How to Stop Enabling an Alcoholic or Addict

Learn the Difference Between Helping and Enabling

Son With Ailing Father
laflor/Getty Images

If you have a loved one who is an alcoholic or addict, you've probably been hearing that you may be an enabler. Al-Anon is an excellent organization that helps loved ones of alcoholics not only cope with a loved one's alcoholism but addresses the role played by loved ones in enabling that behavior. But how can you know if you are being an enabler or if what you are doing is normal helping? If you find that you have been an enabler, how can you stop?

Let's talk about the difference between enabling and helping and then give you some practical tips and examples on how to stop enabling an individual with an alcohol abuse problem.

Enabling vs Helping an Alcoholic

Many times while trying to help, friends and family members actually make the situation worse by enabling the alcoholic (such as giving them the wrong types of gifts that can enable their addiction).

What Is Enabling?

Enabling is defined as doing things for a person with an alcohol problem that they normally could and would do for themselves if they were sober. In contrast, helping is doing something that the alcoholic could not or would not do for themselves if sober. Helping does not protect an alcoholic from the consequences of his or her actions.

Anything that you do that does protect the alcoholic or addict from the consequences of his or her actions, could be enabling him to delay a decision to get help for their problem. Therefore, it's in the best interest of the alcoholic, in the long run, if you stop whatever you are doing to enable them. Enabling is not helping.

How to Stop Enabling an Alcoholic or Drug Addict

You may realize at this point that you have been enabling your loved one with alcoholism (though you probably thought you were helping) and wonder how to change. In a way, learning to stop enabling an alcoholic or drug addict is very empowering. We can't change other people, but we can change our behaviors and reactions towards those people. Here are several practical ways in which you can stop being an enabler today.

(In these examples we may use he or she, but an alcoholic can be male or female, a spouse, a parent, a child, another relative, a co-worker or a friend.)

  • Support for recovery efforts

  • Set boundaries

  • Let the alcoholic deal with consequences

  • Make excuses for the alcoholic

  • Take over personal responsibilities

  • Save from legal consequences

Cease Doing Anything That Allows the Alcoholic to Continue Their Current Lifestyle

Are you working and paying some of the bills that the alcoholic would be paying if he hadn't lost his job or missed time from work due to drinking? Or are you providing the alcoholic food and shelter? If so, you could be enabling. You are providing him with a "safety net" that allows him to lose or skip his job with no real consequences.

Do Nothing to "Help" the Alcoholic That They Could or Would Be Doing If Not Drinking

If the alcoholic has lost his license, giving him a ride to an A.A. meeting or job interview is helping because that is something he cannot do for himself. But, looking up the schedule of meetings in the area, researching the requirements for getting his license back, or searching the classified ads for employment opportunities are things that the alcoholic should be doing for himself.

Stop Lying, Covering Up or Making Excuses for the Alcoholic

Have you ever had this conversation: "Sorry, he can't come into work today, he's has picked up some kind of flu bug?" when in fact he is too hungover to go to work? That conversation is enabling because it is allowing the alcoholic to avoid the consequences of his actions. You might say, "But, he could lose his job!" Losing his job might just be the thing that needs to happen for him to decide to get help.

Do Not Take on Responsibilities or Duties That Rightfully Belong to the Alcoholic

Are you doing some of the chores around the house that the alcoholic used to do? Have you taken on parenting responsibilities with your children that the two of you used to share? If you are doing anything that the alcoholic would be doing if she was sober, you are in a way enabling her to avoid her responsibilities.

Do Not Give or Loan the Alcoholic Money

If you are providing money to the alcoholic for any reason, you might as well be going into the liquor store and buying his booze for him. And yes, buying booze for him is enabling. That's what you are ultimately doing if you give an alcoholic money, no matter what they say they plan to do with the cash.

Don't "Rescue" the Alcoholic by Bailing Him Out of Jail or Paying His Fines

Rushing in to rescue the alcoholic may satisfy some personal desire you have to feel "needed," but it doesn't really help the situation. It only enables the alcoholic to avoid the consequences of his actions. In Al-Anon, they call it "putting pillows under them" so that they never feel the pain of their mistakes.

Do Not Scold, Argue, or Plead With the Alcoholic

You may think that when you are scolding or berating the alcoholic for her latest episode, that it is anything but enabling, but it actually could be. If the only consequence that she suffers for her actions are a little "verbal spanking" from someone who cares about her, she can slide by without facing any significant consequences.

Do Not React to His Latest Misadventures Allowing Him to Respond to Your Reaction Rather Than His Actions

If you say or do something negative in response to the alcoholic's latest screw-up, then the alcoholic can react to your reaction. If you remain quiet, or if you go on with your life as if nothing has happened, then the alcoholic is left with nothing to respond to except her own actions. If you react negatively, you are giving her an emotional out.

Do Not Try to Drink With the Alcoholic

Many family members, feeling abandoned by the alcoholic because of his love-affair with alcohol, have tried to become part of his world again by trying to drink with him. It rarely works. The alcoholic's relationship with alcohol is cunning, baffling and powerful. "Normal drinkers" can rarely 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 or not, but you can decide what kind of behavior you will accept or not accept in your life.

Carefully Explain to the Alcoholic the Boundaries That You Have Set—And Explain That the Boundaries Are for You, Not for Him

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 the behavior of someone else, but you do have choices when it comes to what you find unacceptable. Setting boundaries is something that you do for your benefit, not to try to control another person's behavior. In order to effectively do this, it's helpful to detach to some degree. Detaching is letting go of another person's alcohol problem and allows you to more objectively look at the situation.

After reading through this list, you may have already noted ways in which you've been enabling your loved one with alcoholism. If you're still wondering, try taking our quiz.

When You Stop Being an Enabler

Many times when an alcoholic's enabling system is removed, the fear will force them to seek help, but there are no guarantees. This can be extremely difficult to accept.

Take some time to learn more about enabling and the family disease of alcoholism, attend an Al-Anon meeting in your area. It may also be helpful to learn 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 less alone in the process. Unfortunately, none of us can control what another will do. Yet we do have the power to set boundaries and respect our own lives. Consider 10 things to stop doing if you love an alcoholic that can help you take back your own life whether or not your alcoholic gives up drinking.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Lander L, Howsare J, Byrne M. The impact of substance use disorders on families and children: from theory to practiceSoc Work Public Health. 2013;28(3-4):194–205. doi:10.1080/19371918.2013.759005

Additional Reading
  • Kala, E. What is enablingHazelden Betty Ford Foundation. Updated April 6, 2016.

  • National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The impacts of alcoholism on family members and friends - Al-Anon interview with Dr. George Koob.