When someone we care about is struggling with substance abuse, it’s very common for those around them to slip into behaviours that enable this addiction.

These acts of enabling typically come from a place of love, as it’s hard to watch someone you love suffer. However, enabling addiction can be detrimental to their recovery journey, which is why it is essential to understand the difference between allowing and helping someone to overcome their addiction.


What Is Enabling in Addiction?

Enabling in addiction can be defined as an individual who exhibits behaviours that directly and/or indirectly support or allow another person’s substance abuse. 

An enabler might justify, minimise, or dismiss the harmful consequences of the addiction, sometimes even without realising it. This may involve cleaning up the mess made by your loved one when they were using drugs, providing consistent financial support, covering or hiding their behaviour from others and taking on their responsibilities when they are unable to due to excessive drug or alcohol consumption.

Enabling a loved one may feel as though you’re simply helping them through a tough time. But these actions can prevent the person struggling with addiction from facing the full natural consequences of their behaviour, making it harder for them to recognise the need for change and seek help.


What Enabling Addiction Can Look Like

Enabling addiction will look different for everyone. After all, it will depend on the relationship dynamic of those involved, along with their unique circumstances. However, as a general guide, see below for an overview of what enabling behaviours can look like in the context of addiction.

Ignoring Or Minimising Bad Behaviour

Bad or dangerous behaviour is a classic symptom of an addiction. Often, an addict will need to fund their addiction, meaning that stealing and other illegal behaviours are common with drug use. Purchasing drugs illegally puts the addict at risk, and those who are addicted to alcohol might drink and drive or operate machinery at work when drunk.

If you continue to allow the addict to behave in these ways by telling them that it’s okay because ‘they were drunk’, or because ‘they are really sorry’, or because ‘it will never happen again’, then you may be enabling and are telling that person that their behaviour is ok, and is accepted by the people that they love and respect.

Putting Their Needs Before Your Own

A person who is addicted lives their life in a constant flurry of drama and emergency. For people that feel protective of the addict, they will want to make sure that such situations are eased for them.

This could mean that you pay their rent when they beg you to, the day before they are due to be evicted. Or you might miss out on a night’s sleep picking them up when they are high and stranded somewhere.

Not Being Able To Say No

Some enablers do this because they love and feel sorry for the addict, whilst others may do it because they are afraid of them. One of the things which accompanies an addiction is a tendency to become hostile and aggressive when told no, fuelled by a ‘need’ for the substance.

Financially Supporting The Addict

This is very common with parents, family members and partners of addicts, as either their financial situation affects yours, or you feel as though it is your job to provide support for them. Everything from buying them beer when they can’t afford it, to paying their rent counts as financially supporting addiction.

Making Excuses For Their Behaviour

A lot of people will make excuses for the behaviour of the addict, believing that their behaviour is such because they are addicted. It should be obvious how damaging this belief is. You are excusing the behaviour caused by the addiction, by blaming the addiction, which in itself is a behaviour that the addict is perpetuating.

Some enablers will lie or make excuses for the addict, to stop them from getting into trouble. You might call in sick for your addicted child or partner when they are hungover or lie and tell friends or family members that they’ve had a bad reaction to prescription medication when they act bizarrely in public. Even supporting and backing up the lies that the addict tells is a sign that you are enabling them.


Why Is Enabling Addiction Harmful?

Enabling addiction is not only harmful to the person struggling with addiction, but it’s actually also damaging to the enablers themselves.

Enablers May Feel Conflicted

For the enabler, the emotional toll can be devastating. This loved one may be constantly enveloped in a cycle of guilt and regret, and they may find themselves questioning their every action, wondering if they are inadvertently perpetuating their loved one’s addiction.

This self-reflection often doesn’t lead to clarity. Instead, it may deepen their feelings of blame and self-doubt. Alongside this internal struggle, there’s often a feeling of anxiety about the well-being of the addict that never goes away. The fear of the next crisis, overdose, when they’ll next need help or dangerous episodes can dominate their thoughts, leading to sleepless nights, higher stress levels, and an overall decline in their own health.

Other Loved Ones May Not Condone Enabling Behaviours

Relationship and family dynamics further complicate matters. For example, if other loved ones can clearly see that the enabler is allowing certain behaviours to continue, these individuals, witnessing the destructive cycle, might distance themselves, either because they disagree with the enabler’s approach or because the situation becomes too painful to watch.

This breakdown of trust between other family members or support circles can leave the enabler feeling isolated, adding to their emotional distress.

Effects on the Mental Health of Substance Abusers

For the addicted person, being consistently “rescued” from their own actions by the enabler can lead to a decrease in self-worth and how self-reliant they are, which will only add to their feelings of helplessness and dependency.

Over time, this can negatively impact their sense of identity and their ability to function independently.

What’s more, the physical and mental health ramifications of prolonged addiction can be not only dangerous, but life-threatening. From the risk of overdose and associated health complications to the mental health disorders that often coexist with addiction, the future will be full of risk.

By delaying or preventing them from being in control of their own life, whether it’s by seeking professional help or hitting their personal “rock bottom,” the enabler might unknowingly be increasing the chances for the individual to have their life cut short due to alcohol use disorders or drug addiction.

