No one sets out to enable addiction. On the contrary, many start out with good intentions. We love the person struggling with addiction, and she’s in grave danger, so just this once, we bail her out of jail. Or he promised he’ll quit drinking. We want to believe him, but before we know it, we’re in a dangerous pattern of enabling.

When Compassion Becomes Problematic, It Is Enabling

In Codependent No More, Melody Beattie defines enabling:

Enabling is therapeutic jargon that means a destructive form of helping.”

Gateway Types Of Enabling

Many spouses and parents start down the dark path of enabling by making excuses for the addict. “He’s sick,” we say. Or, “She’s got the flu.” We can’t, won’t, and certainly don’t want to tell family members and close friends about the problem. Dr. Claudia Black, an expert in co-dependency and addiction explains that when someone has a chemical dependency, three major rules that exist within the family:

  1. Don’t talk to anyone about the real problem.
  2. Don’t trust. Psychological and/or physical safety are often missing in addictive households which produces mistrust.
  3. Don’t feel. People living with addiction are often in such desperation that the only way to cope is by repressing (ignoring, restraining, or hiding) their feelings or just not feeling anything at all.

Some enablers graduate to doing things for the addict that he, she, or they can do for themselves. Perhaps a Mom will do laundry for her adult son or balance her 30 year-old’s checkbook.  The goal here is often to keep peace. This may include “mind reading” by anticipating these wants and doing them ahead of time. Perhaps the house is kept sparking clean to keep the addict calm.

Covert Types Of Enabling

As addiction progresses, so does the need to enable. In this phase, the enabler often ignores other negative behaviors that the addict is demonstrating such as:

  • Abuse (physical, emotional, sexual)
  • Throwing things
  • Storming out of the home in anger
  • Driving with the children while drunk
  • Losing a job due to work consequences of the addiction (coming in late, being drugged on the job).

Other covert types of enabling include rescuing the addict from consequences. Instead of giving the addict time to feel the consequence by staying in jail, parents will bail the children out. Instead of making a spouse use the bus to get to work, a husband will drive his wife to work.

Driven by fear, codependents often take over as the family spokesperson, speaking on behalf of the addict. They also walk on eggshells, making sure her food is on the table when she gets home. In other cases, they prevent catastrophes by driving him to the bar to get drunk. Defeated, they reason, “He’s going anyway.”‘

In extreme cases, a loved one might even help the addict stay in the addiction by buying the drug of choice for him.

Enabling Hurts The Enabler

Eventually, the enabler ends up doing almost everything for the family – working, raising the children, being involved with the kids’ activities. They do things that they don’t want to do and will say “yes” to anything that might keep peace in the family. And finally, the enabler does not take care of him or herself physically, emotionally, socially, intellectually, or spirituality. The focus is always about the addict and the addiction.

When Children Enable

Sometimes an older child will take on a parental role to help instead of being allowed to be a child (doing all the cooking, laundry, etc.). When children are given excuses for the addiction-driven behaviors, it makes it even more difficult to say “no” to their parent(s) or sibling(s). Children often believe they cause their parents addictions and will defend the addict’s behavior.

How To Quit Enabling

Having an inability to set boundaries gets the enabler in trouble.  The enabler gives up his or her life to take care of the addict. In recovery, we learn not to cause or prevent a crisis. Little by little, learn how to get your life back by doing healthy behaviors. Put the focus back on you. Meet your physical needs first. Ultimately, to restore balance, the enabler must start denying whatever the addict wants. This is often uncomfortable and frequently challenging. Consider getting support from a family group like Al-Anon, Nar-anon, or Celebrate Recovery.



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Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson, D.Min., ACSW, LMSW, is a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience in the fields of mental health, addictions, and co-occurring disorders. Her other specialties include grief and trauma, women’s issues, chronic pain management, holistic healing, GLBTQ concerns, and spirituality and transpersonal psychology. Dr. Anderson has been educated and trained in the fields of education, social work, and spirituality, and she holds a Doctor of Ministry degree (non-denominational/interfaith) specializing in spirituality.


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