How to Recognize and Stop Enabling Behavior
You stare into your own living room and ask yourself “How did I let this happen?”
Your son is passed out on the couch, surrounded by paraphernalia.
In the past, you never even imagined your son would be living with you again into his 30s or 40s, let alone tolerating drug use in your own home.
You sit here and you think to yourself, “It wasn’t always this way. He used to be such a good kid. How did we get here?”
When your family members first start to have a change in behavior, it can be hard to imagine just how bad things can get if the problem isn’t addressed right away.
In families, it is normal to make excuses for each other and to let things slide in order to avoid more drama in the home.
When substance abuse is added into that mix, family members can unintentionally make problems worse.
Even with the best of intentions, loved ones trying to protect family members with a substance abuse disorder can be a roadblock to recovery.
How does this happen? And how do you stop once you’ve started?
First, you have to recognize the signs.
Who are “Enablers” and What Motivates Them?
Most of the time, you are aware when one of your family members or loved ones is having a problem.
As the person closest to them, you will notice changes in behavior right away, especially ones that are harmful to both them and you.
But emotions can get in the way of addressing the problem head on.
This is when, in an effort to maintain peace in your home, you begin to enable your loved one.
“Enabler” is a term that has become widely known, meaning someone who indirectly encourages bad behavior by ignoring it, or worse, covering it up and making excuses.
Kyle S. King (LMFT, LCPC, Family Therapy) writes that “Enablers can be romantic partners, ex-partners, parents, adult children, siblings, or friends. The one thing that all enablers have in common is this: they love someone who is out of control, and they find themselves taking more responsibility for the actions of that person than the person is taking for themselves.”
Disentangling this relationship can be tricky, and sometimes even requires professional counseling, ESPECIALLY if drugs are involved in any part of the equation.
What Are the Signs That I Might Be Enabling My Loved One?
While enabling behaviors may make sense to you at first, they actually become roadblocks to recovery for your loved one.
Am I ignoring my loved one’s dangerous behavior?
The first instinct to noticing that your family member or partner may be abusing drugs is to ignore it.
You try not to notice how late they come home, or if they slur their speech, or that they’ve been missing work more often than usual.
It is natural to hope that the problem will go away on its own. But it won’t.
Am I putting their needs above my own?
As mentioned above, enablers tend to take far more responsibility for the lives and actions of the loved ones whom they are enabling.
As your loved one with an addiction loses control over his or her life, you start to take up the slack.
This behavior comes with more and more sacrifice over time.
For instance, you may find yourself waking them up for work or reminding them to go to functions that they should me getting to on their own. In doing this, you sacrifice your own time to sleep or get ready for work.
And one of the most common sacrifices that comes up in a codependent enabler/addict relationship is financial.
Enablers find themselves spending more and more money to take care of the person with the substance abuse problem.
They tend to lose their jobs as the pursuit of drugs take over, and this leaves you to pay for their daily expenses like food or housing.
Down the line, these expenses can grow to include medical bills, lawyers and court fees, and even using more gas if your loved one loses their driver’s license.
Family’s describe the financial burden often, as they are put in a position of worrying that not paying for things will leave family members homeless or in jail.
Am I having difficulty expressing my emotions?
Enablers often feel added pressure to every interaction they have with the person who has an addiction.
They worry that there will be negative repercussions, or that the fragile external peace they have maintained in the home can be broken with a single argument.
Am I making excuses or spreading the blame?
Once it is impossible to ignore and avoid the problem anymore, the next natural response is often to spread the blame.
Your love for the person abusing substances will cause you to see them in too sympathetic of a way, and you don’t want to believe that they would hurt you or themselves if they could help it.
Some examples are:
“His ex has really stressed him out, of course he needs an escape. If she could just leave him alone, he wouldn’t act like this.”
“She had a really rough childhood, so of course it’s all piling up now. We just need to get through this time. She can’t stay triggered like this forever.”
Both of these scenarios imply that things will get better if EXTERNAL factors beyond your control would change.
But therein lies the problem. You and your loved one don’t have control over many of the stressors in life.
It’s time to take personal responsibility.
Am I engaging in behaviors that I normally wouldn’t to protect them?
As things get further out of control, you may find yourself compromising your morals to maintain the facade that things are fine, or protect the person with the addiction.
These behaviors include lying to friends and family to cover for them, trying to control their behavior, and generally doing anything you can to look like everything is “normal.”
Sometimes family members put themselves in danger too, by allowing “friends” and others who are bad influences on their loved ones into their homes, thinking “It’s better that they do it here, where I know it’s safe.”
In the worst cases, family members have provided false alibis to police (saying they were with the family member if they weren’t) or hidden evidence of their loved one’s drug use or other illegal activities.
Am I feeling intense resentment?
By this time, it’s normal to resent your loved one.
You are sacrificing, you have had to work your life around theirs, and you begin to be emotionally and physically exhausted from trying to control the situation.
Am I constantly in fear?
The strongest, clearest sign that you have become an enabler is that you have allowed your environment to become one of constant fear.
Situational and emotional fears are attached to all of the points above.
Then, from those dangers, enablers fear that their addicted loved ones will have to face the consequences of their actions.
They cannot save their loved ones from their addiction, so they try to save them, instead, from the natural consequences.
Because if their loved one finally does lose their job, or have to go to rehab, or end homeless or in jail, the enabler will feel that it’s their fault.
