When you love an addict, it is only natural that you want to help him or her. It is a difficult situation, because addiction radiates outward, affecting not only the addict, but also family members, friends, and partners. Walking the very fine line between helping an addict and enabling him or her to continue addictive behaviors is difficult, and often takes place in an environment of jumbled feelings of love mixed with sadness, anger, and hurt.

Having a long-term relationship with someone who has an addiction requires not only understanding and love, but self-love and recognition of enabling so it can be stopped. Enabling may make things easier in the moment, but ultimately it makes addiction recovery harder and puts addicted loved ones at greater risk of harm.

What Is Enabling?

Enabling is helping an addict by ensuring he or she does not have to deal with the consequences of destructive actions. It can take countless forms, such as:

  • Paying the rent of someone who spent all his or her money on drugs
  • Lying about why someone is not at work or school
  • Apologizing to people on behalf of an addict
  • Bailing and addict out of jail repeatedly when addiction lands him or her in trouble
  • Giving an unrepentant addict shelter for fear he or she will end up on the street

In short, enabling is engaging in behavior that makes it easier for an addict to avoid true addiction recovery. Not doing these things can feel disloyal or cruel, but if an addict never faces consequences, what motivation does he or she have to overcome the addiction?

Why People Do It

One reason people engage in enabling behavior is simply because they are overwhelmed and worn out. It is easier to pick up someone who is drunk again rather than stay up worrying if he or she will get home safely. It is easier to help pay someone’s rent than to face the possibility that the person will be homeless.

Another reason people enable addicts is that they are afraid or do not know how to put their own needs ahead of the needs of another person. Avoiding conflict may come naturally, but eventually avoiding conflict can cause complete loss of self-respect and the respect of others. In fact, enabling itself can become an addictive behavior known as co-dependency, because “giving in” meets the enabler’s short-term needs, even while making things worse in the long term.

How to Know if You’re an Enabler

Asking yourself the following questions can help you determine whether you are engaging in enabling behavior:

  • Do I ignore unacceptable behavior?
  • Have I grown resentful of the responsibilities I have accepted?
  • Do I always put my own needs last?
  • Is it difficult for me to express my emotions?
  • Do I do things out of fear that not doing them will result in a blow-up or a crisis?
  • Do I lie to cover others’ behavior?
  • Do I blame people other than the addict for his or her addictive behavior?
  • Do I offer help even if it is not acknowledged, let alone appreciated?

The more “yes” answers you have to these questions, the likelier you are to be enabling someone with addiction.

Putting a Stop to Your Own Enabling

Perhaps the most difficult and most important step you can take to stop enabling others is to accept what you are doing and overcome your fear of what will happen once you stop. It is not easy to see someone you love dealing with consequences of addiction, but you have to learn to accept that it will happen. In addition, you should:

  • Set boundaries and stick to them: “I will not call in to work for you if you are hungover.”
  • Admit to yourself what is going on and ensure the addict knows you know what is going on.
  • Accept that you cannot “fix” another person, no matter what you do.
  • Understand that self-care does not equal selfishness.
  • Attend meetings of groups specifically for loved ones of addicts, like Al-Anon.

Enabling may feel like love, especially at first, but you can love someone deeply and still refuse to enable his or her addictive behavior. You take risks when you stop enabling, perhaps the most difficult one being the risk of seeing an addict harmed further.

However, your own self-preservation and your ability to continue loving someone depends on setting boundaries and refusing to make addictive behavior easier. If someone you love has an addiction and needs help, we encourage you to contact us to learn about admissions . We can help.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.