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Enabling an Addict Only Makes Things Worse

It’s not easy to love and help an addict, especially when help only makes things worse.

Enablers Make Addiction the Center of the Relationship

The following is the second of a three-part series exploring how substance abuse and addiction can sabotage healthy, stable relationships. Today’s topic, Enabling.

It’s no secret that America has a drug and alcohol problem. In 2014 the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported 21.5 million Americans aged 12 and older battled alcohol and drug use problems. But substance abuse, alcoholism, and addiction don’t merely wreck havoc on the user.

For every person who struggles with alcoholism or drug addiction, there are family members and friends who struggle with how to love and support their addict without making things worse.

Wonder how difficult it is to love someone who is in active addiction? All you need to do is look at how rampant support groups are for loved one of addicts to see the need for help.

According to the Al-Alon website, there are approximately 24,000 Al-Anon groups in more than 130 countries, with approximately 14,000 groups in the United States and Canada.

And, according to the Al-Anon Family Group Membership Survey, those surveyed on average, attended meetings for 14 years, with 99% attending 1 or more meetings per week and 58% attending 2 or more per week.

It’s not easy to love and help an addict, especially when help only makes things worse.


What Exactly Is Enabling?

When addressing addiction or other dysfunctions in families or relationships, “enabling” means giving “help” that may actually make the situation worse. Family members’ attempts to problem solve on behalf of the alcoholic/addict often results in “enabling” or “accommodating.”

Enabling is the act of removing or buffering the natural negative effects of drinking or drug use. Enabling actually assists the alcoholic/addict in continuing to drink or use drugs, often the exact opposite of the intended outcome.

When a loved one removes or buffers the natural negative consequences of the drinking/using, the addict has little motivation or incentive to change.

What Is the Motivation Behind Enabling an Addict?

There are many reasons why enabling occurs, and many of these are based on emotions that we may not even know we are feeling: guilt, fear, and love are among the most common.



Enabling behavior that is based in guilt may have roots many years before someone married or became involved in an alcoholic relationship. Someone may have been born into an alcoholic or addictive family and have felt that in some way they should have been able to “save” a loved one.

Guilt may also occur for no clear, identifiable reason. Guilt, however, is powerful enough to convince someone that it is their own behavior pushing the addict to use.



Fear is a strong ally of enabling. Loved ones may be afraid that if the addict goes through treatment and recovery, then they may not need or want them anymore.

Sometimes a person is afraid of being alone. Or perhaps the natural consequences are too frightening to face. It is all-too-common for families struggling with addiction to face the possibility of jail, a criminal record, job loss and lost income, as well as a loss of reputation, embarrassment for the family, perhaps even embarrassment and shame for young children.

Whatever the reason, fear can be exploited to protect the addiction and the addict’s behaviors.



When someone is struggling or hurt, it seems only normal that a loved one would want to help them. It feels wrong NOT to help them.

But when love becomes enabling, the enabler may go from waking them up when they occasionally oversleep, to calling in sick for them after a binge. Love stops being helpful and actually begins to support their addiction.


What Are The Signs (or Consequences) of Enabling?

Enabling does not present in one, unified format, nor is there one specific behavior or action that guarantees that an individual has become an enabler.

Rather, enabling often reveals itself not through a singular but rather series of actions and behaviors that continue to progress as the addiction and the consequences escalate.

The following is a brief list of common enabling behaviors:

  • Making sure that the alcoholic/addict has a job, even if you have to employ him/her.
  • Calling to wake him/her up for work or school.
  • Making excuses on behalf of them. Calling in sick to work for him/her. Apologizing for his/her behavior.
  • Going on “search and destroy” missions where you hunt down the stash and destroy it.
  • Pouring out the liquor. Limiting the amount of cash they have.
  • Appointing yourself the “drink counter/monitor” and trying to limit how much the alcoholic drank.
  • Bailing them out of jail. Putting them to bed when they have passed out in the kitchen floor or on the lawn.
  • Cleaning up the vomit.
  • Looking for them when they don’t come home. Going to the bar to bring them home.
  • Using pleading, arguing, reason and logic, guilt trips, anger, threats, etc. to get them to quit.
  • Staying home from planned trips to “babysit” them so that they don’t get into trouble.
  • Pulling back from family and friends to keep from discussing the problem.
  • “Playing detective” to gather enough information to confront them with so that they will admit that they have a problem and will quit.
  • Buying liquor for them or picking them up at the bar so that they don’t get a DUI.
  • Giving them food, paying the rent, car insurance, etc.

The biggest consequence for the addict is that their life continues to be controlled by the drug use and the consequences continue to increase. The consequences for the loved ones may be emotional, such as a loss of self-esteem or a sense of hopelessness. It is common for the family member to experience anger and resentment, or perhaps more guilt.

The consequences may be physical. It is common for enablers to struggle with fatigue, depression, or other health problems. It may be relational, as they neglect other important people in their lives in order to focus primarily on the addict.

Finally, as the consequences (or threat of them) continue to accumulate, financial problems become a consequence not only of the addiction itself but also of all the enabling behaviors.

Common Enabling Characteristics:

  • I say “yes” when I want to say “no”. I do things for people that they can do for themselves.
    • “I have to be needed.”
    • “I’m easily manipulated.”
  • I focus more on what others want at the expense of my needs being met.
    • “I know what I want or need, but I willingly lay it aside for others.”
  • I believe I know how other people should act.
    • “If others would just listen to me, I know I’m right.”
  • I have difficulty enforcing consequences when others break rules.
    • “I don’t like conflict; I hate being the bad guy.”
    • “I talk a good talk, but have trouble backing it.”
    • “I tend to make threats I know I can’t/won’t enforce.”
  • I have difficulty accepting consequences when I break rules.
    • “I am special.”
    • “Rules don’t apply to me the way they do to others.”
  • I am terrified of rejection or abandonment.
    • “I need constant reassurance to feel like things are ok.”
    • “I will let others get away with a lot just so I won’t be alone.”
  • I allow others to be rigid and controlling with me.
    • “In order to feel wanted or needed, I am a doormat.”
    • “What I want/need is not as important as other’s wants/needs.”
  • I feel like a victim.
    • “I am helpless, powerless, or worthless.”
    • “Nothing ever goes the right way for me.”
    • “I tend to focus or dwell on what I can’t control.”
  • I tolerate inappropriate behavior.
    • “I tend to avoid confrontation or conflict.”
    • “I don’t have a right to make others adhere to my standards.”


Click here for more content by Jonathan Hetterly, LPC!

Jonathan Hetterly, LPC
Jonathan Hetterly is a licensed professional counselor. He specializes in helping teen and young adult men navigate the challenges they face in life. Jonathan is also a writer and his articles are regularly featured on and He has contributed material to several books that explore the intersection of pop culture and psychology, including The Walking Dead Psychology, Star Wars Psychology, and Game of Thrones Psychology.


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