What is An Enabler in Alcoholism?

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An enabler is a person who assumes the role of a caretaker for a friend, partner, child, or loved one who has a problem with alcohol.

The enabler may believe they are supportive, although, in essence, they are part of the problem.

An enabler is part of the problem as they may support alcohol use in many ways. Here are some of the ways enablers may function in their role:

  • Keeping secrets from loved ones or friends regarding the extent of the problem
  • Purchasing the alcohol
  • Denying there is an actual issue present with the use of alcohol

The opposite of an enabler is the term known as a dependent. This term may appear disproportionate as many people slip into either role without even noticing.

The enabler is generally well-intentioned in their role, believing that things may become unbearable for their loved one without their intervention.

Due to the large scale stigma associated with the overuse of alcohol, the desire of the enabler may be to keep the situation a secret in the hope it will pass without others finding out and therefore bringing a perceived shame upon a family.

Stigma fuels this perception as those suffering from alcohol overuse are widely misunderstood, and many perceive this use as a moral issue and not a health one.

There is limited empathy amongst those who misunderstand the nature and power of alcoholism, and this stigma and public perception may drive the co-dependant pair underground.

Once living or enabling a lie, a new normal occurs to bear life ‘as it is’ for both parties.

Often the enabler themselves may never understand the true nature of dependence on alcohol and try to the best of their ability or knowledge to be loving and caring to their friend or loved one. Yet, believing their interventions are essential.

At Abbeycare, a family support programme is delivered weekly by trained psychotherapists who understand the impact someone's alcohol use may have had on loved ones. This programme is for loved ones and friends as well as family members.

Spending time with professionals who can help with the navigation through the feelings that occur and behaviours that have evolved can be life-changing for the enabler.

Their eyes are opened to the role they have stepped into and how unproductive this can be to those with an alcohol problem.

Once the light shines on the relationship, positive changes can happen. Therefore, it can be considered a great first-line treatment for alcoholism.

What is an enabler?

An enabler assumes the role of the responsible person in a relationship where one of the two parties may be unable to cope with life circumstances.

The enabler steps in to support the other whose life may be spiralling out of control.

Identifying that an enabler needs a dependant as much as they need them can be complicated as they genuinely believe their function within the relationship is based on selflessness.

An enabler steps in and controls the situation to fix the problem. In contrast, those searching for an enabler will subtly manipulate (control) the situation to maintain their presence and support.

The main characteristics of an enabler are:

  • Trying to fix others problems
  • Controlling another with self-perceived kindness
  • Lying to protect them
  • Staying in denial of the problem
  • To enable the use of alcohol – purchasing, lying about, facilitating the use
  • Treating the individual as a child
  • Covering up for the person
  • Avoiding conflict
  • Blaming all life’s problems on those they support
  • Avoiding social circumstances to be around 24/7

Some of the characteristics of a person who is trying to manipulate another to need their own needs are:

  • Emotional Blackmail
  • Making the other person feel needed, loved and special
  • Angry outbursts

Emotional Blackmail is where the manipulator may make a person feel sorry for them, scared for them or scared from them.

They tap into a person's insecurities and fears and use them to their advantage. For example, a partner may be scared her family find out her husband is drinking to excess.

This can be used to the manipulator's advantage as the enabler tries to keep the secret and therefore inadvertently supports continued alcohol use.

The enabler may feel trapped in a hopeless situation and hope things will get better, unaware of the subtle manipulation of the dependants to maintain control and keep the enabler performing their role.

What does it mean to be an enabler?

To be an enabler is to be involved in a power relationship where both parties are trying to assume control. The enabler is attempting to control the life, which may be unmanageable or in need of support.

The dependent is attempting to control the actions of the enabler to ensure they continue supporting them.

Take a person who has a problem with alcohol.

An individual's life may be so consumed with the use of alcohol that basic living skills require support, and that's where the enabler steps in to ‘help.’

In some instances, they may feel a sense of relief if they believe they have sorted out yet another issue or played a part in fixing a component of life. In short, an enabler may feel 'needed' by the dependant, and that may feel good.

There are many dynamics at play in this relationship as human beings assume many roles throughout their lifetime.

First, let’s look at the enabler as a fixer. Why would a person take the role of a fixer? What underpins this human need to make everything ok?

It may be learned behaviour, i.e. they may have watched a parent adopt the same role.

Or they may have been trying to improve their own home life since a young age and naturally slip into this role in adulthood.

Whatever the reason – this role is unhelpful to the substance user and the mental health and wellbeing of the fixer.

The role can damage the fixer as they miss out on living life for themselves and finding happiness in other things.

The enabler may be under stress and only feel better if they think they have helped the dependant person assume control of their life, improve their life or correct any perceived problems they may be facing.

To be an enabler generally means they live their life for the perceived enhancement of another's sacrificing their happiness or wellbeing in the pursuit of fixing another.

What are the different types of enabling?

There are different types of enabling roles a person may assume. Firstly there is a co-dependency.

Co-dependency is another term used when describing the power dynamic between the enabler and the dependent.

Co-dependant means each person in the relationship has grown to develop an unhealthy need for one another.

In this situation, 'the enabler' will be trying their level best to fix the behaviours associated with a person's unmanageable lifestyle.

Whilst those living in this manner will need that persons support to carry on.

Each person needs one another, the enabler to find purpose in their life and the dependant to use the person to meet their needs and fix their problems.

Secondly, there is the fixer. Similar to co-dependency, a fixer generally intervenes in a person's life to fix their problems.

A fixer may express a desire to help and make things right, sometimes derailing a course of action that may be necessary to recover a person using substances.

The term derailing is instructive as a fixer is generally not a recognised professional skilled in the art of supporting those in need.

Instead, they may believe their intervention is required to steer them down a path that may help a negative behaviour pattern or continued use of alcohol.

The third type of enabler is one who ‘seeks to gain’ from the relationship. Contrary to popular belief that the enabler is being manipulated by the dependent, this type of enabler may also seek to be rewarded by their actions.

Some examples of gains are:

  • Financial support
  • Housing
  • Material possessions
  • Status
  • Employment

In this instance, it may be in the enablers interest to continue covering the tracks of those involved in an unmanageable lifestyle as they may seek to gain from this relationship.

Keeping secrets, purchasing alcohol, fixing another's problems may be rewarded. If they are enabling someone who is using alcohol, their conduct may stop them from receiving professional support for their alcohol use.

As the person using alcohol may no longer need the enabler if they become sober.

Wrap Up

In all cases, an enabler is just that, someone who enables the continued lifestyle of those who believe they cannot live their life without the support of another.

These roles of an enabler and dependant are unhealthy.

Healthy roles include the use of love, respect, compassion and support. They do not cover tracks, lie for, manipulate, seek to gain or emotionally blackmail one another.

To break the negative cycle that develops in an unhealthy relationship, support from trained professionals is available.

At Abbeycare, a holistic programme offers to support a person struggling to stop their use of substances.

As well as those who have loved and cared for another throughout their use of alcohol or drugs.

Previously known as 'tuff love', the professionals within Abbeycare will help families understand the meaning of true love and draw a line between caring for and enabling for the person in rehab.

Conversely, Abbeycare rehab will learn how to break free from the dependent relationship and be an equal and supportive partner, friend or loved one.

About the author

Peter Szczepanski

Pete has been on the GPhC register for 29 years. He holds a Clinical Diploma in Advanced Clinical Practice and he is a Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Misuse for The Hygrove and works as the Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Use in Worcestershire. To read more about Pete visit his LinkedIn profile.