The Enabler Role in Addiction

Too often, the Enabler in the story of addiction is depicted as a person with good intentions. The enabler plays the role of a loved one who can't bear to see the addict in their life suffering and therefore tries to help their spouse, child or parent with his or her addiction problem. We give the enabler too much credit for taking the high road and providing perceived support for the addict. We need to shift perspective and start recognizing that a person who enables another to continue with an addiction is also to blame for the perpetual destruction and devastation happening in families around the world.

The enabler is the person who solidifies destructive patterns in families by preventing the addict from suffering the natural consequences of his or her actions, therefore taking problems to more severe levels for longer periods of time.

Why do they do it? Because it makes them feel good. It is the same reason an addict does their drug or behavior of choice - they believe it serves them in some way. Even though both the enabler and the addict know their behaviours are bad for them long-term, they continue because they desire the short-term perceived benefits.

Let’s take a look at some of the behaviors of enablers: typically the enabler is trying to control or protect the addict. They may shield the addict by keeping them home and cleaning up the messes they create. They may take on responsibilities, jobs or problems for addict. They may rationalize the behaviour of the addict by saying for example, that “smoking pot helps him to relax” or “drinking alcohol makes her happier”. While they think they may be helping to diffuse problems and make everyone’s immediate experience better, the enabler is in fact sabotaging the addict. If the enabler takes away the opportunity for an addict to experience rock-bottom or the dire consequence of their actions, the enabler robs the addict of their catalyst for change. The enabler contributes to a culture of addiction within the family and normalizes unhealthy patterns, causing children and other family members suffer.

True support for an addict comes with recognizing the addict’s need to experience the consequences of their actions. Only then can they learn important lessons and build resilience. In supporting families with addiction problems we need to focus on helping enablers to step away from their role. We need to help them learn to be supportive through the use of solid boundaries and clear communication. Then, the whole family can take steps away from addiction and toward more vital and healthy lifestyles.