Life’s ups and downs are easier to handle when a person has the support of family members who can help shoulder burdens and celebrate successes.

Families are designed to support one another, protect one another, and insulate one another.

Being a part of a family means facing the world with the strength and support of loving, caring peers. Life’s ups and downs are easier to handle when there are family members willing to shoulder some of the burdens and celebrate the successes.

All of that love and support can be twisted and shifted, when one member of the family has an addiction. Those bends and shifts are sometimes defined as enabling behaviors, and they could serve to keep an addiction in place.

What is enabling, anyway?

Every family member is meant to help every other family member, but according to Families Against Narcotics, enabling behavior involves a little more than help. Families that enable actually replace and/or take over activities that a person with an addiction should be capable of handling alone.

For example, in a healthy relationship, a partner might agree to take over all of the laundry duties during a week in which the other partner is slammed with work deadlines. These two people typically share the task, and they can both handle that chore, but one person steps up, temporarily, as a favor to the other. In an enabling relationship, one partner might always do the laundry, including performing spot-treatments on clothes soiled with alcohol or bodily fluids. This family member might be worried that the other can’t handle the task, and this person wants the laundry to be clean, so outsiders don’t see evidence of addiction.

It’s a subtle shift, but it can have dangerous consequences. After all, when a family becomes efficient at enabling, that family makes an addiction easier to maintain. There are no consequences, and there is no discomfort. The family’s work makes the addicted person’s life easier. That addicted person may have no reason to change, as a result.

Enabling is a habit, and like most habits, it can be broken. Here are nine steps families can take to break the enabling cycle.

1. Gain support from peers

Peer support groups like Al-Anon can put family members in touch with others who know a great deal about addiction, and the information shared in these meetings can be transformative. In fact, according to a 2012 Al-Anon membership survey, 88 percent of people who came to meetings for the first time reported understanding the seriousness of the addiction only after they’d attended several meetings. In other words, people who go to these meetings may not know very much about the challenges their families are facing, but if they keep going to meetings, they’ll learn.

Some families go to meetings just to listen. They come to understand that other families are also dealing with this problem, and they learn how these families are focusing on success. Others go to these meetings to network. They seek out peers who have overcome nasty addiction challenges, and they ask for advice on steps that really work. Either method could be helpful. The key is to get started.

2. Talk openly about the shift

After attending Al-Anon meetings, families may have a deep understanding of the habits and behaviors they’d like to shift. The best way to make those adjustments is to discuss the plan with the addicted person in an open and honest manner. The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids provides these conversation tips:

  • Choose a time to talk when the person will be sober.
  • Emphasize the fact that the changes come from love, not a desire for revenge or punishment.
  • Use open-ended questions about addiction to help the person come to understand that substance abuse might be the root of the issues the family is facing.
  • Set limits clearly, and be prepared to stick to them.
  • Stay positive, and resist the urge to fight or give in to attacks.

This conversation can be brief, but the family should be sure to point out the specific behaviors that they’re planning to change, along with the reasons they’re changing those behaviors.

3. Work in teams

After that opening conversation, families should work to limit the one-on-one time they spend with the addicted person. That’s a tip from an ARISE Intervention, and according to the Association of Intervention Specialists, it’s aimed to help reduce pressure and manipulation. If the family doesn’t have one-on-one talks, it’s harder to perform back-door attacks and sneaky innuendo. One person might be willing to fall under the sway of an addicted person’s charm, but the other might be the voice of reason that helps the whole family to stick with their new plan.

4. Don’t make excuses or cover up the behavior

Some of the most egregious things that happen during the course of an addiction take place when the person is actively intoxicated, and often, drugs of abuse cause persistent memory loss. Alcohol, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, can cause discernible memory changes after just one or two drinks. The more people drink, the more they forget. Some drugs work in the same way.

The family’s goal is to make sure that the addicted person sees the consequences of the addiction, so that means the family can’t be the cleanup crew. If someone stumbles home and falls asleep in the yard, that person stays in the yard. If the person becomes loud at a party, the family doesn’t smooth over the social interaction. The person is forced to deal with all of those consequences alone.

Families should also resist the urge to keep a person’s workplace reputation pristine. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that people with addictions are much more likely to miss work, when compared to people who don’t have addictions. Families may try to smooth this by calling in “sick” for an addicted person, or they might push an addicted person to stop working altogether, so there’s a smaller chance of embarrassment. All of those actions should stop, too.

5. Don’t buy or offer drugs or alcohol to the abuser

This tip seems obvious, but it’s important to remember that drugs and alcohol are a common part of everyday life for many American adults. For example, a 2012 Gallup poll found that 66 percent of American adults drink alcohol. Living with a family that drinks can be hard for an addicted person, as temptations are everywhere, but enabling families can take those challenges to the next level.

