Enabling is a term often used in the context of a relationship with an addict. It might be a drug addict or alcoholic, a gambler, or a compulsive overeater. Enablers, rather than addicts, suffer the effects of the addict’s behavior.
Enabling is “removing the natural consequences to the addict of his or her behavior.” Professionals warn against enabling because evidence has shown that an addict experiencing the damaging consequences of his addiction on his life has the most powerful incentive to change. Often this is when the addict “hits bottom” – a term commonly referred to in Alcoholics Anonymous.
Codependents often feel compelled to solve other people’s problems. If they’re involved with addicts, particularly drug addicts, they usually end up taking on the irresponsible addict’s responsibilities.
Their behavior starts as a well-intentioned desire to help, but in later stages of addiction, they act out of desperation. The family dynamics become skewed, so that the sober partner increasingly over-functions and the addict increasingly under-functions.
This builds resentment on both sides, along with the addict’s expectation that the over-functioning partner will continue to make things right when the addict doesn’t meet his or her responsibilities.
The Al-Anon program suggests that you don’t do for the alcoholic what he or she is capable of doing. Yet, codependents feel guilty not helping someone, even when the person caused the situation and is capable of finding a solution. It’s even harder for codependents to say no to requests for help. The pressure to enable can be intense, particularly coming from suffering or angry addicts, who generally use manipulation to get their needs met.
Examples of enabling include: giving money to an addict, gambler, or debtor; repairing common property the addict broke; lying to the addict’s employer to cover up absenteeism; fulfilling the addict’s commitments to others; screening phone calls and making excuses for the addict; or bailing him or her out of jail.
How to Stop the Enabling Behavior
Often addicts aren’t aware of their actions when intoxicated. They may have blackouts.
It’s important to leave the evidence intact, so they see how their drug use is affecting their lives. Consequently, you shouldn’t clean up vomit, wash soiled linens, or move a passed-out addict into bed. This might sound cruel, but remember that the addict caused the problem. Because the addict is under the influence of an addiction, accusations, nagging, and blame are not only futile, but unkind. All these inactions should be carried out in a matter-of-fact manner.
Stopping enabling isn’t easy. Nor is it for the faint of heart. Aside from likely pushback and possible retaliation, you may also fear the consequences of doing nothing. For instance, you may fear your husband will lose his job. Yet, losing a job is the greatest incentive to seeking sobriety. You may be afraid the addict may have an auto accident, or worse, die or commit suicide. Knowing a son is in jail is sometimes cold comfort to the mother who worries he may die on the streets. On the other hand, one recovered suicidal alcoholic said he wouldn’t be alive if his wife had rescued him one more time.
You may have to weigh the consequences of experiencing short-term pain vs. long-term misery, which postpones the addict’s reckoning with his or her own behavior. It requires great faith and courage not to enable without knowing the outcome. Although enabling can prolong the addiction, not all addicts recover, even despite counseling and going to many rehabs. This is why the 12 Steps are a spiritual program. They begin with the recognition that you’re powerless over the addict. The desire for sobriety must come from him or her.
To avoid unnecessarily suffering the consequences of an addict’s drug use, it’s vital you begin to reclaim your sense of autonomy and take steps wherever possible not to allow the addict’s drug use to put you in jeopardy. Allowing the addict to drive you or your child while under the influence is life-threatening. On the other hand, taking on the role of designated driver gives the addict free license to use or drink. The spouse might refuse that enabling role by taking a separate car. If the addict is charged with DUI, it might be a wake-up call.
Always have a Plan B to cope with addicts’ unreliability; otherwise, you end up feeling like a victim. Sometimes, Plan B might be going to a 12-Step meeting or just staying home and finishing a novel. The important thing is that it’s a conscious choice, so that you don’t feel manipulated or victimized.
It’s a good idea to follow through with plans, whether it’s keeping counseling appointments or social engagements that the addict refuses to attend at the last minute. This precludes the addict’s attempt to manipulate the family.
Having some recovery under his belt, one husband resolved to remain on vacation with the children when his alcoholic wife suddenly decided she wanted to return home. He later remarked, “It was the first time in years that my mind was free of obsessing about her.”
In another situation, an alcoholic husband picked a fight an hour before guests were arriving for dinner. He threatened to leave unless they were uninvited. When his wife refused, he stormed out and hid in the bushes, while his wife enjoyed herself. Feeling ashamed, he never repeated that ploy.
Enabling has implications for all codependents, because they generally sacrifice themselves to accommodate others’ needs, solve others’ problems, and assume more than their share of responsibility at work and in relationships.
Common examples are a woman looking for a job for her boyfriend, a man paying his girlfriend’s rent, or a parent meeting his child’s responsibilities that the child can do or should be doing. Learning to be assertive and set boundaries are often the first steps in stopping enabling. See my book How to Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits.
Email me if you’d like to hear an interview I gave on enabling.
Lancer, D. (2013). Are You an Enabler?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 7, 2013, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/are-you-an-enabler/00015255
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 19 Feb 2013
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.