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Are You an Enabler?

Nobody wants to see an addicted loved one spiraling out of control, and it’s normal to want to help, but enabling an addiction to continue only makes things much worse, not only for the addicted person, but for you.

By enabling, either consciously or unconsciously, you are taking away a powerful incentive for your loved one to seek treatment. Look at it this way: if you provide a cushion every time trouble arises, you are allowing the behavior to continue, even when that behavior is destructive or dangerous.

In time, the relationship becomes dysfunctional; your loved one becomes weak and dependent, while you grow angry and resentful. Attempting to control the situation this way just doesn’t work.

Are you an Enabler?

If your inner voice is telling you something isn’t right, or you think you might be enabling, there are several telltale signs.

  • If you’re an enabler, you may do nearly anything to avoid conflict and keep things peaceful, including burying your own feelings. You may be fearful that the person will leave you or end the relationship, or you may be afraid of possible anger or violence if you speak up.
  • You may underestimate the severity of the addiction, pretending everything is fine or denying that a problem exists. You work hard to convince yourself (and others), that the situation will change, or that your loved one can stop drinking or using drugs when he is ready.
  • You come to the rescue time and time again, paying overdue bills or bailing your loved one out of legal or financial troubles. Maybe you are continually paying rent, buying groceries, gas or other necessities. You may even loan money knowing that your loved one will spend it on drugs or alcohol.
  • If you cover or make excuses for the addicted person, you are enabling. For instance, you may call in sick for your loved one when she is hung over, or you may come up with reasons why he is missing important family or social events, or why money is missing from your wallet.
  • Similarly, you are always there to take care of things and make life easier for your addicted loved one. You do things she should be doing for herself, such as washing sheets or cleaning up vomit. In short, you treat the addicted person like a child, even if he is fully grown.
  • If you are an enabler, you may join your loved one in the harmful behavior, even when you are entirely aware of how damaging or dangerous it is. You may think that by being there to keep an eye on things, you are controlling the situation and preventing something terrible from happening.
  • Blaming is a common attribute of enablers. You may blame yourself; if you were only a better partner, spouse, sibling, child, parent or friend, your loved one wouldn’t need to drink or use drugs. On the other hand, you may blame the legal system or your loved one’s school, employer, friends or romantic partner.
  • Enablers find it extremely difficult to say “no.” You may feel like you’re being cruel, or you may only want to avoid an awkward or unpleasant situation. As a result, you put the addicted person’s needs ahead of your own, sometimes at the expense of your own physical or emotional health or your financial well-being.

How to Stop Enabling an Addicted Loved One

If you’ve been enabling an addicted loved one, don’t beat yourself up and don’t feel alone; enabling is a very common behavior. Unfortunately, enabling can be habit-forming, and it’s a hard habit to break, especially if you’ve been an enabler for a long time.

The first step is to be honest with yourself, even if it hurts. Admit that by enabling, you are preventing your loved one from experiencing difficult consequences that may compel him to finally seek treatment.

Stopping takes a lot of courage, so be patient with yourself. At the same time, don’t waver in your determination, even when you come up against anger or resistance. Remember, you haven’t stopped caring; in fact, you are ultimately doing the best thing for your addicted loved one.

Here are some tips that may help:

  • Keep in mind that addiction is a serious illness and your friend or family member needs more help than you can offer. Addiction to drugs or alcohol rarely gets better without treatment.
  • Practice saying “no,” and remember that as difficult as it is, it will become more natural in time. Remind yourself that if you can’t say no, your addicted loved one may never learn how to navigate on his own. Be consistent and don’t back down. No means no.
  • Get support for yourself. Attend Al-Anon meetings, talk to a trusted friend or make an appointment with a counselor or addiction specialist. You can’t change your addicted loved one, but you can help yourself by learning valuable coping skills and ways to change how you react to the situation.
  • Let your addicted loved one know that you will no longer provide financial assistance. Don’t loan money or pay for groceries, rent, or other expenses. This is always difficult, and you can probably expect a great deal of resistance.
  • Think long and hard about the consequences of continuing the enabling behavior. Remind yourself, as often as necessary, that allowing him to face the consequences of his actions is one of the most important ways you can help.
  • Stop cleaning up messes for your loved one. Let her take care of things after she has sobered up.
  • If your loved one doesn’t want to participate in social events or family gatherings, follow through with your plans and go on your own. Don’t lie or make up excuses.
  • If you’ve been tolerating emotional, physical or verbal abuse, it’s time to stop. Take care of your own health and well-being, even when it means ending a romantic relationship or long-term friendship.
  • Tell your loved one, over and over again, that once she decides to make changes, you are behind them all the way. You can still help in ways that don’t enable destructive behavior. For instance, instead of handing out money, you can suggest places that she might find a job, accompany him on a visit to a treatment center, or provide a list of 12-Step meetings or other resources.

Note: Never hesitate to step in if your loved one is in imminent danger to himself or others. For example, take away the keys to prevent her from driving while under the influence.

We would love to hear from you! Feel free to leave a comment below.

If you or your family is struggling with an addiction, please give us a call at 1-866-716-2006 or read about our Cedars Discovery Program, for families struggling with addiction.

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Specializing in the treatment of alcohol and drug addiction, Cedars at Cobble Hill also provide treatment for other process addictions including eating disorders and gambling.