What Is An Enabler In Alcoholism?

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What Is Enabling?

The recovery process from alcohol addiction requires the support of friends and family.

Enabling is where an individual close to those suffering with a drug or alcohol problem justifies, ignores or covers up another's addiction, and shields them from the consequences [2].

Unknowingly assisting someone in continuing an addiction is different from well meaning help and support from loved ones, as it has a detrimental effect on long term recovery.

Enabling allows the continuation of destructive behaviour, and demonstrates to the alcoholic that there will always be a system there to fix problems created by addiction. This slows down, or even fully prevents, recovery [3].

It will appear to others, that enablers are knowingly complicit in assisting an addiction to continue, and willingly support the addict's negative choices.

But, enablers are usually not aware of any negative behaviour, and are motivated by wanting the help the alcoholic avoid the short-term consequences that addiction usually results in.

When it is a friend or family member going through addiction, it is difficult to see the line between helping them beat addiction, and enabling behaviour.

Enablers find themselves struggling with the ramifications of the loved one's addiction and want to stop them from coming to harm as much as possible [4].

As they try to prevent a crisis affecting the alcoholic, they themselves are experiencing constant stress and worry.

Around 50% of adults will relapse within the first six months of recovery, with figures higher amongst ethnic minorities and those with mental health issues.

The success of support groups has shown the importance of other individuals being involved in recovery, but enabling addicts' behaviours will have a damaging effect on any chance of recovery [5].

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What Enabling Looks Like

Enabling is more subtle than directly supplying someone with drugs or alcohol, which is why it is usually unconscious. Behaviours that enable addiction include:

  • Denial, minimising the addiction, or convincing themselves that the addict has it under control
  • Monitoring alcohol intake, making sure they avoid drink driving and other dangerous activities [6], but allowing the long term alcohol addiction to continue
  • Making excuses for problematic behaviour or covering up negative actions
  • Ignoring own needs to focus on the needs of the alcoholic
  • Avoiding confronting them about addiction
  • Taking on responsibilities for the addict
  • Providing financial assistance [7]
  • Giving money, not just to buy alcohol, but any money to help with missed work or other consequences of alcoholism
  • Lying to others on behalf of the addict, covering up addiction to friends, family or even employers
  • Taking on domestic and professional responsibilities, including paying bills, childcare or cleaning the house

Whilst these seem like acts of kindness, they are all acts that diminish the responsibility of the individual in active addiction [8].

Helping Vs Enabling

There is an important distinction to be made between genuinely helping someone with alcohol use disorder, and unconsciously allowing negative behaviour to continue unchecked.

Examples of genuinely helping include:

  • Encouraging them to seek treatment
  • If they are no longer able to drive, driving them to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or treatment centres
  • Providing love and support throughout treatment
  • Lay out clear boundaries of acceptable behaviour
  • Making the real-world effects of their alcoholism clear and understandable
  • Making the potential penalties for continuing the addictive behaviour, clear

Individuals who are struggling with alcohol issues are scared of the process of withdrawal and of coping without relapsing in the future.

This is why supportive relationships with others are crucial in the recovery process [9].

Who Has The Ability To Be An Enabler?

Any person in the life of an addict has the opportunity to be an enabler:

Friends

Friends will encourage each other to drink excessively, especially in a social setting.

This is particularly common in younger individuals who are more likely to become victims of peer pressure.

As individuals who start drinking at a younger age are more likely to go on to develop drinking problems, the impact of friends is significant [10].

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Family Members

Family members enabling addictive behaviours will arise from love and care for the individual.

Wanting to keep them safe and away from harm, in the short term, will have a negative effect in the long term, as the alcoholic doesn't experience the associated negative consequences, and therefore never learns from them.

Medical Practitioners

This will apply more to substance abuse than alcohol addiction, but it is still possible for medical practitioners to display enabling behaviours toward alcoholics.

