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What Does It Mean To ‘Enable’ An Alcoholic?

Published:
March 21, 2024
·
18 min read
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Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
March 21, 2024
·
18 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
March 21, 2024
·
18 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
March 21, 2024
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18 min read
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Reframe Content Team
March 21, 2024
·
18 min read

Enabling or Helping? Changing Your Relationship With an Alcoholic

  • Enabling an alcoholic is defined as doing something for them that they could do for themselves if they were sober, such as repeatedly spending money to bail them out of jail.
  • When we stop enabling, our loved one is empowered to make changes for themselves. 
  • Help someone with alcohol problems by referring them to Reframe. Reframe’s neuroscience-based program helps people quit or cut back on alcohol.

Have you found yourself overwhelmed trying to help someone struggling with alcohol addiction? Are you wondering why nothing you do is helping them change their behavior?

Empathy is an important part of human connection; it hurts to see someone struggle. But in our efforts to care for someone with addiction, we may actually be enabling them. Enabling supports and sustains an individual’s addiction (even though this isn’t our intent!), but there are ways to channel our care into more helpful behaviors. In this blog, we’ll learn more about enabling behaviors, how to recognize them in ourselves, and how to help our loved one constructively.

What Is Enabling?

a lady sitting on a couch near the window

Enabling is any behavior or action that allows our loved one to avoid the consequences of their actions. We enable others by justifying their bad actions or indirectly supporting their harmful behaviors (for example, paying off someone’s alcohol related debts).  

Enabling is different from helping, even though they look alike. Helping provides support, assistance, and guidance in overcoming a specific challenge. Enabling directly or indirectly helps someone continue an unhealthy habit or behavior.

Helping empowers someone to escape their circumstance, whereas enabling them gives them permission to stay the same. While it may seem like we are helping the person or nurturing them with compassion, enabling actually makes things worse — and it typically prolongs recovery because it perpetuates the cycle of substance misuse. 

Why We Enable Our Loved Ones

The solution may seem simple: stop enabling bad behavior! The reality is more complicated than that, as many of us know. Enabling is unintentional and stems from our want/need to help others, especially when it comes to those we are closest to and most comfortable with. 

Justifying our actions as “caring” or “showing love” is natural — and these actions are definitely an expression of our love. We may not be aware that our behaviors are enabling our loved one. Let’s go through some reasons why we find ourselves enabling instead of helping.

  • Protection instinct. Some of us enable because we feel we are protecting people from further harm. Our protection may come from a place of genuine compassion, but this approach is ultimately misguided. 
  • Denial. We might enable our loved one because we refuse to acknowledge the full extent of their problem. 
  • Codependency. We might have a codependent relationship with our loved one and feel compelled to care for them. Those of us in this type of relationship derive purpose or self-worth from being a caretaker and fear losing the relationship if we don’t enable the individual. 
  • Guilt and shame. We may feel partially responsible for the behavior of the person we’re enabling, so we take action to alleviate our own feelings of guilt. We might also feel ashamed of the other person’s actions, so we “keep up appearances” and cover for them. 

We enable those who misuse alcohol for many reasons. Understanding the subconscious thought process behind our actions is a crucial first step towards recognizing and dismantling the cycle of enabling.

What Enabling Looks Like

We learned what it means to enable someone and why we may do it. Now let’s examine what it looks like when we enable an alcoholic.

Though often unintentional, enabling an alcoholic supports their destructive drinking habits by shielding them from the consequences of their actions. This can take many forms, but there are some common patterns: 

  • Covering up or providing excuses. Lying on behalf of the person, making excuses, absorbing blame, or explaining away behaviors are all ways we enable an alcoholic. For example, calling in sick for the person and saying they have the flu instead of admitting that they are too hungover to go to work. 
  • Financial support. Enabling via financial support includes providing money, paying off debts, paying their rent, allowing them to live rent-free, or bailing them out of financial trouble. If we pay someone’s rent because they can’t hold a job, they have no incentive to improve their circumstances. 
  • Rescuing from consequences. Rescuing looks like shielding the person from the consequences of their actions. For example, we may intervene to remedy legal issues, job loss, or a relationship breakdown.
  • Minimizing the problem. We may offer endless excuses to explain away the actions of our loved one instead of acknowledging the root cause of the problem. We could be downplaying the severity of the person’s problems (to ourselves and others) by attributing them to stress or a temporary issue (this is also a form of denial). For instance, we could say, “They only drink because they are stressed about not having a job, and once they get a job everything will change.”
  • Taking on their responsibilities. This could involve doing chores, covering their work, or tasking ourselves with meeting their basic daily needs. These all shield them from facing the impact of their actions. For example, we may clean their apartment weekly or cook them special meals. 

