What Does Enabling an Addict Look Like?

It’s estimated that one out of seven people will face addictions in their lifetimes. Out of these, only ten percent of them will seek treatment for the addiction.

The road to recovery is paved with failed good intentions. Are you helping your loved one with his addiction or enabling him to continue his habit?

Keep reading to learn more.

What Exactly Is Enabling?

Enabling addicts starts as a simple desire to help. The enabler receives a temporary reward by feeling needed or helpful. This desire to feel needed escalates harmful behaviors for both parties.

The addict will encourage the enabler to “help”. This manipulation can take the form of pressure and guilt. The addict promises the enabler that they will seek treatment for their addiction or that they only need help “one last time”.

Enabling will never help an addict long term. Enablers remove the consequences of the addict’s actions. Often, an addict must see their consequences and hit rock bottom before they seek the help they need.

Read on to learn how to help an addict without enabling them to continue their destructive behavior.

Behaviors of an Enabler

Enabling behavior involves hiding the addiction. As an enabler, you make excuses for the addict and are often in denial about the extent of the addiction.

Some common enabling behaviors are:

Lying or Excusing the Addict’s Actions

This takes many forms. You may find yourself:

  • Calling off work on their behalf
  • Making excuses for the addict’s absences
  • Making excuses for the bad behavior of the addict
  • Shouldering the burden of the addict’s obligation
  • Excluding the addict from plans

These actions come from embarrassment for the addict and a desire to hide the addiction from outsiders.

The intention is to protect the addict from the outcomes of their decisions.

Joining the Addict

Some enablers may join the addict in destructive behavior. The wife of an alcoholic may drink at dinner, for instance. The enabler may feel this is the only way to connect with the addict.

Hiding Emotion

You will often hide your true feelings about the addict’s actions. You may feel afraid to express yourself for many of these reasons:

  • Fear of rejection by the addict
  • Feelings of guilt for feeling angry or hurt
  • Fear of the addict’s actions
  • Lack of self-esteem

Remember that love means you should never be afraid to express your feelings.

The Blame Game

You find yourself blaming everyone around the addict for their actions. This is a way for you to avoid blaming the addict himself. It’s a way to protect the addict from the consequences of their choices.


You place the priorities and needs of the addict above your own. You may begin to develop feelings of “martyrdom” because of the sacrifices you make for the addict.

Self-sacrifice for enablers can be emotional, physical, or financial. You continue to give money to the addict, for instance, or to defend their actions to others.

This constant self-sacrifice is exhausting for the enabler.


After a while, you develop feelings of resentment toward the addict. This resentment goes hand in hand with guilt over your feelings. An enabler often feels hurt, angry, and betrayed.

This resentment will not be enough to stop the enabling behavior.

Repeated Rescues

Bailing the addict out of jail or dropping everything to pick them up whenever they call are two examples of rescuing your loved one. You have feelings of responsibility for the addict. You feel grudgingly “heroic” for your repeated rescues of the addict.

One More Time

Enablers are hopeful that the next time they help their loved one will be their last time. The addict finds it easy to play on the hopes of their enabler. The addict may even have the best of intentions at the time they make the promise.

The enabler refuses to give up on the addict because they don’t want to “abandon” them.

Controlling Behaviors

Over time, you begin controlling every aspect of the addict’s life. Deciding who the addict sees or what they do lets you think you are in control of the addiction.

The enabler feels superior to the addict. In many ways, the enabler treats the addict as if they were a child.

The addict may resist your control by acting out or turning to their addictions even more.

Downplaying the Addiction

The enabler may be in denial of the severity of the addiction. They may even justify the addiction by comparing it to other types of addiction.

“He drinks a lot, but at least he’s not addicted to drugs.”

How Did We Get Here?

It’s not your fault if you are stuck in the rut of enabling your loved one to continue their habits. Addicts learn to manipulate their family and friends, often by making them feel responsible for the addiction. The addict uses guilt and fear to get whatever they need.

There are several reasons you may be continuing your enabling behavior.


Enabling behavior stems from embarrassment. No one wants to admit that a spouse is addicted or that a child is abusing drugs. It may be easier to enable the behavior to keep the peace and avoid conflict.


Other times, an enabler is afraid that the addict will die without their help. With almost 71,000 drug-related deaths in 2017 alone, this isn’t an unreasonable fear.

You may fear the addict themselves. Many times, enablers have seen erratic actions from the addict. You may choose to go along with the addict to keep their actions predictable.

Self-Esteem Issues

Enablers often have low self-esteem. They feel better about themselves and their relationships when they have control over the situation. Enablers are often co-dependent with the addict.

People who are enabling addicts because of low self-esteem are afraid to hurt the feelings of their loved ones by saying “no”.  They are afraid that the addict will find them uncaring or unsympathetic. They have a desire to remain “friends” with the addict, no matter what that means.


