If you have a loved one who is battling a substance use disorder, you may have found yourself feeling effects from their addiction. Because you love the person deeply and want the best for them, it is surprising when your desire to help them ends up backfiring.
Unhealthy relating behaviors between you and a loved one can be hard to spot early on. People naturally want to soften the blow of someone’s substance use issue. The relationship turns dysfunctional, however, when you end up doing for the person what they should be doing for themselves.
Enabling a loved one is detrimental to their ability to overcome their substance use disorder. Whether your loved one is in active substance use or in recovery, it’s important to know the signs of codependency and enabling behaviors.
What is Enabling?
One of the most difficult concepts to understand and accept is that your loved one is under the control of a disease that affects the brain. Addiction disables certain executive functions, such as impulse control, judgment, emotion regulation and decision-making. This impacts how your loved one behaves, feels, and thinks. In essence, the substance has taken control over the person’s free will.
When interacting with the individual, you still expect them to respond and behave rationally. It eventually becomes clear that no matter how much you plead, beg, and implore of your loved one, they are in the grip of the substance.
Because you care for them, there is a tendency to start cleaning up their messes as they inevitably arise. You may even become so involved in everything the loved one does, that it becomes difficult to separate your own needs from theirs. This can evolve into an unhealthy codependent relationship that is rooted in mutual need, but which serves neither person.
With the desire, or need, to make everything okay for the loved one, you may make them more comfortable in their substance use disorder. Why should they make the effort to change when all their needs are being taken care of for them? Basically, the desire to help the loved one may result in enabling the progression of the disease.
6 Signs of Enabling Behaviors
While trying to manage your loved one’s substance use, it’s easy to lose sight of the difference between helping or enabling them. Here are some examples of classic enabling behaviors:
- You Cover for Them. Instead of allowing the loved one to suffer the consequences of missing work, dodging responsibilities, or their erratic behavior, you want to protect them from the fallout. This means you will lie or cover for them to prevent any negative consequences, such as lying to their employer when they are experiencing the effects of the substance and can’t come to work.
- You Ignore the Addiction. In an effort to maintain a life of peace and harmony, enablers tend to turn a blind eye to their loved one’s substance use problem. Acknowledging it would make it real, and this is something the enabler resists. The enabler might also believe that they can “fix” their loved one’s problem, and there is no need for professional help.
- You Prioritize their Needs. Codependency begins to feed on itself, often culminating in a sense of martyrdom. The enabler begins to feel resentment because they have done so much for their loved one and neglected their own needs. In fact, enablers may experience poor health or mental health issues.
- You Blame Others For the Substance Problem. It may be difficult to accept that your loved one is struggling with a substance use disorder. The enabler may feel embarrassed or ashamed, so they begin looking for who or what they can blame for the substance problem that now afflicts their loved one.
- You Act Out of Fear. Enabling behavior is often a response to fear. The enabler spends a great deal of time feeling fearful of the repercussions of the substance use disorder, including the loved one’s very survival. This fear drives them to pay the person’s bills, take care of their responsibilities, obsess about their whereabouts, and insert themselves into every aspect of their loved one’s life.
- You Hide Your Emotions. It can be distressing to have a close loved one that struggles with substance use. The enabler feels sad, disappointed, frustrated, and afraid, but will go to great lengths to hide or deny these emotions. Instead of showing these feelings, the enabler aims to keep the peace, avoid confrontations, and tries to make their loved one happy at all costs.
Enabling your loved one will have the exact opposite effect that you desire. By taking over their responsibilities for them, you only delay needed treatment and harm their recovery efforts. As hard as it is to watch a loved one suffer, it is best to detach with love and allow them to feel the effects of their substance use problem. Hopefully, the loved one will reach the point where they are motivated to change the direction of their life.
Ashley Addiction Treatment, formerly Father Martin’s Ashley, is a nationally recognized nonprofit leader in integrated, evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders and is accredited by The Joint Commission. We offer both inpatient and outpatient programs, holistic addiction treatment, drug detox, relapse prevention plans, family wellness programs and a variety of other services tailored to each patient’s needs. Our driving principle — “everything for recovery” — reinforces our mission to heal each individual with respect and dignity, and reflects on our ongoing commitment to meet new challenges. For information about our comprehensive programs, please call (866) 313-6307.