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Enabling Addictions in Relationships – Examples & How to Find Help

Many people who are in relationships with an addict – whether the addiction is chemical or behavioral – find themselves in situations where they can choose either to address the addiction, or allow it to continue. Unfortunately, to allow harmful behavior to continue is to enable it, and the choice to enable another person can cause serious financial, emotional, and interpersonal problems.

In this complicated situation, it’s essential to take steps to address the problem head-on. If the addiction goes unaddressed, the negative consequences are likely to escalate.

Examples of Enabling Addiction

When the word “enabling” is used with addiction, most people think of obvious addictions, such as dependency on alcohol or drugs. But many addictions aren’t as obvious from the outside looking in, and enabling isn’t always about addiction, either.

Here are some examples of less-common addictions or problematic behaviors, and the enabling that often accompanies them:

  1. Gambling. Playing poker with friends can be harmless and fun, but some people can take an entire paycheck or even a lifetime of savings to the race track or casino, and blow through all of it. In this situation, an enabler may provide rent or grocery money, rather than allowing the gambler to go through an eviction, which could be a necessary consequence of gambling away all funds.
  2. Stealing. Kleptomania is a recognized mental disorder that compels individuals to compulsively steal. The loved one of a kleptomaniac may lie to police to cover up the crimes, rather than allowing the addict to face criminal charges.
  3. Sex or Pornography. A person who is addicted to sex or pornography is controlled by their compulsion and finds relief from the misuse of their natural sex drives. The spouse of a porn addict may enable the behavior by minimizing his or her own feelings about the damage it causes, or may come across as unconcerned that young children may find the material in the house. Enabling may take the form of nonchalance over the addiction, even if it causes a great deal of internal pain.
  4. Working. People have to work to pay the bills, but work can also become the cornerstone of an individual’s life. An enabler may find him- or herself internally blaming the employer for their unfair expectations, rather than directly addressing the workaholic’s choice to remain late at the office every night.

Enabling isn’t something that is done out of malevolence or disregard; rather, it’s a set of behaviors that usually begin from a place of care and concern.

In a classic example, the wife of an alcoholic enables her husband to continue drinking by making excuses for his behavior or restocking the refrigerator with beer to prevent an outburst. At first glance, the wife’s behavior appears kind and thoughtful. She has prevented her husband from facing uncomfortable consequences at work due to a hangover if she calls in sick for him. Additionally, she has also warded off an angry outburst directed at the children when the refrigerator is out of beer.

However, she has also allowed several insidious and harmful patterns to continue unabated. In this example, the most obvious negative pattern is that the husband remains an alcoholic despite her apparent care and concern, thereby putting his physical health and the mental/emotional health of the entire family at risk.

The above is just an example, and many situations of addiction present with much more complexity than is afforded here. Many spouses of alcoholics are also managing the threat of physical or emotional harm when they enable a problem drinking behavior. If this is the case, the spouse should contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 prior to making any moves to cease the behavior.

The Emotional and Financial Toll of Enabling

Addiction, however, is not just an individual tragedy. In the alcoholic example above, there are several painful repercussions that can ripple through the family if the alcoholic’s wife enables her spouse to continue his problem drinking. The wife will learn that she exists to stay one step ahead of the addiction, which deeply stunts her personal and emotional health.

But enabling problematic behavior carries a substantial financial burden, as well. Remaining one step ahead of an addict who will do anything to meet his or her needs can prove to be very costly – sometimes resulting in financial ruin.

Consider several real-life examples:

  1. Financial Support of Addiction. The loved ones of alcoholics or drug addicts sometimes pawn treasured items, take on extra jobs, miss their own rent payments, or forgo their own dreams and goals to support the addiction. The enabler isn’t trying to support the addiction itself; he or she is trying to pay the bills for the addict who has used up every resource to pay for a habit. The problem, however, is that the addict doesn’t care or notice the personal sacrifice as long as he or she continues to obtain what is needed to satiate the addiction.
  2. Credit Card Debt. To trust an addict with financial information or access can cause enormous credit card debt and other types of debt, which can occur overnight. In one example, a gambling addict racked up $100,000 in credit card debt in one day at a casino. While this example is extreme, the husband of the addict had an inclination that his wife had a problem, but he never denied her access to their finances.
  3. Job Loss. Addicts can continue with their dysfunctional behaviors for years, but sometimes the world of an addict can crash down overnight. Imagine the financial loss to a family if the primary breadwinner gets in a car accident while driving under the influence. The crash could further cause a suspension or firing from work, and thereby precipitate large financial problems for the family.

If the emotional costs of enabling an addiction are too abstract to grasp hold of, hopefully the very real financial repercussions will sway an enabler to address problematic behaviors head-on.

Enabling Emotional Toll

Assessing the Relationship

Of course, no one goes into a relationship thinking about how fun it is to emotionally and financially support an addict. Sometimes the addict is a loved family member who is suffering from an unmanageable problem. Other times, the relationship is freely entered because of joint emotional satisfaction from codependency. And some people find themselves blindsided by a hidden addiction once they’re already well into a relationship. All of these scenarios can make it extremely difficult to extricate oneself from unhealthy enabling patterns.