Prevention of the Recovery Process

Following on from the above, preventing someone from facing the natural consequences of their actions will only ever make circumstances worse. Denying the existence of an addiction will only prevent them from seeking the help and support they need to overcome dependency and regain control of their own life.

In our experience, the intentions of the enabler almost always stem from love, concern and sheer desperation. After all, enabling tends to come from a pure desire to simply help. However, we must highlight that whilst it is horrible to watch a loved one spiral ever deeper into addiction, by enabling them, you are actually making it more likely that the addiction will continue.

Overcoming addiction is a tremendous battle in itself, so recognising these patterns and seeking help is vital for breaking this destructive cycle.


 Enabling Addiction vs Helping

Enabling addiction as opposed to genuinely helping are two things that often get mistaken for one another. Sadly, this is especially true when it comes to watching a loved one struggle with addiction. 

The line between wanting to protect them from harm and unintentionally keeping them in a cycle of dependency can be thin and, at times, completely unapparent to the enabler. See below for a few examples of helping vs enabling. 

  • Short-term vs. Long-term Solutions. Enabling provides temporary relief (e.g. covering for them), whereas a long-term solution would involve taking steps to prevent substance misuse, such as seeking professional treatment.
  • Avoidance vs. Confrontation. This can look like not confronting the addict about their problem, fearing it might upset them. Instead, a helpful step would be to encourage open discussion and confront the issue head-on, even if it’s uncomfortable.
  • Boundaries vs. Unconditional Support. The enabler may continuously provide their assistance because they genuinely think they are ‘saving’ the person. Instead, a helpful solution would be to set clear boundaries that prioritise the well-being of both parties involved.

While the intention to help is a selfless act, the methods used can sometimes be misguided. So, understanding the distinction between enabling and genuinely helping can make a world of difference in the journey towards recovery for both the addicted individual and their loved ones.


How To Stop Enabling Addiction

Oftentimes, when we stop enabling addiction, it can bring feelings of guilt and shame. It’ll feel like tough love. However, rest assured that transitioning to genuinely helping someone with substance abuse disorder, as opposed to enabling harmful behaviour, is the best and most productive step forward you can take.

  • Stop helping financially. It’s not your duty to fund their substance addiction.
  • Do not cover their actions or prevent consequences. It’s important for your loved one to feel and understand the impact of their addiction.
  • Stop accepting abusive behaviour. Do not justify abusive behaviour as a result of their addiction, and never tolerate emotional or physical abuse.
  • Learn more about addiction. Understand the nature and mechanisms of addiction. It may help you to feel less guilty about withdrawing any enabling support.
  • Seek professional guidance. Sometimes, we can’t do it by ourselves. Seek support from those who specialise in addiction.
  • Set clear boundaries and stick to them. This can feel very difficult to see through, but it’s important.


 What Happens When You Stop Enabling Addiction?

It’s important to be aware that stopping enabling behaviours will likely come with some discomfort at first. The person with the addiction might initially resist or even lash out, often because the person has grown used to the enabler’s support, both emotionally and in a practical sense. The sudden change can induce feelings of anger, betrayal, and confusion. It’s imperative that you stay strong and not take this personally.

Remember, without the safety net of an enabler, the individual will then begin to face the consequences of their addiction. This sudden change can induce feelings of anger, betrayal, and confusion. It’s important that you stay strong and not take this personally. 

But, the silver lining here is that it’ll lead to increased self-awareness and a clearer understanding of the extent of their problem, increasing the odds of professional intervention and recovery.

In addition to the above, depending on the person and circumstances, there may be a risk that the addict might escalate their substance use or behaviour when enabling stops. This might be an attempt to cope with the new stress or as a way of rebelling against the perceived loss of support. 

However, loved ones can step in with helpful solutions if this happens, which would be seeking out professional help for them, taking away any obstacles that may be in the way of them receiving the treatment they require. 


Find Help For Your Loved One Today

It can be incredibly difficult to disengage from a loved one’s addiction, even in the ways we have discussed in this article. The people close to an addict often feel the need to do something, anything, as at least they are taking some action.

But sometimes, doing nothing and not enabling your loved one is the most helpful course of action for the long term. It’s unintuitive as much as it is painful, but saying no to a loved one who is in active addiction can be the shock to the system they need to start their journey of recovery.

Ocean Recovery Centre can also help you to arrange to take your loved one into rehab, and support you through the detox and rehabilitation process, as well as support groups during the months after your loved one leaves rehab. Call us today at 01253 847 553, or text HELP to 83222 to find out more.

John Gillen - Author - Last updated: October 13, 2023

John is one UK’s leading professionals in the addiction recovery industry. Pioneering new treatment techniques such as NAD+ and ongoing research into new therapy techniques such as systematic laser therapy, John is committed to providing the very best treatment for people throughout the UK and Europe. During his extremely busy schedule, John likes to regularly update our blog section with the latest news and trends in the industry to keep visitors to our site as well informed as possible on everything related to addiction treatment.