The concept of enabling may seem somewhat straightforward – when we enable a loved one, we do for others what they need (and can) do for themselves. However, it can be exceptionally difficult to determine the difference between supporting, assisting, and enabling – especially when loved ones are involved. Parents are biologically hardwired to want to help and protect their children, and it can be exceptionally challenging to differentiate between a needed safeguard and a detrimental crossing of personal boundaries. This is especially true when addictive disorders are somehow involved. When parents enable their addicted children, they are inadvertently preventing them from experiencing the full consequences of their behavior. In most instances, it is the consequences of addiction that drive individuals to eventually seek outside help.
Interestingly enough, however, it is almost always the enabler – not the addict – who suffers the most at the hands of enabling behavior.
Codependency and Enabling
Individuals who suffer from codependent tendencies often feel compelled to solve problems that are not their own. They may take on the emotional struggles of those closest to them, convincing themselves that autonomy is completely out of the question. Most codependents will begin behaving in a way that stems from a sincere and authentic desire to help. However, over time, the codependent will begin acting out of compulsive desperation. Family dynamics become harshly skewed, and the codependent will begin to over-function to an increasing degree (while the addict continuously under-functions). As this dynamic deepens, the addict will come to expect the codependent to save him or her from all potential consequences, and the codependent will begin to develop a deep-seated resentment towards the addict.
Despite steadily accumulating resentments, the codependent will feel exceedingly guilty if he or she does not tend to the perceived needs of his or her addicted loved one. Most codependent individuals will entirely overlook the fact that their loved one is capable of resolving his or her own issues. They will begin believing that they, themselves, play a vital role in the livelihood of their child, friend, family member, or spouse (as the case may be). Codependents will also have an extremely difficult time asking for help. They may feel overwhelmed, indignant, and incapable – but they will still trudge forth, bearing burdens that are not theirs to bear.
The addict will adapt to the situation, and learn what buttons need to be pushed in order to maintain limited consequences. The codependent will react the inevitable button-pushing without fail. The vicious cycle of enabling will continue on, until some significant change is made.
Some examples of enabling behavior may include (but are certainly not limited to):
- Continuously makes excuses to others for the behavior of the addict, attempting to protect them from consequences at school, at work, with legal authorities, and with other family members).
- Preventing the addict from experiencing the natural consequences of his or her behavior.
- Keeps secrets for the addict in order to keep peace.
- Continuously bails the addict out of trouble (legal trouble, financial trouble).
- Makes empty threats – sets boundaries with no follow-through or consistency.
- Perceives “the problem” (the addictive behavior) to be the result of something unrelated, such as typical adolescent rebellion, problems at school, or loneliness.
- Actively avoids the addict in order to keep peace at home and avoid arguments and confrontation.
- Attempts to control many aspects of the addict’s life – extracurricular activities, friendships, and work environments).
- Takes care of the addict in lieu of self-care.
Learning to Let Go
Ultimately, we are powerless over the actions of others, no matter how hard we try to set our loved ones on the right path. When we understand and accept this, we will be able to begin detaching with love. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, detachment is necessary to ultimate recovery. Allowing our loved ones to face the natural consequences of their behavior will help nudge them towards the road of recovery far more quickly than our taking responsibility.