Chapter 2 : Understanding Enabling

What is enabling?

Enabling is the actions someone takes or does not take that allow an addict to continue abusing. These actions are done with the best intentions in mind. Through enabling, we inadvertently strengthen the addiction when the initial intention was to help them to stop. This process usually begins slowly over time and spirals from there. As untreated addiction progresses, so too can our enabling behaviors progress.

We find ourselves putting up with outrageous behavior that we would typically never tolerate. We begin to compromise our own sense of morals and dignity. We solely focus on the addict and we begin to lose ourselves in the process. Emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and financially we end up drained. Eventually, the addict’s behavior can begin to affect us physically after the anxiety and stress of a hundred sleepless nights begin to add up. In the end it is usually only anger, frustration, and hopelessness that are left.

Sometimes we become so frustrated we leave, but some of us hang on to the bitter end, always asking them and ourselves, “Just why won’t they get help?”


The answer is simple. Currently, their substance abuse is emotionally more comfortable than seeking treatment. With all the negative consequences that we see, it may not appear so comfortable to us, but it is the truth. Part of the reason that it is more comfortable for them is because we have helped to make it that way. They have no job because we loan them money, they have no apartment because we give them a roof “just until they get on their feet”, their bills are paid because we lend them the money, they are not in jail because we bail them out, and no one else knows because we keep it a secret. These are only examples; however, enabling even occurs towards those who have not bottomed out and are highly functional in society.

For us to further understand our role in the lives of our loved one, it is best if we break down the basic types of enabling behaviors by reflecting on our past to see if we have exhibited any of these behaviors. Do not worry if you have done or currently possess any of these enabling characteristics. In fact, the more enabling factors that are currently present, the better – because we are going to change them. If all the factors around an addict remain the same, they will continue to behave as they always have. If we change our behaviors, then so must they. We need the addict to feel the negative consequences of their lifestyle choice.

Remember that there is a fundamental truth about addiction and recovery: Sooner or later everyone quits using alcohol or drugs. Some addicts quit after seeking treatment (directly because their family members have refused to enable any longer), others quit when they are arrested and go to prison, the others quit after a fatal overdose. Sooner or later, everybody quits. Just how someone quits is directly related to how you treat them.


*Stronger the emotional connection equals more enabling and lessened able to see addiction

It is interesting to note that whoever is the closest, or has the strongest emotional connection to the addict, is usually the biggest enabler and is also the least able to see the big picture.

Many times, a wife, through her own emotional defense mechanisms, prevents herself from seeing what is so obvious to an outsider. The lower the emotional connection, the lesser degree of enabling present and the greater the ability someone has to see the addiction at hand. This can divide a family in two. For example, when a brother and sister are frustrated because, “Mom keeps letting him live there and won’t stop giving him money.” However, mom does not see what the brother and sister do even though she is probably around her child more. Emotionally, she is protecting herself from seeing what is so obvious to everyone else.

Handling the addict’s problem as a group instead of as an individual is one of the best ways to help combat the addiction. It puts everyone on the same page, eventually allowing everyone to see the addiction more clearly.


As the interventionist covers each of the following enabling behaviors, check off any that you may have exhibited in the past:

