What Does Enabling a Family Member Look Like?

Enabling refers to a pattern of behavior by the loved ones of a person struggling with an addiction disorder that make it easier for the addicted person to continue substance abuse.

This page will examine what enabling is and isn’t, common behaviors that are considered enabling, and how to break the cycle of enabling someone’s substance use problems.

What is Enabling?

family dealing with addiction by enabling a loved oneEnabling is any behavior that prevents another from feeling the consequences of their destructive actions. Once someone recognizes the way they are enabling someone, they can begin working with the addicted individual to create better solutions to the problem.

Unfortunately, addiction is complicated, as are the dynamics that addiction disorders create within families, among friends, and between significant others. Just as it isn’t always easy to determine if someone has an addiction, it’s not always clear where the line is between supporting and caring for someone and enabling them. Enablers themselves are often in as much denial about their behaviors as addicted individuals can be, resulting in a codependent relationship.

Recognizing these behaviors in oneself or others can ultimately be much more helpful to the individual being enabled in the long run. Enabling behaviors can include:

  • Repeatedly bailing a person out of jail for behaviors like drunk driving or buying drugs
  • Providing housing to an addicted person who spends too much money on drugs or alcohol to pay rent
  • Lying to others about the extent of the addicted person’s drug or alcohol abuse
  • Making excuses for the person’s substance abuse or related behaviors
  • Frequently assuring the addicted person that the substance abuse is not a problem
  • Paying for damages or legal fees caused by being under the influence
  • Denying the impact of the person’s addictive behavior

There are many other behaviors that can fall into the category of enabling, but the core of the problem is sacrificing one’s own happiness, money, and time in order to maintain a bad situation out of fear of things becoming even worse.

Unfortunately, things often do get worse when someone stops enabling their loved one, but feeling the consequences of their actions is precisely how someone with an addiction to recognizes they need to change their behavior.

On the other hand, enabling someone only continues to allow someone’s addiction to get worse, which could end in overdose, serious injury, or many other terrible situations. The only way to avoid this is for the addicted person to get sober and remains in recovery.

Why Do People Enable Their Loved Ones?

Enabling is often done out of love, even if it makes things worse in the long run. The people doing the enabling are often those who are most affected by the behavior of the people with addiction. They tend to be very unhappy in the situation but may think that the enabling behaviors and avoiding all conflict is their best or only option.

Some people believe the irreparable harm may come to the person being enabled if they stop, or that refusing to unconditionally support that person would mean withdrawing love. This is not true. Taking the hard path that will ultimately result in positive change is the most loving thing you can do for someone and, in the long run, can save an addicted person from an extremely destructive path that often ends in premature death.

Enabling behaviors are any actions that allow the addicted person to continue destructive substance use with minimal consequences. This prevents the individual from getting treatment due to the fact that people with addiction disorders tend to only admit there’s a problem and that they need help once their behaviors starts significantly interfering with their lives.

Breaking the Cycle of Enabling

The first step to ending enabling behavior after recognizing it is to admit to oneself that it’s causing harm to the addicted person. Though enabling is typically done out of love and concern for a friend, family member, or significant other, the fact is that it’s ultimately a crueler option than facing the real, underlying problem. Addiction disorders only become worse without treatment, and the destructive behavior will not change without consequences.

In the long run, the only way to help an addicted person is to get that individual to admit the problem and accept help. Otherwise, that person will eventually begin to suffer from serious medical problems, encounter legal troubles, become unable to hold a job, and experience more negative life effects, all while becoming increasingly dependent on their substance of choice. Unfortunately, very few people who need specialized treatment for an addiction disorder receive it—around 10%, according to the National Survey of Drug Use and Health.

The key to breaking the enabling cycle is to return responsibility to the addicted person. That individual needs to once again be responsible for their actions and suffer the consequences of substance abuse. This means setting clear and hard boundaries with the addicted person.

Helping Someone Without Enabling

Comforting someone in group therapyOf course, not all forms of helping someone qualify as enabling. Some actions can go a long way in helping someone help themselves. For example, rewarding someone’s positive attributes. This can be as simple as thanking them when they behave thoughtfully, taking them to movie they want to see, or spending quality time together.

Rather than staging a confrontational intervention like the ones seen on television, it may be helpful to facilitate a conversation with a medical professional. Sometimes people are unwilling to listen to family members but will accept the advice of a neutral 3rd party expert.

If and when your loved one decides to seek treatment, you can help them find the right facility. Recovery First Treatment Center in South Florida provides multiple types of addiction treatment, utilizing evidence-based methods that can help someone get sober and remain in recovery. Call an admissions navigator at to learn more or to begin the admissions process.

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Recovery First is located in Hollywood, Florida, which is easily accessible from Miami or Ft. Lauderdale. Our small groups means you get more one-on-one support and make stronger connections with the community. Take the next step toward recovery: learn more about our addiction treatment programs near Florida's Atlantic coast or learn about how rehab is affordable for everyone.