If you have a loved one with a substance or alcohol use disorder, you may have heard that you play a role in enabling the alcoholic. How can you know if you are an enabler or if what you do is normally helping? If you find that you have been an enabler, how can you stop?
It is essential to learn the difference between enabling and helping. If you recognize that you are an enabler, you can explore some practical tips and examples to stop enabling an individual with an alcohol abuse problem.
What Is Enabling?
Enabling is doing things for a person with an alcohol problem that they usually could and would do for themselves if they were sober. In contrast, helping is doing something the alcoholic could not or would not do for themselves if sober. Helping does not protect an individual from the consequences of their actions.
Enabling vs. Helping
While trying to help, friends, family members, and loved ones often make the situation worse by enabling a person who misuses alcohol (such as giving them the types of gifts that can enable their addiction).
Some common signs that you are enabling someone with an alcohol problem include ignoring their behavior, providing them with financial help, covering for them or making excuses for their behavior, and taking over their responsibilities.
Anything you do that protects the alcoholic or addict from the consequences of their actions could enable him to delay a decision to get help for their problem. It's in their best interest to stop whatever you do to enable them, and enabling is not helping.
Al-Anon is an organization that helps loved ones of people with alcohol use disorders cope with a loved one's behaviors. The group also addresses the role loved ones play in enabling that behavior.
Causes of Enabling
There often isn't a single factor that causes people to enable a loved one with a substance use problem.
In many cases, it begins as a genuine desire to be helpful. When someone is in pain or behaving in a way that might lead to negative consequences, many people's first instinct is to find a way to protect their loved ones.
Enabling is often a result of codependency. Codependency involves an excessive reliance on a person who usually requires additional support because of addiction or illness. Enabling may emerge as a way to cope with or avoid emotional pain.
What to Do About Enabling
You may realize that you have been enabling your loved one with alcoholism (though you probably thought you were helping) and wonder how to change. Learning to stop enabling another person's drug or alcohol misuse can be very empowering.
It may be helpful to remember that you can't change other people, but you can change your behaviors and reactions toward those people. Here are several practical ways to stop enabling today:
Offer support for recovery efforts
Let the person deal with consequences
Take over personal responsibilities
Save the person from legal consequences
Stop Actions That Allow the Behavior to Continue
Are you paying some of the bills that your loved one would be paying if they hadn't lost their job or missed time from work due to drinking? Or are you providing food and shelter for this person?
If so, you could be enabling. You are providing them with a safety net that allows them to lose their job or skip work with no real consequences.
Don't Do Things They Can Do Themselves
If the person with an alcohol use problem has lost their driver's license, giving them a ride to an A.A. meeting or job interview is helping, not enabling. These are things the person cannot do on their own, so helping them can be a way of supporting their recovery efforts.
On the other hand, looking up the schedule of meetings in the area, researching the requirements for getting their license back, or searching the classified ads for employment opportunities are examples of enabling. These are all things that people should be doing for themselves.
Stop Making Excuses
Have you ever had this conversation: "Sorry, they can't come into work today; they've picked up some kind of flu bug?" when they are too hungover to go to work? That conversation is enabling because it allows the person with an alcohol use disorder to avoid the consequences of their actions.
You might say, "But they could lose their job!" Losing their job might be the thing that needs to happen for them to decide to get help.
Do Not Take Over Responsibilities
Are you doing some of the chores around the house the person with the alcohol use problem used to do? Have you taken on parenting responsibilities that the two of you used to share?
If you are doing anything that the person would otherwise be doing if they were sober, you enable them to avoid their responsibilities.
Do Not Loan Money
If you are providing money to someone with an alcohol use disorder for any reason, you might as well be buying their alcohol for them. And yes, purchasing alcohol for someone with a drinking problem is enabling. That's what you ultimately do if you give someone money, no matter what they say they plan to do with the cash.
Don't Rescue Them From Legal Trouble
Rushing in to rescue someone may satisfy a personal desire to feel needed, but it doesn't help the situation. It only enables the person to avoid the consequences of their actions.
In Al-Anon, this is called "putting pillows under" your loved one, so they never feel the pain of their mistakes.
Do Not Scold, Argue, or Plead
You may think that scolding or berating a person for their latest episode is anything but enabling, but it actually could be. If the only consequence they experience for their actions is a little "verbal spanking" from someone who cares about them, they can slide by without facing any significant consequences.
Do Not React
If you say or do something negative in response to the other person's latest mistake, they can react to your reaction. If you remain quiet or go on with your life as if nothing has happened, they are left with nothing to respond to except their actions.
If you react negatively, you are giving them an emotional out. Stay calm and avoid blowing up or having an emotional reaction to the situation.
Do Not Try to Drink With Them
It is not uncommon for family members to feel abandoned by their loved ones because they misuse alcohol. One reaction that some people have is to try to become part of their world again by drinking with someone with an alcohol problem. It rarely works. The individual's relationship with alcohol is powerful. "Normal drinkers" can barely keep up.
Set Boundaries and Stick to Them
Saying, "If you don't quit drinking, I will leave!" is an ultimatum and a threat, but saying, "I will not have drinking in my home," is setting a boundary. You can't control whether someone quits drinking, but you can decide what kind of behavior you will accept or not accept in your life.
One thing that members of Al-Anon learn is that they no longer have to accept unacceptable behavior in their lives. You may not be able to control someone else's behavior, but you have choices when it comes to what you find unacceptable.
Setting boundaries is something you do for your benefit, not to try to control another person's behavior. To effectively do this, it's helpful to detach to some degree. Detaching is letting go of another person's alcohol problem, allowing you to look more objectively at the situation.
When You Stop Enabling
So what happens when you stop enabling someone with an alcohol or substance use disorder? When an enabling system is often removed, the fear will force a person to seek help, but there are no guarantees, which can be extremely difficult to accept.
Take some time to learn more about enabling and the family disease of alcoholism, and attend an Al-Anon meeting in your area. It may also be helpful to know more about the resources and information available for families affected by alcoholism.
Attending Al-Anon in person will help you feel more empowered as you stop enabling and are less alone. Unfortunately, none of us can control what another will do. Yet we do have the power to set boundaries and respect our own lives.
Note From Another Solution
There are many benefits to giving up alcohol, both short-term and long-term. If you're considering quitting drinking, these benefits may be just what you need to help you decide. Of course, giving up alcohol is not always easy, and there may be some challenges. But if you're committed to sobriety, achieving your goal is possible.
If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact Another Solution. We have been helping individuals and families challenged by addictions for 25 years. We provide thorough clinical evaluations and assessments, leaving no stone unturned, allowing us to identify and address every element of addiction needing treatment.
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By Buddy T Buddy T is an anonymous writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism.