It’s natural to want to help a loved one who is struggling with addiction. Seeing a friend or family member suffer from a substance use disorder is devastating, and most people want to offer support in any way they can. While supporting someone can be very helpful for their recovery, it’s important to recognize the difference between supporting and enabling a loved one. Although you may be trying to help, enabling can make it more difficult for the individual to recover.
What Is Enabling?
In regards to addiction, enabling is any behavior that makes it easier for the person to continue with their substance use. An enabler usually believes that they are helping their loved one. Enabling may make an individual’s life easier in the short-term, but it prevents them from facing the reality of their substance use problem.
The Most Common Enabling Behaviors
Ignoring the Substance Use
Ignoring, denying, or brushing off a loved one’s addictive behavior is a major sign of enabling. People often do this because they’re afraid to acknowledge the problem and the pain and stress involved in substance abuse.
An enabler may avoid mentioning the addiction to the person struggling out of fear of a confrontation. They may also ignore signs of substance use like bar receipts.
Making excuses allows you to avoid facing the painful issue. For example, an enabler may excuse their loved one’s substance use by saying the individual is stressed. They may call their loved one’s workplace and say they’re sick when they’re too drunk to go to work. If another friend or family member mentions their concerns, an enabler may try to minimize or justify the substance use problem.
Offering Financial Assistance
Occasionally giving financial assistance to a loved one can be supportive, but repeatedly giving money to someone who spends it on substances is enabling. It can be hard to see a friend or family member struggle financially, but giving them money only allows them to keep funding their substance use.
Failing to Follow Through with Consequences
You may realize the severity of a loved one’s substance use and state a consequence for their behavior. For example, you may tell a partner that you’ll leave them if they don’t seek treatment. After giving a family member money, you may tell them that you won’t support them again if they spend the funds on substances.
Failing to follow through is enabling the individual to continue with their substance use. Once they know that your statements are empty threats, they may feel like they can do anything without consequences.
Making Extreme Sacrifices
It’s not wrong to go out of your way to assist someone you care about. However, sacrificing your own mental health, relationships, or finances to take care of a loved one with an addiction is not healthy for anyone involved and is a sign of enabling. Feeling worn down from constantly trying to help someone may be a sign that you’re giving too much and preventing your loved one from taking accountability for their behavior.
The Difference Between Supporting and Enabling
There’s a fine line between supporting and enabling a loved one, and it can be difficult to see the difference. Supporting someone who has a substance use disorder involves keeping their overall health and best interests at heart. It may be tough to put your foot down and confront a loved one about their behavior, but helping them recognize the problem and seek professional care is better for them in the long run than enabling them.
Listening and empathizing with your loved one’s struggles is one of the best ways to be supportive. You can let your loved one know that you’re there for them without enabling or encouraging the addictive behaviors.
The difference between supporting and enabling is the long-term results of your actions. Enabling does nothing to encourage the person to seek help and recover, and it can make it easier for them to engage in substance use. Support from family and friends, on the other hand, helps the individual seek recovery.
How to Offer Support Without Enabling
Here are some of the best ways you can support a loved one without enabling them:
Addiction is highly stigmatized, and many people with substance use disorders are afraid of being judged. They may not admit that they’re struggling or reach out for help because they fear their friends, family, or community turning on them.
The best thing you can do is listen to them without judgment. Tell them that you’ll love them no matter what, and let them speak about their feelings without trying to offer advice or a solution. Before you encourage them to seek treatment, they must know that you accept them and want to support them.
Substance use disorder is a complex illness. To better understand what your loved one is going through, do your research on substance use and its treatments. The National Institute on Drug Abuse and National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism are great resources to learn more about the causes, effects, and treatments of substance use disorder.
Talk about the Issue
If you and your loved one have never acknowledged the problem, talking about it is an important step toward recovery. To avoid arguing, start a conversation when both of you are calm and in a safe location. Tell them about the behaviors you’ve noticed and why those behaviors concern you. Make sure they know that you are addressing this issue because you want them to be happy and healthy.
Don’t Use Substances Around Them
Seeing substance use can be very triggering for someone in recovery. If you live with someone with substance use disorder, remove any alcohol or other substances from the home. Don’t drink or use drugs in front of them, and avoid mentioning your own experiences with substances.
Set and Keep Boundaries
Creating boundaries will make it clear to your loved one what you will and won’t do for them, and it will prevent you from enabling them. For your own mental health and your loved one’s, decide how much you’re willing to extend yourself to help them, and stick to that boundary. For example, you may be willing to drive them to meetings or counseling appointments, but you won’t schedule the appointments for them.
Substance use disorder can affect entire families or social groups. It’s hard to watch a friend or family member suffer, and it’s natural to want to do anything you can to help them out in the moment. Unfortunately, many people’s efforts to offer support cross the line into enabling. Remember that recovery is a long-term process, and supporting your loved one in their sobriety may require you to be firm and direct in the present moment.
If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use disorder, Dr. Howard Samuels is here to help. Dr. Samuels is a licensed therapist in Los Angeles with decades of experience in addiction treatment and family therapy. Contact him today to start the recovery process.