How to Stop Enabling an Alcoholic or Addict

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If you have a loved one who has a substance or alcohol use disorder, you've probably been hearing that you may be an enabler. Al-Anon is an excellent organization that helps loved ones of people with alcohol use disorders not only cope with a loved one's alcohol misuse but addresses the role played by loved ones in enabling that behavior.

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? If you're not sure, you may find it helpful to take this quiz to see whether you are enabling.

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.

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 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 individual from the consequences of their 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. It's in their best interest if you stop whatever you are doing to enable them. Enabling is not helping.

How to Stop Enabling Drug or Alcohol Misuse

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 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 in which you can stop being an enabler today.

Do
  • Support for recovery efforts

  • Set boundaries

  • Let the alcoholic deal with consequences

Don't
  • Make excuses for the alcoholic

  • Take over personal responsibilities

  • Save from legal consequences

Stop Actions That Allow the Behavior to Continue

Are you working and paying some of the bills that the alcoholic 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 or skip their job with no real consequences.

Don't Do Things They Can Do Themselves

If the person with an alcohol use problem has lost their license, giving them a ride to an A.A. meeting or job interview is helping because that is something they cannot do for themself. 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 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, 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 with your children that the two of you used to share?

If you are doing anything that the alcoholic would be doing if they were sober, you are in a way 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 going into the liquor store and 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 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 their 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

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

Avoid reacting to their latest misadventures. 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.

Explain Your Boundaries

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.

When You Stop Being an Enabler

Many times when an enabling system is removed, the fear will force a person with an alcohol use problem 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.

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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.