How to Break the Cycle of Enablement

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Addiction is a serious problem for many families. According to statistics from 2012, more than 23 million people needed treatment for a substance abuse problem that year. However, only 2.5 million received treatment, and 19.5 million said that they didn’t need professional help. These numbers suggest that not only is addiction a major issue but also that many people are in denial.

When Enabling and Denial Delay Treatment

There are many reasons why addicts are in denial about an addiction, and one we want to talk about today is enabling. Enabling is when someone accepts the negative behavior and allows it to continue with few problems.

Let’s look at an example.

Mark and Cathy have a 19-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. Elizabeth is addicted to prescription painkillers and has dropped out of college. She doesn’t work, doesn’t pay rent and has few responsibilities at home. Cathy doesn’t want her daughter out on the streets, so she feels that she’s “saving” her by allowing her to live in the home rent free.

Mark tends to give in to his daughter because he doesn’t want to fight with her. Work is stressful, so he leaves Elizabeth to do what she wants during the day. If she asks for money, he gives it to her. If she doesn’t want to go to a family function, he doesn’t argue.

Mark and Cathy recognize that Elizabeth has a problem, and they are concerned. But they also feel that she’s young and will grow out of her behaviors. In the meantime, they feel that they are keeping her safe.

The above situation is an example of enablement. Though Mark and Cathy love their daughter, they’re allowing the addiction to continue without any problems. With the cushiony life they’ve provided her, Elizabeth is going to have few reasons to quit.

Tips for Breaking the Cycle of Enabling

Enabling comes in many forms, so if you’re not sure what qualifies, talk to an addiction specialist or counselor. It’s important to identify your behaviors so that you can find healthier ways of supporting sobriety.

Let’s explore how to best break the cycle of enabling and help your loved one to heal in a meaningful way.

  • Refrain from cleaning up messes: When your loved one creates messes because they are drunk or high, don’t rush to their aide. Addicts need to understand how the addiction affects them and others. If you clean up their messes, they can’t realize this.
  • Avoid trading in sobriety for convenience: If you look at the short-term only, it might seem easier to ride the wave. Yet each time you help the addict, think about how they are furthering their addiction and what the long-term situation could look like: legal problems, jail time, family conflict, etc.
  • Go ahead with your plans: If you have something arranged and your loved one can’t make it, go ahead with your activities. Show the addict that their choices aren’t going to stop you from living.
  • Put health and safety first: When possible, do not allow the addict to put you or others in danger. This means not getting in the car with them after they’ve been drinking.
  • Establish boundaries: Work with a counselor to set healthy boundaries that you feel comfortable with. Your loved one needs expectations, otherwise they will likely walk all over you.
  • Set repercussions you can keep: If the addict doesn’t obey your rules, there needs to be consequences. Again, it’s helpful to work with a counselor to help you choose these rules, their effects and how you will handle them.

The cycle of enabling can be broken. It’s not easy, which is why it’s recommended to meet with a professional who can help you develop the confidence and direction needed.