When we talk about recovery and the interpersonal dynamics that often occur in relationships, “enabling” is the dirty word no one wants to hear. But what is enabling? How do we know when we’re loving someone too much? And once we can recognize it, how do we stop it?

What Does Enabling Someone Mean?

Simply put, enabling is any pattern of behavior that facilitates another person’s continued alcohol or drug use. Enabling is a spectrum of behaviors. On one extreme, there are obvious acts of reinforcing a person’s substance use disorder, like buying alcohol or drugs for them or driving them to get their substances. Most people can easily identify these examples as obvious enabling behaviors.

The majority of the time, however, enabling is much subtler. It could be giving someone money for gas, putting money “on their books” if they’re incarcerated, making calls to treatment centers for them, or allowing them to come back to your house after asking them to leave.

Enabling is a difficult behavior pattern to change because it is often motivated by fear of losing someone we love. However, enabling does not produce change. To be the best source of support and accountability for our loved ones with a substance or alcohol use disorder, we have to be able to set firm boundaries and make sure that whatever help we offer only helps for recovery.

How to be Supportive But Not Enabling?

The task facing families, friends, and loved ones is figuring out how to support someone with a substance or alcohol use disorder without enabling them. While enabling behaviors facilitate someone’s drug and alcohol use, supporting behaviors facilitate their recovery.

The key question to ask yourself when trying to decide if you are enabling or supporting is, “Do my actions make it easier for someone to keep using drugs and alcohol than to try and quit?” If the answer is “yes,” then you are enabling.

Support involves several components. It is up to each person and family to decide how to utilize these components in their own unique situations.

Support Component #1: Boundary Setting

Setting boundaries is difficult for many people, but particularly when dealing with a loved one’s substance use. The disease of addiction often compels the substance abuser to lie, manipulate, take advantage of, and otherwise disregard healthy relationship boundaries. It becomes difficult for friends and families to stand strong in the face of these behaviors but is an absolutely essential part of support.

Setting good boundaries means:

  • Being clear and consistent about what you will and will not tolerate. Part of this involves setting consequences if a loved one violates the boundaries.
  • Following through on the consequences. In other words, if you tell a loved one “I will not allow you to use my car again”, following through means not relenting on this, even in the face of anger, manipulation, deceit, pleading, etc.
  • Using assertive techniques to firmly yet calmly navigate conflict. Especially if setting boundaries is new in your relationship, it’s likely to cause surprise, anger, and perhaps desperation for someone who is struggling with a substance use disorder. As long as it is safe to do so, meet these emotions with a steadfast yet controlled firmness.

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Support Component #2: Treating Addiction as a Disorder

Another important ingredient in supporting a loved one’s substance use is treating addiction as a disorder. This can be a difficult approach to take because often substance use causes unimaginable emotional, psychological, financial, and physical damage to a family. It is a daunting task as a family member or loved one to separate the pain of past hurts from our behaviors towards the substance abuser.

Here are a few ways to develop an understanding of substance use disorders:

  • Read.There are many phenomenal books on the topic of substance use disorders, and a substantial number of those works are written specifically for families and loved ones. Speak to your family doctor, counselor, or reach out to an area substance use treatment clinic for recommendations if you are struggling with where to start.
  • Join a support group for families. Programs like Al-Anon (the companion program to Alcoholics Anonymous designed for spouses and family members) and SMART Recovery are a treasure trove of both emotional support and factual resources.
  • Speak with an experienced substance use disorders clinician. Whether it’s for weekly therapy or for a purely educational discussion, these professionals will have the training, experience, and expertise to offer you a solid foundation in learning about substance use disorders.

Support Component #3: Always Focus on Recovery

Lastly, good supportive behaviors always focus on recovery. Instead of giving them the $40 they ask for as “gas money”, think about offering to drive them to an AA or NA meeting of their choice and then home afterward. Talk with them about the ways in which their continued substance use hurts you and share your concerns with them in a candid and nonjudgmental way.

Familiarize yourself with treatment options so that, if and when your loved one decides it’s time to try and quit, you are able to act quickly and decisively. Use proper terminology like “substance use disorder” and “recovery” when discussing a loved one’s drinking and drug use. Make recovery a part of your boundaries.

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Loving Someone to Death vs. Loving Someone Back to Life

Think about enabling as “loving someone to death.” Enabling behaviors keep people stuck in their dysfunctional and dangerous patterns. We cannot ignore the deadliness of substance or alcohol use disorders; these are disorders that are chronic, progressive, and fatal if left untreated. Although motivated ultimately by love, enabling allows the disorder to continue.

Supporting, on the other hand, is “loving someone back to life.” Setting boundaries, understanding the nature of substance use disorders, and putting the focus always on recovery allows our loved ones to see a path out of their current way of living, even if they don’t take advantage of that path right away. Supporting is difficult, and it demands an extraordinary amount of patience, compassion, and fortitude. But in the end, recovery is always worth the work and the wait.

At the Coleman Institute for Addiction Medicine, our mission is to help people get into long-term recovery and stay there. If you or someone you care about is dependent on alcohol, opioids, or benzodiazepines and is looking for help with their recovery journey, please consider us as a potential resource. We have helped over 8,000 people using our unique Coleman Method for outpatient detox, which includes supportive case management and Medication Assisted Treatment using the non-addictive opioid blocker, naltrexone. Schedule a callback with one of our Care Advocates to learn more about the Coleman Method today.

Hannah Clevenger, LCSW


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