When someone is struggling with substance abuse, their loved ones often feel obligated to cover for that person in uncomfortable situations. Perhaps you have been in settings where you had to cover for someone else’s mistakes, defend their absence, or downplay their bad habits. Maybe you have even helped someone satisfy painful cravings just to pacify the conflict for the moment. Even if your actions felt innocent or noble, you may not be looking out for that person’s best interests.
We often see situations where family members have fallen into codependent relationships or patterns of enabling behaviors. We encourage family members to challenge the norm, break out of those roles, and work toward healthier, supportive relationships by identifying dysfunction instead of ignoring it. Using doesn’t have to be the norm, and neither does enabling.
What qualifies as enabling?
Enabling is simply any behavior that keeps someone’s addiction going. An enabler may have good intentions, but their actions perpetuate the problem of the substance abuse. The enabler often feels justified by trying to protect the addict from the negative consequences of their addiction. Since they feel responsible for the addict, they try to shield that person from the damage their addiction is causing. An enabler may feel like they are taking care of the addict or keeping the situation under control, but their actions are fueling the cycle of abuse.
Codependency occurs when someone habitually enables dysfunctional behavior. Codependency is defined as “excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner—typically a partner who requires support due to an illness or addiction.” The codependent feels like they are responsible for managing the addiction, and their overprotectiveness prevents the addict from admitting the problem or taking ownership of the damage. The codependent can even become “addicted” to excessive caretaking.
Enabling vs. Empowering
One of the keys to supporting an addict is to empower rather than enable. These two actions often get confused in the mind of an enabler. The problem is that both people—one who empowers and one who enables—feel like they are helping someone. Even though both think their intentions are honorable, the distinctions are clear in their outcomes.
Empowering helps someone accomplish something that they could not do alone. Examples of empowerment include motivating someone to enter a treatment facility when they feel hopeless or going with them to an Al-Anon meeting when they feel discouraged or ashamed. Enabling helps someone keep doing something harmful that they could not do alone. Examples include offering someone “gas” money when you know they will buy drugs or telling their boss that they are sick instead of drunk so that they don’t lose their job.
Common behaviors of enablers
Consider someone close to you who is relying on a harmful substance. Are you enabling that person to continue using? Go through the following checklist to determine if you’re supporting them in unhealthy ways:
____ Ignoring inappropriate behavior
____ Making excuses for the addict’s decisions
____ Lying to others about the addict’s absence
____ Avoiding certain questions to steer clear of an argument
____ Becoming the financial source for someone’s habit
____ Protecting the addict from getting “caught”
____ Blaming other people to avoid blaming the addict
____ Putting off intervention or confrontation to avoid a blow-up