We shield our loved one from the consequences of their actions through a wide variety of behaviors, conscious and unconscious. Now that we know what enabling looks like, we can assess if it’s something we’re doing — and learn how to stop.

Identifying If We Are Enabling 

Am I Enabling?

Sometimes it’s hard to recognize whether we are helping someone or enabling them. We should stop and ask ourselves, “Could they do this for themselves if they were sober?” Let’s go through some examples to help identify if we are enabling. 

  • Avoiding the problem. Do we find that the only way to cope with the person’s behavior is to avoid dealing with it? This could be because we’re afraid of confronting them about their behavior, so we look the other way or keep quiet. 
  • Feeling resentful. Are we starting to resent the person for everything we’ve done for them without getting much in return? If we are constantly helping this person avoid the consequences of their alcohol use, we will find ourselves feeling angry or irritable around them. This can harm our relationship with them and others. 
  • Putting their needs above our own. Do we find ourselves setting aside our mental or physical health needs to help the person? Are we putting our goals on hold to help the person in need? These are examples of how enabling hurts us — not just them. 
  • Spending too much money. Have we maxed out our credit cards to help this person? Is helping them holding us back from our financial goals? Are we spending more money on them than ourselves? This is another example of the personal fallout of enabling.
  • Feeling hopeless. We keep giving and helping but nothing changes, and they don’t even seem to be grateful. We may feel like things will never get better or change — these thoughts often lead to resentment, depression, or burnout.
  • Isolating ourselves. Have we stopped spending time with friends or family members because we’re too busy or exhausted from helping them? Our social well-being should not suffer because of our caretaking.

Reflecting on these questions helps us identify unhealthy enabling behaviors. Letting go of these behaviors can feel scary, especially when we don’t know what to expect.

What Happens When You Stop Enabling an Alcoholic

We often imagine the worst possible scenario when we think about stopping our enabling behaviors. We may worry that they’ll end up in jail or without a home — but in reality, chronic alcohol misuse can be fatal. Ending enabling behaviors is the best way to help our loved one, even if the opposite feels true.

Let’s look at some ways we empower others when we stop enabling.

  1. Breaking the cycle. When we stop enabling, we interrupt the cycle of dependence and create opportunities for positive change. Breaking addiction’s pattern of destructive behavior empowers our loved one to improve themselves. 
  2. Ceding responsibility. When we stop enabling, people have to take accountability for their own actions. This allows them to make their own choices — and learn from them. 

  3. Facilitating treatment. When a person is no longer protected from consequences, they begin to realize how bad their problem is. This self-awareness can lead them to seek help with their recovery. 
  4. Preserving our well-being. When we stop enabling and protecting someone else’s well-being, we can refocus on caring for ourselves. 
  5. Improving relationships. Setting boundaries may strain our relationship at first, but over time it allows for a stronger bond based on mutuality. And if one person is no longer taking up all our time, it leaves more space for other friends and family members. 

Helping someone recover from alcohol misuse can be stressful and taxing on everyone involved. Remember that it’s about progress, not perfection. There is an abundance of resources to support both you and your loved one through the recovery process.

There are healthy ways to actively support someone who is misusing alcohol. Let’s take a look.

How To Help Someone With Addiction

Letting go of enabling behaviors is not easy. It takes setting boundaries and unlearning destructive patterns of behavior. Here are some things you can do to help an alcoholic:

  • Encourage them to seek professional help. Whether it’s a rehabilitation program, therapy, counseling, or a support group, helping them find good resources is a great way to empower them to make changes themselves. 
  • Be a good listener. Provide support and a nonjudgmental space for them to express their feelings. 
  • Allow consequences. Let them face the consequences of their actions. If they get in trouble with the law, don’t bail them out.
  • Set boundaries. Set clear boundaries and hold them accountable. Healthy boundaries include letting go of your enabling behaviors or taking steps to ensure your personal well-being. For example, you can refuse to provide further financial support, or tell them you won’t talk to them on the phone if they’ve been drinking.
  • Celebrate positive steps. If they are taking steps to better themselves, acknowledge and celebrate their efforts. Positive reinforcement helps them along the way to recovery.
  • Encourage healthy activities. Bring them along for activities that do not involve alcohol. Invite them to a yoga class or plan a hike. Alcohol-free activities can give them a new outlet for dealing with stress. 

  • Mind your own well-being. Therapy or a support group like Al-Anon can help you develop strategies to dismantle enabling behaviors. Focus on self-care and refill your cup so you can be fully present when providing mindful help.

The shift from enabling to helping is not easy! It’s important to remember the challenge will be worth it for you and the person struggling with alcohol addiction.

Have you found yourself overwhelmed trying to help someone struggling with alcohol addiction? Are you wondering why nothing you do is helping them change their behavior?