  • RATIONALIZATION: An addict uses rationalization as a “semi-reasonable excuse” to justify their behavior. Taken independently, it seems somewhat reasonable; however, when you take the factors and negative consequences into consideration, they become ridiculous. “If you had my problems, you’d drink too,” “My wife just left me,” or “If you just wouldn’t pressure me all the time!” It is important to note that outside factors do not cause an addict to drink or use. The problem is on the inside and how they do/do not react to uncomfortable feelings and situations.
    • EFFECT: The addict gets placed into the role of a victim and less accountable for their actions, making their addiction more comfortable at an emotional level and easier not to face because it is “not their fault.”
  • JUSTIFYING: Justifying their actions comes hand-in- hand with the rationalization of the addicted one because we often want to believe them so badly.
    • EFFECT: This reinforces the more emotionally comfortable role of the addict as a victim.
  • DENIAL: Being/acting in a state of denial means that we choose not to see the problem to protect our feelings towards the addict.
    • EFFECT: This makes the problem of the addiction nonexistent and therefore nothing to confront. The addiction is emotionally more comfortable because it does not have to be faced.
  • MINIMIZING: By minimizing our loved one’s addiction, we alter our perception so that the substance abuse seems less than what it is. Oftentimes, minimizing is an automatic defense mechanism because we do not want to admit the problem is as bad as it is. “I know that Steven drinks, but he quit doing cocaine months ago. He just spends too much money, that’s why he’s broke all the time.” or “There goes old drunken Bob, he’s so funny when he drinks.”
    • EFFECT: This lessens the severity of the problem and, as such, lessens the necessity of the addict to deal with the addiction. At an emotional level the addiction is much easier to face…or rather, not to face.
  • BLAMING OURSELVES: By blaming ourselves, we begin to believe that we have somehow caused someone to have become an addict or that we have made them drink or do drugs. “If only I would’ve been a better mother, he wouldn’t have gotten into drugs.” or “I shouldn’t have started yelling at him when he got home, that’s why he went out drinking.
    • EFFECT: This takes away all accountability for the actions an addict takes and again makes them a victim. The addiction is less likely to be confronted by the addict because it is not their fault.
  • BLAMING OTHERS: On the other hand, when we blame others, it puts ourselves and others in a defensive state instead of an offensive one and never helps to solve the problem. “It’s all those friends he’s been hanging around. They are bad influences on him” or “That girlfriend of his is the one who is screwing him up.” It’s important to note that an addict chooses to associate with those who are like them.
    • EFFECT: Blaming others makes their addiction emotionally more bearable because we are, once again, not making them accountable for their addiction
  • USING/DRINKING WITH THE ADDICT/ALCOHOLIC: In an often-desperate attempt, we sometimes drink or use drugs with the addict, thinking maybe we can understand or at least be there with them and for them. 
    • EFFECT: This lessens the severity of the problem and allies you with the addiction, telling them that “it’s ok.” This makes their addiction emotionally more comfortable to deal with because they do not have to face it, as you have just demonstrated. This also prevents you from confronting them later as they may hold it against you as you are now “just as guilty.”
  • AVOIDING PROBLEMS: While trying to keep the peace, avoiding problems makes us believe that a lack of conflict makes a good relationship. We often do not want to confront them because we still want them in our lives, but are afraid that they will get angry and leave us if we do.
    • EFFECT: This takes away negative consequences for the addict, making it easier for them to continue their lifestyle. There are fewer negative consequences because you fail to hold them accountable for their actions.
  • PROTECTING: We often protect the image of the addicted one so that they, and others, do not realize the impact of their behavior. Occasionally, we even lie to protect the image and reputation of the addict. We do not want to embarrass them, and we do not want to embarrass the family.
    • EFFECT: This makes a comfort zone of fewer negative consequences for the addict or alcoholic because he is not being held accountable by his peers.
  • TAKING OVER RESPONSIBILITIES: Thinking that we are helping, we often take over the tasks, responsibilities and situations for the addict that they should be doing for themselves.
    • EFFECT: This takes away responsibility and accountability for the addict and does not force them to look at the consequences of their addiction. It also makes using more comfortable as they do not have to face the day-to- day routines as they are being handled by someone else. This also diminishes the ability of the addict to do for themselves, even in terms of going to treatment. They do not face their problems because they are always taken care of by someone else.
  • NOT KEEPING OUR WORD: By not keeping our word, we make threats or promises that we fail to keep.“If you drink one more time I am going to leave you” or “the next time you use drugs you are out of the house.
    • EFFECT: This teaches the addict that although there are consequences to their behavior, the consequences are always less than what are threatened. They learn that although they may have to hear some yelling and screaming, they can always manipulate you into falling back on your word. The negative consequences of their addiction are always temporary and will eventually go away.
  • ENDURING: Enduring our loved one’s behavior causes us to never know when enough is enough. We end up putting up with extreme situations, even though you would normally speak out against it. What you tolerate today, you probably would not have tolerated in the past.
    • EFFECT: This makes it emotionally more comfortable for the addict and lessens the severity of their accountability. The relatively minor punishment for extreme behaviors today is the same for lesser ones in the past. Intuitively learning this, the addict refuses to change since the punishment or negative consequences always remain relatively the same.
  • WAITING: Waiting for the addict to one day wake up and realize that the addiction has gotten out of control, as if time itself will heal the problem. Unfortunately, the addict usually has a very low awareness. What they perceive to be going on is very rarely what is really going on. It is said that the addict is always the last to know that they are addicted.
    • EFFECT: This allows the addiction to progress and worsen. It also prevents the addict from effectively dealing with their addiction. By not acknowledging that there is a problem, there is “no problem,” and makes the addiction emotionally more bearable.
  • ENABLING THE ENABLER: When we enable the enabler, we are not dealing with/handling the primary enabler themselves. For example, lending money to the wife of an alcoholic or not confronting Mom even though your drug- using brother continues to live “rent free” under her roof. By your refusal to confront, you make the act of enabling comfortable for an enabler and they will continue to enable. Just as an addict continues to use if they are comfortable, so too will an enabler. Certainly, the addict will not stop them from enabling. It is up to you to do that.
    • EFFECT: This makes the addiction more comfortable at an emotional level and prevents them from feeling the negative consequences of their lifestyle. By proxy, enabling an enabler allows the addiction to progress because you do not handle the primary comfort for the addict (the enabler) at the source.