If you’re starting to wonder whether or not you’re enabling someone you love, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are you afraid that your loved one will yell, scream, or grow violent if you don’t do something to help them?
  • Are you prone to ignore behaviors that are hurting you?
  • How often do you feel resentful about your growing list of responsibilities?
  • Do you feel uncomfortable practicing self-care, or do you even allow time for your own needs?
  • How comfortable are you with expressing your emotions?
  • Do you ever lie to cover up your loved one’s behavior?
  • Are you more likely to blame someone or something for your situation, rather than blaming your loved one?
  • Are you suffering financially due to your loved one’s behavior?

While your answers to these questions aren’t diagnostic, they should give you a clue about how you’re feeling within the relationship and whether or not you need to take action to protect both yourself and your loved one from their problem behavior or addiction.

Finding Help

Creating and Enforcing Boundaries

A boundary is a limit or guideline you can create to identify the behaviors and actions that are permissible within the context of a relationship. To be effective, a boundary must be enforced through natural consequences. Establishing boundaries can feel tricky no matter the setting – whether it’s with clients at work, children, or even within the context of a healthy marriage – but when you’re in a relationship with an addict, creating and enforcing firm boundaries requires great creativity, strength, and social support.

If you’re beginning to feel that you are enabling a loved one, it’s important to first identify the boundary an addict keeps crossing. Many enablers lose a sense of their boundaries because of the emotional weariness of looking after someone’s problem behaviors. Sit down by yourself or with a trusted friend and take an inventory of the ways that you are feeling used and disrespected. In the example of the wife of the alcoholic, she may need to make a list of the ways her husband uses her to support his addiction, and determine that the use cannot continue. She may decide that she will no longer restock the refrigerator with beer, or make excuses for her husband at work, or remain in the house with the children as long as he continues to leave his problem unaddressed. Each list is highly personal, depending on the relationship and the behavior in question.

The most important thing for you to remember is that the enforcement of boundaries can be painful. Addicts do not like having their addictions challenged, and they often grow angry on their way to hitting “rock bottom.” But people and relationships cannot and will not change until it’s more painful to stay the same than it is to change, and the enforcement of boundaries is one way in which you can increase an addict’s internal (and sometimes external) discomfort with his or her behavior.

No matter which boundaries you set, stick to your principles and allow natural consequences to reach your loved one. Sometimes, their very life depends upon your strength.

Getting Out

If you’ve tried to establish boundaries and your loved one continues to wear you down, or there isn’t a way to enforce the boundary while remaining in the relationship, you may need to consider how to remove yourself from the addict’s reach. This may feel cold, but sometimes the dissolution of a relationship is one last natural consequence that needs to reach the addict. The removal of a relationship accomplishes two things: It protects you from further emotional harm, and it communicates to the addict that he or she cannot have both you and the addiction.

Breaking up the relationship must be a choice made primarily for self-care. If a breakup is motivated only by a desire to manipulate the addict into changing, it is likely that you will lose resolve or that the addict will see right through it.

Finally, if you feel for any reason that you will be in physical danger if you address the addiction through boundaries or leaving the relationship, it is important to enlist the help of a professional prior to enforcing your boundaries.

Professional Assistance

Many enablers are so worn down by the addiction that they are unable to create and enforce boundaries without the help of an outsider. If you’re having difficulty knowing how to address the problem behaviors through boundary-setting (or if you’re at all concerned for your safety), create a support system for yourself through the use of professional help.

There are several places you can turn:

  1. Al-Anon. Like Alcoholic’s Anonymous, Al-Anon groups offer support for people who are affected by addiction. However, unlike Alcoholic’s Anonymous, Al-Anon groups are intended to help the family members of addicts, because the group recognizes that addiction is a family disease and that enabling often occurs in the context of addiction. These groups help enablers establish boundaries while supporting the addict’s recovery.
  2. Counseling. Many therapists specialize in addiction, and understand the emotional turmoil experienced by the loved ones of addicts. A good counselor can help you create and enforce boundaries in a one-on-one setting, and help you if you need to remove yourself from the relationship.
  3. Interventionist. The loved ones of an addict can choose to stage an intervention with the help of family, friends, and a professional interventionist. The interventionist can help you determine how to establish consequences for the addict, and can also surround you with support to reduce the inherent fear in addressing problem behaviors. For example, the family of a drug addict places a call to a professional interventionist, who then meets privately with the addict’s family and friends to prepare them for the process, and also to address the family’s enabling patterns directly. Then, the interventionist stages a meeting in the presence of the addict in which each loved one shares his or her concerns, fears, and promises in an emotionally and physically safe environment. The purpose is to incite change within the addict, and is often followed by a stint in rehab or therapy, depending on whether the addict is agreeable to the intervention.
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Final Word

Addictions and problem behaviors are powerful problems for both an addicts and the people who love them. If you’ve fallen into the trap of enabling problematic behaviors, it’s extremely important to establish and enforce boundaries for both your emotional and financial health. Seek help from friends, family, or professional helpers if you’re not sure how to regain control over an unmanageable situation.

Have you ever experienced a painful financial loss due to enabling?

Mary McCoy, LMSW is a licensed social worker who works closely with individuals, families, and organizations in crisis. She knows first-hand how financial choices can prevent and mitigate crises, and she's therefore passionate about equipping people with the information they need to make solid financial decisions for themselves and their loved ones. When Mary isn't on her soap box, you can find her hiking, jogging, yoga-ing, or frolicking with her family.

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