Empathy is an important part of human connection; it hurts to see someone struggle. But in our efforts to care for someone with addiction, we may actually be enabling them. Enabling supports and sustains an individual’s addiction (even though this isn’t our intent!), but there are ways to channel our care into more helpful behaviors. In this blog, we’ll learn more about enabling behaviors, how to recognize them in ourselves, and how to help our loved one constructively.

What Is Enabling?

a lady sitting on a couch near the window

Enabling is any behavior or action that allows our loved one to avoid the consequences of their actions. We enable others by justifying their bad actions or indirectly supporting their harmful behaviors (for example, paying off someone’s alcohol related debts).  

Enabling is different from helping, even though they look alike. Helping provides support, assistance, and guidance in overcoming a specific challenge. Enabling directly or indirectly helps someone continue an unhealthy habit or behavior.

Helping empowers someone to escape their circumstance, whereas enabling them gives them permission to stay the same. While it may seem like we are helping the person or nurturing them with compassion, enabling actually makes things worse — and it typically prolongs recovery because it perpetuates the cycle of substance misuse. 

Why We Enable Our Loved Ones

The solution may seem simple: stop enabling bad behavior! The reality is more complicated than that, as many of us know. Enabling is unintentional and stems from our want/need to help others, especially when it comes to those we are closest to and most comfortable with. 

Justifying our actions as “caring” or “showing love” is natural — and these actions are definitely an expression of our love. We may not be aware that our behaviors are enabling our loved one. Let’s go through some reasons why we find ourselves enabling instead of helping.

  • Protection instinct. Some of us enable because we feel we are protecting people from further harm. Our protection may come from a place of genuine compassion, but this approach is ultimately misguided. 
  • Denial. We might enable our loved one because we refuse to acknowledge the full extent of their problem. 
  • Codependency. We might have a codependent relationship with our loved one and feel compelled to care for them. Those of us in this type of relationship derive purpose or self-worth from being a caretaker and fear losing the relationship if we don’t enable the individual. 
  • Guilt and shame. We may feel partially responsible for the behavior of the person we’re enabling, so we take action to alleviate our own feelings of guilt. We might also feel ashamed of the other person’s actions, so we “keep up appearances” and cover for them. 

We enable those who misuse alcohol for many reasons. Understanding the subconscious thought process behind our actions is a crucial first step towards recognizing and dismantling the cycle of enabling.

What Enabling Looks Like

We learned what it means to enable someone and why we may do it. Now let’s examine what it looks like when we enable an alcoholic.

Though often unintentional, enabling an alcoholic supports their destructive drinking habits by shielding them from the consequences of their actions. This can take many forms, but there are some common patterns: 

  • Covering up or providing excuses. Lying on behalf of the person, making excuses, absorbing blame, or explaining away behaviors are all ways we enable an alcoholic. For example, calling in sick for the person and saying they have the flu instead of admitting that they are too hungover to go to work. 
  • Financial support. Enabling via financial support includes providing money, paying off debts, paying their rent, allowing them to live rent-free, or bailing them out of financial trouble. If we pay someone’s rent because they can’t hold a job, they have no incentive to improve their circumstances. 
  • Rescuing from consequences. Rescuing looks like shielding the person from the consequences of their actions. For example, we may intervene to remedy legal issues, job loss, or a relationship breakdown.
  • Minimizing the problem. We may offer endless excuses to explain away the actions of our loved one instead of acknowledging the root cause of the problem. We could be downplaying the severity of the person’s problems (to ourselves and others) by attributing them to stress or a temporary issue (this is also a form of denial). For instance, we could say, “They only drink because they are stressed about not having a job, and once they get a job everything will change.”
  • Taking on their responsibilities. This could involve doing chores, covering their work, or tasking ourselves with meeting their basic daily needs. These all shield them from facing the impact of their actions. For example, we may clean their apartment weekly or cook them special meals. 

We shield our loved one from the consequences of their actions through a wide variety of behaviors, conscious and unconscious. Now that we know what enabling looks like, we can assess if it’s something we’re doing — and learn how to stop.

Identifying If We Are Enabling 

Am I Enabling?

Sometimes it’s hard to recognize whether we are helping someone or enabling them. We should stop and ask ourselves, “Could they do this for themselves if they were sober?” Let’s go through some examples to help identify if we are enabling. 

  • Avoiding the problem. Do we find that the only way to cope with the person’s behavior is to avoid dealing with it? This could be because we’re afraid of confronting them about their behavior, so we look the other way or keep quiet. 
  • Feeling resentful. Are we starting to resent the person for everything we’ve done for them without getting much in return? If we are constantly helping this person avoid the consequences of their alcohol use, we will find ourselves feeling angry or irritable around them. This can harm our relationship with them and others. 
  • Putting their needs above our own. Do we find ourselves setting aside our mental or physical health needs to help the person? Are we putting our goals on hold to help the person in need? These are examples of how enabling hurts us — not just them. 
  • Spending too much money. Have we maxed out our credit cards to help this person? Is helping them holding us back from our financial goals? Are we spending more money on them than ourselves? This is another example of the personal fallout of enabling.
  • Feeling hopeless. We keep giving and helping but nothing changes, and they don’t even seem to be grateful. We may feel like things will never get better or change — these thoughts often lead to resentment, depression, or burnout.
  • Isolating ourselves. Have we stopped spending time with friends or family members because we’re too busy or exhausted from helping them? Our social well-being should not suffer because of our caretaking.

Reflecting on these questions helps us identify unhealthy enabling behaviors. Letting go of these behaviors can feel scary, especially when we don’t know what to expect.

What Happens When You Stop Enabling an Alcoholic

We often imagine the worst possible scenario when we think about stopping our enabling behaviors. We may worry that they’ll end up in jail or without a home — but in reality, chronic alcohol misuse can be fatal. Ending enabling behaviors is the best way to help our loved one, even if the opposite feels true.

Let’s look at some ways we empower others when we stop enabling.

  1. Breaking the cycle. When we stop enabling, we interrupt the cycle of dependence and create opportunities for positive change. Breaking addiction’s pattern of destructive behavior empowers our loved one to improve themselves. 
  2. Ceding responsibility. When we stop enabling, people have to take accountability for their own actions. This allows them to make their own choices — and learn from them. 

  3. Facilitating treatment. When a person is no longer protected from consequences, they begin to realize how bad their problem is. This self-awareness can lead them to seek help with their recovery. 
  4. Preserving our well-being. When we stop enabling and protecting someone else’s well-being, we can refocus on caring for ourselves. 
  5. Improving relationships. Setting boundaries may strain our relationship at first, but over time it allows for a stronger bond based on mutuality. And if one person is no longer taking up all our time, it leaves more space for other friends and family members. 

Helping someone recover from alcohol misuse can be stressful and taxing on everyone involved. Remember that it’s about progress, not perfection. There is an abundance of resources to support both you and your loved one through the recovery process.

There are healthy ways to actively support someone who is misusing alcohol. Let’s take a look.

How To Help Someone With Addiction

Letting go of enabling behaviors is not easy. It takes setting boundaries and unlearning destructive patterns of behavior. Here are some things you can do to help an alcoholic:

  • Encourage them to seek professional help. Whether it’s a rehabilitation program, therapy, counseling, or a support group, helping them find good resources is a great way to empower them to make changes themselves. 
  • Be a good listener. Provide support and a nonjudgmental space for them to express their feelings. 
  • Allow consequences. Let them face the consequences of their actions. If they get in trouble with the law, don’t bail them out.
  • Set boundaries. Set clear boundaries and hold them accountable. Healthy boundaries include letting go of your enabling behaviors or taking steps to ensure your personal well-being. For example, you can refuse to provide further financial support, or tell them you won’t talk to them on the phone if they’ve been drinking.
  • Celebrate positive steps. If they are taking steps to better themselves, acknowledge and celebrate their efforts. Positive reinforcement helps them along the way to recovery.
  • Encourage healthy activities. Bring them along for activities that do not involve alcohol. Invite them to a yoga class or plan a hike. Alcohol-free activities can give them a new outlet for dealing with stress. 

  • Mind your own well-being. Therapy or a support group like Al-Anon can help you develop strategies to dismantle enabling behaviors. Focus on self-care and refill your cup so you can be fully present when providing mindful help.

The shift from enabling to helping is not easy! It’s important to remember the challenge will be worth it for you and the person struggling with alcohol addiction.

Summary FAQs

1. What is the difference between enabling and helping? 

Enabling is completing a task for someone else who would be capable of doing if they were sober. Helping is doing something for someone else that they aren’t capable of doing or that empowers them to develop self-efficacy. 

2. Why might I be enabling someone with alcohol use problems? 

You could be in a codependent relationship, in denial of the full extent of the problem, feel guilty,  feel partially responsible for the situation, or want to protect your loved one. 

3. What qualifies as enabling? 

Financially assisting someone, not having any boundaries with the person, helping the person avoid consequences, and constantly making excuses for the person’s bad actions.  

4. What is an easy way to determine if I am enabling or helping someone? 


Ask yourself, “Could the person do this if they were sober?”

5. What is something positive that happens when I stop enabling? 

You can take your own life back, and the person with alcohol use disorder will take accountability for their own actions. 

6. What is something I can do instead of enabling? 

Encourage them to seek help, provide them with information about resources (support groups, therapy), and plan activities that don’t involve alcohol. 

Want To Examine Your Own Relationship With Alcohol? Start With Reframe!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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