Hope plays a big part in enabling behaviors. The idea that your loved one will make a change can drive you to repeat an action “one more time”. You hope the addict will finally make a change.

The addict will fuel this hope by promising to seek help “next time”. This traps you. Driven by the power of “what if”, you don’t want to give up on the situation.


When an enabler is used to the daily sacrifices and demands of living with an addict, it becomes a part of life. It is easier to follow old, established routines than to make a change.

In a way, being an enabler becomes its own addiction.

How Enabling Destroys Relationships

It’s only natural to want your loved ones to succeed, but enablers refuse to let the addict fail. Enablers remove any responsibility for success from their loved ones. Instead, they shoulder the burden themselves.

The addict loses all motivation to seek help when they are enabled.

The relationship of an addict and their enablers is built on shaky ground. The addict expects the enabler to continue to intervene while the enabler begins to feel resentment toward the addict.

The cycle continues until something happens to break it. These unhealthy relationships can’t last. The final fracture of the relationship is unexpected and devastating for all parties involved.

This is the time the enabler decides that they can’t help the addict anymore. The enabler often chooses to cut all ties with the addict. The enabler is wracked with guilt, and the addict is angry and resentful.

Break the Cycle

It is possible to break the cycle of enabling addicts. It requires a conscious decision on your part to end the behavior and the commitment to stick with your decision.

Admit Your Loved One Is Addicted

The first action is often the hardest one. As an enabler, you make excuses for the addict’s behavior and refuse to face the underlying issues. You must admit that your loved one has an addiction.

Understand That You Can’t Make Your Loved One Change

The desire to beat an addiction comes from the addict, not from any outside factors. You can’t help him until they decide to help themselves.

It’s Not Your Fault

An addict will blame everyone around them. You need to understand that their continued addiction is not your fault.

Let Them Face Their Own Consequences

As an enabler, you protect your loved one from the consequences of their own behaviors. Let them own the responsibility for the problems their addiction causes.

This could mean letting them stay overnight in jail or allowing them to lose their job. Let them make their own excuses for not fulfilling their own obligations.

Breaking the cycle of enabling means that you are no longer responsible for lying for them or covering up their bad decisions.

Set Clear Boundaries

You need to understand that your loved one has been crossing boundaries for a long time. It’s time to establish new, clear boundaries.

  • Stop giving money to the addict
  • Make your own priorities important again
  • Don’t run to the rescue every time the phone rings
  • Don’t feel guilty for standing up for yourself
  • Explain your new boundaries to the addict

Get your family and friends to support the boundaries you set. It will be easier for everyone if you can all share the same new expectations, rules, and boundaries.

Be ready to stand up for yourself if your loved one reacts negatively to the changes you make.

Get Counseling

You may need help dealing with your emotions when you break the cycle of enabling your loved one’s addiction. Overwhelming feelings of guilt, responsibility, and sadness are normal when you step back from the addict’s life. A qualified counselor can help you with the complexities of your emotions during this difficult time.

When to get Professional Help for the Addict

For the enabler, letting go of the addict is difficult. Most family and friends fear placing a loved one into a rehab facility. Making the decision to get professional help can feel more like abandoning the addict than helping them.

The addict needs far more help than family or friends can give. The addict’s best chance for recovery is to be placed into a rehab program.

Rehabilitation programs use a “whole self” treatment plan. This treatment addresses both the addict’s physical as well as their emotional needs.

A good rehabilitation center offers detox programs, inpatient care, and a follow-up program.

What If I’m Not the Enabler?

An addict targets someone who is easily manipulated, often an older family member. This person is driven by a sense of guilt or fear and feel compelled to “help” the addict.

Chances are the person who is engaging in enabling behavior will not listen to warnings from outside sources. They have their own reasons for supporting the addict. The reasons they continue to support bad habits are still the same, even if they can’t identify their own behaviors.

The best way to break the cycle of enabling is to bring everyone together to address it. The enabler will not feel singled out when approached as part of a larger group. They will also realize that they are not alone and that others are aware of the strain the addict is placing on the family.

The goal of this intervention is to make sure all family and friends of the addict are on the same team. Use this time to compare notes and get a better understanding of the addiction. This is a great time to discuss treatment plans and options.

Be aware that an addict who seeks out parents or grandparents may be taking advantage of them. Keep a close eye on these relationships.

Do You Need Help?

The actions of an enabler are fueled by the desire to help. More often than not, though, enabling behaviors make the problem worse.

The best way to get the addict the help they need is to let a qualified professional handle the problem. If you worry that your actions are enabling your loved one’s addiction, contact us today.

Connor Barton
Connor Barton
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Tara Payne
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Bob Hawkins
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Mary Katz
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