Here are some common examples of enabling behaviors that other family members have exhibited in the past. You may check off any that you or others have demonstrated.

  • Allow an alcoholic or addict to remain in our home.
  • Remain married to an active alcoholic or addict.
  • Give or lend him money.
  • Allow him to work in the family business.
  • Let him use a car that is “in our name” even though he doesn’t make a payment and is known to drive high or drunk.
  • Pay for his/her rent.
  • Buy him/her food.
  • Clean up after the messes in his/her life.
  • Give him/her rides anywhere he needs because he/she lost their license.
  • Bail him/her out of jail.
  • Lie to others to cover up his/her problems.
  • Ignore or laugh at the problem.
  • Argue, plead, beg, or threaten without treatment or recovery being the goal.
  • Take over his/her responsibilities.
  • Take control of his/her paycheck and “dole out money” like an allowance.
  • Avoid attending social functions with him/her.
  • Pay for school.
  • Don’t confront him/her about their drug or alcohol use.
  • Pay for alcohol or other drug use.
  • Leave minor children alone with the alcoholic.
  • Allow an active alcoholic or addict to have custody of his/her children.
  • Put yourself in financial or physical jeopardy.
  • Use or drink with the alcoholic or addict.
  • Supply a car to “help them get to work”.
  • Fail to confront an enabler for their behavior towards the addict.
  • Letting him/her drink because ‘he only has a cocaine problem’.
  • Blame everything on his /her wife or drug buddies.


On the previous pages we have covered some of the most commonly used enabling behaviors. It is important to note that enabling behaviors usually have one of four effects on an addict.


  1. It makes their drug or alcohol lifestyle much more comfortable at an emotional level.
  2. It prevents the alcoholic or addict from feeling the uncomfortable negative consequences of their use.
  3. It decreases their ability to face and deal with uncomfortable life situations over time because you are facing and dealing with it for them.
  4. It contributes directly to their drug or alcohol use.

Enabling behaviors affect an addict in the same way that alcohol or drugs do. The negative consequences must be felt and the comfortable factors must go away. As a result, the addiction becomes more comfortable and ability to deal with life lessons, and the addiction progression increases. The drugs or alcohol are no longer the problem, but rather it

is a diminishing ability to confront life situations that is the problem. The drugs are just a means to that avoidance and if you enable, you are also a means to that, just like the drugs.

In addition to accelerating the addiction, enabling can also prevent a loved one from seeking help. For example, we often hear the phrase “they have to reach their bottom before they can get help.”

First, we need to understand the concept of a “bottom.” In most cases where an intervention is necessary, the client usually falls somewhere along the bottom of the progression curve. So, the question is: If they are at the bottom of the progression curve, then why are they not feeling the bottom enough to want to change? Because you are feeling it for him. You are the one absorbing all the negative consequences they should be feeling but are not. If you are absorbing all the consequences, that means that they are not feeling them, right? It is a common misconception that to help a using addict, we should remove all the negative consequences around them (financial struggles, homelessness, etc.) while at the same time increase the good factors. Although this works in most normal relationships, when we deal with addiction the opposite is usually true. The negative consequences must be felt and the comfortable factors must go away. If the addict does not feel the negative consequences of their addiction, then they will never want to change. Quite simply, a bottom is when an addict feels most of the negative consequences of their addiction. 

Stopping all enabling behaviors will allow them to do so and embrace treatment and sobriety.

We're here to help

Helping someone with drug addiction isn’t easy. We have the experience to help. All calls and emails are confidential.  

The struggle against addiction to any substance is never an easy battle, but you can overcome it with the right intervention service tailored to your needs.