People with addictions often discuss drug use in terms of celebrations. They “deserve” a hit, or they’ve been “good all week” and can cut loose on the weekends. Falling into that linguistic trap could prompt families to buy drugs or alcohol, or families might consider celebrating right alongside someone with an addiction, hoping to model restrained drug use.

Addictions are brain disorders, and in most cases, people with addictions are simply incapable of modulating their use. When they have access to drugs, they take them, and they take all of them. This isn’t a celebration; it’s a sickness. Stopping the enabling cycle means respecting that addiction is a sickness and refusing to participate in it.

6. Let law enforcement officers do their job

Much of the behavior associated with an addiction is illegal. People with addictions might:

  • Steal money
  • Steal drugs
  • Purchase illegal drugs
  • Drive while intoxicated

Sometimes, people do things that are even worse. For example, in Ohio, a man who worked for an ambulance company stole blank doctors’ prescription pads, presumably so he could write prescriptions for drugs, and he allegedly obtained about $20,000 of drugs in this manner, per news reports.

These can be awful crimes, and families might have the money, the legal skills, or both to help their loved ones to escape the consequences of these addictions. But in the end, that’s not smart.

A legal intervention is often viewed as the ultimate consequence of an addiction. No one wants to go to jail, and no one wants to have a criminal record, but law enforcement officials just can’t be manipulated. The consequences are swift, and they tend to be severe. Families that intervene too early could remove a very real addiction consequence that could shift a person’s thinking and prompt that person to get help. Families that don’t interfere with that process could help the person they love.

7. Reassess financial relationships

Addictions can be incredibly expensive. For example, The Wisconsin Council on Problem Gambling reports that the average debt of a problem gambler in 2014 was $47,000. That’s the average debt, too, so there were people with gambling addictions who owed even more.

Addictions can also rob a person’s ability to cover those costs. People might miss work altogether, or they might do the sort of sloppy work that keeps them from getting promotions. They might not be able to look for better jobs, and they may miss out on investment opportunities, too.

Families might ease that money burden by holding joint financial accounts. That allows a person with an addiction to tap into healthy family members’ sources of funds, and all of that money might be used to pay for drugs. Family members might also make temporary loans, on request, or they might give extravagant gifts that people might sell in order to get money to fund the addiction.

Setting limits might mean opening up individual financial accounts. It might mean looking for separate living arrangements, or it might involve nothing more than a verbal promise that no more money is forthcoming. Whatever the step, it’s an important one to take. When addictions become too expensive to maintain and funding sources are hard to come by, people might finally get the help they need. That might be a step the family would be willing to pay for.

8. Work with a counselor

Life with a substance abuser is stressful, and according to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, it’s not unusual for families to develop persistent and uncomfortable health problems, including:

Along with all of those signs of upset and stress, family members might still believe that they can somehow shift the behavior and make the person’s addiction fade away. They might remember the way things used to be before the addiction took hold, and they might be convinced that those good times are right around the corner, just as soon as they say or do the right thing.

These are tough thought patterns to shift, and a counselor might help. Individual counseling sessions can help people to work through their personal thoughts and feelings about the addiction, and counselors may provide coaching that can assist people when the going gets tough.

9. Continue to emphasize treatment for addiction

As families set limits and make the consequences of addiction more palpable for the substance abuser, they could cause the person to really think about healing and how sobriety might help. However, that person isn’t likely to get better without the help of a treatment team. Again, addictions are brain diseases that can’t simply be pushed to the side with one conversation. They’re caused by changes in brain chemicals and brain circuitry, and they need in-depth treatment to amend.

That’s why families should continue to bring up the promise of treatment as they shift from traditional enabling behaviors. They should remind the addicted person that treatment works and that treatment could make the whole family feel better. They should keep brochures about treatment facilities on hand, so the addicted person can peruse them on his/her own time.

Families should remember that some addicted people won’t accept the possibility of treatment right away. It’s a bold idea, and sometimes, people need to think about it and ponder it before they agree to take action. Families that respect that process of change, and who refuse to give up hope, may see the sobriety come with time.

Those families that want to get a jump on treatment planning can do so with a call to The Recovery Village. This comprehensive rehab facility offers therapies for substance abuse, mental illness, or both.

Families can call the toll-free number to speak with an admissions counselor, and in that conversation, they can get information on the therapies offered and the timeframes involved. It’s a great way to get recovery started.

a woman in a black cardigan smiles at the camera.
Editor – Camille Renzoni
Cami Renzoni is a creative writer and editor for The Recovery Village. As an advocate for behavioral health, Cami is certified in mental health first aid and encourages people who face substance use disorders to ask for the help they deserve. Read more
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.