicted person takes. The serenity prayer is a useful tool used in Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon for reminding yourself that you cannot control the addict, as much as you would like to. It goes, “God grant me the serenity. To accept the things I cannot change. The courage to change the things I can. And the wisdom to know the difference.”
If you can successfully implement these tips into your relationship with the addict, things will hopefully turn out for the better. Once the addict’s enabling system has been removed, there are only a few options left to them. One, they will have to find a new enabling system, which is difficult because every relationship in their life will gradually turn negative. Two, they will have to confront their addiction and finally seek treatment. Or three, they will continue down this road of self-destruction until it ends in death.
Learning About Al-Anon
Friends and family members of addicts often find that joining a support group can help alleviate stress, inform the recovery process, and overall make it easier living and loving an addict. In the Al-Anon program, which is based on AA’s 12 Steps, those who live with another person’s addiction learn how to relinquish their false sense of control let go of attempts to control or influence them, and allow themselves to live happier, more manageable lives. Don’t delay in finding a support group like Al-Anon. It’s free to attend and participants are not required to share if they don’t want to. Millions have found serenity within the walls of Al-Anon and many more join every day, sharing stories and healing the wounds of alcoholism.
If you identify with the behaviors related to enabling an addict and wish to find help for overcoming it, then you find our blog a useful resource. If you believe that your loved one has a problem with substance abuse, Landmark Recovery is a drug rehab and alcohol rehab center that help addicts take the first steps towards achieving and maintaining sobriety. Our caring staff is trained in residential treatment, individual and group therapy, as well as intensive outpatient and detox treatment.