How to Stop Enabling an Alcoholic or Addict

Offer Help Without Supporting an Addiction

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If you have a loved one who has 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 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?

It is important to learn the difference between enabling and helping. If you recognize that you are an enabler, you can explore some practical tips and examples on how to stop enabling an individual with an alcohol abuse problem.

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 individual from the consequences of their actions.

Enabling vs. Helping

Many times while trying to help, friends and family members actually 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 that you do that does protect the alcoholic or addict from the consequences of their actions could be enabling him to delay a decision to get help for their problem. It's in their best interest if you stop whatever you are doing to enable them. 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 played by loved ones in enabling that behavior.

Causes of Enabling

There often isn't a single factor that causes people to engage in enabling 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, the first instinct many people have 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 often 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. In a way, 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 towards those people. Here are several practical ways to stop enabling today

Do
  • Offer support for recovery efforts

  • Set boundaries

  • Let the person deal with consequences

Don't
  • Make excuses

  • 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 in fact they are too hung over to go to work? That conversation is enabling because it is allowing 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 just 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 that 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 are enabling 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 are ultimately doing 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 really 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 that they never feel the pain of their mistakes.

Do Not Scold, Argue, or Plead

You may think that when you are scolding or berating a person for their latest episode, it is anything but enabling, but it actually could be. If the only consequence that 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, then they can react to your reaction. If you remain quiet, or if you go on with your life as if nothing has happened, then they are left with nothing to respond to except their own 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 of their misuse of alcohol. One reaction that some people have is to try to become part of their world again by drinking with the person who has an alcohol problem. It rarely works. The individual's relationship with alcohol is 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.

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. It allows you to more objectively look at the situation.

When You Stop Enabling

So what happens when you stop enabling someone with an alcohol or substance use disorder? Many times when an enabling system is removed, the fear will force a person 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.

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.

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  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

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