If you are constantly afraid that you will be at fault for any actions of your loved one, and acting to avoid that, you are an enabler.
While many feel a lot of shame at this title, remember that your actions came about because of the love you have for the person you’re enabling. Keep that love in mind, and channel it more usefully instead, by addressing the problem, and even encouraging them to get treatment.
How Do I Break the Cycle of Enabling?
Breaking this cycle involves a lot of emotional work.
However, there are some simple (if sometimes difficult) steps you can take.
Stop covering for the addicted person.
You may be used to picking up the slack when your loved one isn’t following through or taking personal responsibilities. You may even worry that facing that responsibility will drive them deeper into drug use.
But the truth is, if they aren’t personally affected by the problems their drug abuse is creating, they will never want sober up.
They need to see the messes they’ve made and face consequences, or they will never get better.
Make some pro-con lists with long-term consequences in mind.
Many well-intended but less than helpful people have probably told you, “Just kick him out,” or “Cut him off and let him sort it out.”
Obviously, if you were able and willing to do that, you would have done it by now. Besides, half of the time, it doesn’t even work, as loved ones can be a big help in the recovery process, when they stop enabling but are still present.
However, you can start considering which things you will help out with and which things you won’t, in order to encourage long-term improvement, become less codependent.
For example, it may save you some pain now to pay his rent for him, but will that encourage him to ask you again next month, instead of applying for jobs?
Measure each decision with benefits and drawbacks in mind.
Look for signs of codependency, and begin returning to autonomy.
You and the addicted person in your life have fallen into a rhythm, in which they pursue drugs while relying on you to cover for them, and you are always looking for ways to do damage control.
This is not healthy for either of you.
As you notice direct symptoms of codependency, begin to change your behavior.
If you usually work your schedule around when he needs to wake up, stop doing it. Start going by your own alarm clock, so that he has to set his own, and get himself out of bed.
He may not like it at first, but eventually, he will learn that if he wants to get the places he needs to go, he needs to manage his schedule.
Start doing things for yourself again, and they will have to do the same.
Open clear and honest communication between the two of you.
It’s hard to fight the habits you’ve formed of being afraid to talk about the problem and its consequences, but you have to start somewhere.
To break the cycle of enabling, you have to bring the problem into the light.
There’s a right way and a wrong way to do this.
Just unloading years’ worth of resentment will not motivate your loved one to make changes in their lives.
Deep down, they were probably aware that they have been causing you problems, and one of the things that keeps them hooked on drugs is needing to assuage that guilt. Bringing it up in anger may just continue motivating them to do drugs.
Instead, it makes the most sense to explain to the person struggling with drug use that it benefits THEM to get clean and get into therapy.
People who abuse drugs know it’s not good for them. Almost always, there is a deeper problem that started them down the path of addiction.
Help your loved one see that drug abuse has now brought about its own string of problems in their lives and that you support them finding the ROOT CAUSE, and managing that in a healthier way instead.
Then, as they warm up to sobriety and you have been communicating more clearly over time, you can also bring up the ways that drug abuse has affected you, once they have mechanisms in place for processing guilt that don’t involve running straight to the bar or their dealer’s house.
Family therapy may help you in this process, as it’s a delicate process to undergo.
Help your loved one find a detox and rehab center that meets their needs.
Ultimately, your loved one probably needs to go to rehab, especially if this has been going on for some time.
First, detox can have medical risks, and it’s good to have a professional oversee your loved one as they first begin to get clean.
Second, some time apart can be crucial in rediscovering your autonomy and breaking down that unhealthy codependency.
If your loved one has been to jail or rehab before, you may already have an idea of how this works.
Last time, you probably had some important realizations once you had some time to yourself.
Usually, these realizations are overshadowed when your loved one comes home though, because went right back into support mode.
Getting some professional help, or even just knowing that you’ve committed to break the cycle will help you stick to your own schedule next time.
But How Do I Convince Them To Go To Rehab?
The next question, after you realize that they do need to go, though, is always “How do I convince them to go?”
A TV-style intervention, where your family ambushes your loved one and tells them things like “you don’t act like yourself anymore,” and explains how much they’re hurting their family WON’T WORK.
Even if they go to rehab after that, they are most likely doing it just as a result of feeling pressured. People with addiction need to CHOOSE to get better.
So helping them choose that requires several different things:
- The right person – The family member or loved one with the best rapport, who they are closest too, needs to be the one to have the conversation
- Personal appeal – Remember, they need to want to go. So make this decision about THEM. Not anyone else in the family.
- Support – Do anything you can to help your loved one understand that while receiving treatment is surrounded by stigma, you aren’t buying into it. Let them know you are doing your best to think of their time in rehab like time spent in a hospital for any other medical problem.
The topic is uncomfortable, but it can’t be much worse than continuing for years more to live in a cycle of fear for your loved one, and resentment for having to support them.
Start the Process Now
These steps will be difficult. The process can be messy. At times, you will probably even feel a little selfish. But it has to be done.
And it has to be done as soon as possible.
There will never be a “right time.” The next closest thing to the “best time” you can settle for is the soonest time.
If you are looking to break the cycle of enabling, and give your loved one a comprehensive, individualized treatment plan, complete with family therapy, consider Serenity Lodge, in Lake Arrowhead California.