Loving an addict is hard – there is no question about it. Between watching them suffer and experiencing fear and worry yourself, it is only natural to want to do anything in your power to help. However, there is a fine line between helping and addict and enabling an addict. So, how exactly do you love an addict without enabling them? More importantly, how do you put an end to enabling behaviors and start practicing tough love?
Enabling behaviors are extremely common among people who have a loved one who is suffering from drug or alcohol addiction. As this person watches his or her addicted loved one spiral out of control, they may feel a sense of responsibility to help their loved one get back on the right path. Although this impulse is completely normal, it can actually do more harm than good. As a result, learning how to love and support an addict without enabling their destructive behaviors is crucial. Not only will it benefit your loved one, but it will improve your mental health and quality of life as well.
The Challenges of Loving an Addict
When a friend or family member is addicted to drugs or alcohol, it will affect virtually each and every person that individual is close with. Particularly in families or shared households, addiction is often referred to as a family disease because it affects the structure and function of the family system. Addicts and alcoholics may lie to or steal from their loved ones, say hurtful things, or act out in irrational and even violent behaviors. As a result, trust is broken, finances get drained, and the family unit begins suffering as a whole.
While some family members may spend all night lying awake worrying about their loved one’s well-being, others may cope with humor, deflection, or even substances themselves. On the other hand, some people develop codependent behaviors, where their livelihood revolves around protecting and enabling the addict. Ultimately, drug addiction and alcoholism are devastating conditions that permeate every layer of the family system until each individual makes an effort to change.
Examples of Enabling Behaviors
Enabling is a pattern of behaviors that shield people from experiencing the full consequences of their destructive behaviors. In another sense, enabling can be thought of as doing things for others that they are capable of doing themselves. This pattern of behavior is often seen in parents or spouses of addicts and alcoholics, as these individuals are naturally compelled to help their child or spouse.
At first, enabling may seem like helping as it is essentially protecting someone from experiencing a consequence. However, doing so allows the addict or alcoholic to continue abusing substances without interference. To explain, the difference in loving an addict an enabling an addict is that enabling allows them to be irresponsible and further damage their lives.
Some examples of enabling include:
- Bailing the individual out of jail or paying for lawyer fees, tickets, or fines
- Blaming others for the behaviors of the addict
- Lying for the addict to cover up their behaviors
- Providing the addict with shelter, food, clothing, etc
- Driving the alcoholic to the liquor store
- Blames the addict’s behaviors on another problem, such as mental illness
- Making threats to leave or cut the addict off financially but never actually doing so
Even though these behaviors protect individuals from experiencing consequences, they only aid in the person’s addiction. Oftentimes, people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol will continue using until they reach a point of desperation. This may come from getting a DUI, going to jail, losing a job, or something as minor as a parent saying their child can no longer live in the home if they use drugs. Whatever the case may be, letting people experience the full impact of their behaviors has the ability to encourage them to seek treatment sooner. As a result, it is important to know how to love an addict without enabling them.
Setting Boundaries: How to Stop Enabling an Addict
In order to actually help your addicted loved one, it is important to first recognize which behaviors you are acting out on that may be enabling their substance abuse. Examine situations in the home that have made you feel anxious, overwhelmed, or stressed and ask yourself if the way you reacted to those situations was in the best interest of your loved one. For example, did you call into work sick for your loved one while he or she was hungover? Are you doing things for them that they are capable of doing themselves, simply to protect them? If so, you are probably enabling your loved one’s addiction.
Once you have admitted that you are enabling, it’s time to recognize that even though it isn’t easy, you must accept that you cannot control the actions of your loved one. Even though it is difficult to watch without stepping in, it is important that your loved one deals with his or her own actions. Otherwise, he or she may never accept help.
Perhaps the most important part of loving an addict or alcoholic without enabling them is to set boundaries. Boundaries are specific rules and guidelines that are established to protect your own well-being so that you are not taken advantage of by your addicted loved one. Even though these are uncomfortable conversations to have, they are vital to your own emotional and mental health.
Clear cut rules and boundaries must be enforced in order to stop enabling behaviors. When setting a boundary, explain to your loved one exactly how you feel, why you feel that way, which behaviors are unacceptable, and what will happen if the boundary is crossed. Be polite, yet concise and assertive.
Some common examples of healthy boundaries that are helpful when learning to love rather than enable an addict include:
- The individual cannot come home intoxicated or they will be kicked out of the home
- Drugs and drug paraphernalia are not allowed in the home
- Money will not be lent to the individual
- Refusing to lie for or cover up the individual’s behaviors
It is imperative that your loved one understands the consequences that will occur if these boundaries are broken. Furthermore, what’s even more important is that you stand by your boundaries and enforce them. People who are addicted to drugs or alcohol may try to test their limits and see if you will cave, but it is critical to stand your ground, enforce your boundaries, and detach with love.
Tips to Support an Addict Without Enabling
First and foremost, it is important to remember that you cannot fix or cure your loved one. In reality, the only person you have control of is yourself. In addition to setting boundaries, it is vital to take care of yourself and obtain the support you and your family needs. Here are some tips to help you stop enabling and start supporting your addicted loved one.
Consider Staging an Intervention
If your loved one won’t stop using drugs or alcohol, you may not able able to force them to go to treatment. However, drug and alcohol interventions are highly successful in encouraging people to seek help. Interventions are held by addiction specialists and family members with the ultimate goal of sending the addicted loved one to rehab and restoring peace in the home.
Don’t Use Drugs or Alcohol Around Them
Whether your loved one is actively using drugs and alcohol or is in early recovery, one way you can support them is by avoiding substance use yourself. Exposure to drugs and alcohol may trigger relapse or give them the idea that drug or alcohol use is acceptable. Instead, stay sober in their presence to support abstinence.
Join A Support Group like Al-Anon
Even though it is easy to neglect your own needs when trying to love and support an addict, self-care is vital. Plus, you have likely been through a lot and could use some support yourself. Fortunately, groups like Al-Anon are available nationwide to support family members of alcoholics. Al-Anon is a free program similar to Alcoholics Anonymous where family members and friends can gain support and guidance from their peers.
Participate in Family Therapy
One of the best ways you can learn to love an addict without enabling them is to participate in family therapy. Family counseling sessions provide the entire family with a safe and therapeutic place to voice their concerns, work through emotions, resolve issues in the home, and learn to function better as a family unit. Therapists can also provide family members with tips and resources that will help them break free from enabling behaviors.
Get Help for You and Your Loved One Today
Since addiction is a family disease, treatment is most effective when the entire family is involved. Unquestionably, loving an addict is never easy, but enabling them can be dangerous. Moreover, addiction wreaks havoc on everyone close to the substance abuser – which is why everyone deserves support.
If you’re looking to help your addicted loved one break free from addiction, our addiction specialists are here to help. Whether you’re looking to stage an intervention, seek help for the family, or locate an addiction treatment center near you, contact a dedicated treatment provider today.
Medically Reviewed: August 31, 2020
All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.