An enabling medical practitioner will accept any excuses, or attempt to prescribe medication, that might lessen the pain of short term withdrawal symptoms, but without a bigger picture plan for recovery, repeated short term detoxing will harm the addict's health in the long term [11].

What Causes Enabling Behaviours?

Individuals showing enabling behaviours don't realise what they are doing, and the damage they are causing the person suffering from alcohol use disorder.

Enablers have a desire to feel needed, and get a feeling of self worth and self esteem from acts of enabling.

The enabler will believe that this behaviour is the only way to maintain relationships with others [12].

Enabling is considered to come from co-dependency [13].

Co-dependency is categorised as ignoring the needs of self in favour of others.

It was first used as a term for the partners of those struggling with addiction, but is now used also for those suffering with mental health issues, disabilities and generational trauma [14].

Neglect or abuse, a family history of personality disorders and growing up with dismissive parents are also factors that have been proven to cause co-dependent behaviour [15].

Negative Effects Of Enabling On The Enabler

Whilst there are detrimental effects that enabling will have on an alcoholic, such as worsening addiction, there are also negative consequences for the enabler.

These include:

  • The enabler feeling a loss of control if the addict wants to do things for themselves
  • Arguments will worsen, alcoholics become unpredictable whereas the enabler feels they have done everything to support them and can't understand the addict's anger
  • Losing confidence and self worth
  • Feeling a lack of own identity outside of helping others
  • Personal needs not being met correctly
  • Becoming resentful, enablers develop resentment, but enable the addict at the same time, causing a vicious cycle of addiction [16]

Negative Effects Of Enabling On The Alcoholic

Effects of enabling on those suffering from alcohol use disorder include:

  • Giving them the impression that negative behaviour is acceptable and they don't need to change
  • A lack of boundaries created by the enabler allows the addict to increase any selfish or destructive behaviour
  • Becoming dependent on the enabler means they are less likely to seek out recovery
  • It becomes easier to continue the addiction
  • Ways that the enabler tries to help such as giving them money allows addiction to continue as the sufferer doesn't associate their actions with any real-world consequences

Ultimately, the enabler creates an environment that allows the person with alcohol dependency to continue with addiction and be less motivated to seek treatment [17].

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Avoiding Enablers

Avoiding enablers is difficult, as these are often the closest individuals to the one dealing with addiction and a large part of the addict's support system.

In addition, enablers may themselves become addicted to enabling behaviours, so will do anything to stay in the life of the addict.

Those struggling with alcohol issues try to distance themselves from the enabler, but this is difficult if they are a close family member.

Things to do if an enabler cannot be removed are:

  • Setting boundaries
  • Limiting the time that they spend with the enabler
  • Encouraging the person to seek help to stop enabling behaviour
  • Not spending time alone with the enabler, preferably with others who are aware of the situation and will stop any enabling from occurring
  • Ceasing to rely on the enabler and seeking treatment for alcoholism [18]

It is preferable when entering a treatment facility for the person with alcohol use disorder to not see the enabler, as they focus on recovery.

It may be possible for the enabler to come back into the life of the addict later, as part of a long-term addiction treatment.

To stop the cycle of enabling, it is important that the enabler learns to stop encouraging negative behaviour.

This is achieved by:

  • Acknowledging how enabling has negatively impacted the person with alcohol use disorder
  • Establishing boundaries, making it clear what they are not willing to do for them anymore and learning to say no
  • Seeking treatment for themselves, therapy to discuss why they carried out this enabling behaviour and how to avoid it in the future
  • Providing encouragement for seeking treatment and throughout that process, but in a supportive role, allowing them to take the responsibility for recovery and the future [19]

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Last Updated: January 18, 2023

About the author

Harriet Garfoot

Harriet Garfoot BA, MA has an Undergraduate degree in Education Studies and English, and a Master's degree in English Literature, from Bishop Grosseteste University. Harriet writes on stress & mental health issues, and is a member of the Burney Society. Content reviewed by Peter Szczepanski (Clinical Lead).