You’ve likely heard the terms enabling and enabler, but may not fully understand the meaning of these terms. While you may hear the words used in other contexts, they are most often used when speaking of one’s relationship with someone who is battling an addiction. Read on to better understand. In short, enabling is removing the natural consequences of a person’s behavior in an erroneous effort to protect that person from his or her mistakes. Examples of enabling include:
- Giving money to one who has an addiction to gambling or drugs
- Repairing something that someone broke due to his addiction
- Lying or making excuses to cover up someone’s absenteeism or other irresponsible behavior
- Screening phone calls
- Bailing the person out of jail
Professionals warn against enabling because evidence has shown that one with an addiction is most likely to change when he or she experiences the damaging consequences of his or her addiction. Often this is when the addict “hits bottom” – a term commonly referred to in Alcoholics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous.
Those who are enablers tend to be those who often feel compelled to solve other people’s problems. The enabler starts out with a well-intentioned desire to help, but ends up in a situation wherein he or she, as the sober partner, increasingly over-functions, allowing the addict to under-function. Thus, when dealing with an addict, enablers usually suffer much of the effects of the addict’s destructive behavior. This dynamic builds resentment on both sides and perpetuates, rather than solves, a problem.
Enablers are often referred to as co-dependent. This is a telling word, because a person who is co-dependent is having his needs met as well by remaining in this role. Firstly, his or her self-esteem is nourished by seeing him or herself as the helpful one. Secondly, this “helping” allows him or her to feel some semblance of control in an unmanageable situation. The reality, though, is that enabling not only doesn’t help, but it actively causes harm and makes the situation worse.
The Al-Anon program suggests that we do not do for the alcoholic what he or she is capable of doing for him or herself. However, the pressure to enable can be intense, particularly coming from one who is suffering from an addiction and is angry and forceful. Those who have addictions tend to know how to manipulate people and situations to get their needs met. To complicate matters, people who are drunk or using drugs heavily are often unaware of their actions; they may have blackouts, and don’t remember what havoc they wrought when under the influence.
Stopping enabling isn’t easy, nor is it for the faint of heart. It requires great faith and courage to stop enabling without knowing the outcome. The enabler may be afraid the addict may have a car accident, end up in jail, or worse, die on the streets or commit suicide. However, stopping the cycle is vital to the healing process, as one recovered alcoholic said, “I wouldn’t be alive if my wife had rescued me one more time.”