What is an Enabler?

It is in our nature to protect our loved ones but are we harming or helping them? Enabling is a term used to describe the complex relationship with an addict, and it is the enabler who suffers the consequences of the addict’s behaviour. Another term used in the context of a relationship with an addict is co-dependent, but this may be defined as the co-dependent being someone who enables the addict to continue with their destructive behaviour. The co-dependent is effectively the enabler.

“With regard to addiction, enabling means to accommodate the addicted individual in order to protect them from facing the full consequences of their drug use” (Lander, Howsare, & Byrne, 2013).

Enabling and the complex relationship with an addict

An enabler is driven by the need to solve other people’s problems but in their desire to help, the enabler ends up taking on the responsibilities of the addict. This then prevents the addict from taking full responsibility for the far-reaching chaos caused by their addiction, because they are very seldom faced with the harsh realities resulting from their behaviour. With a caring family member or friend doing damage control such as lying, making excuses, giving money, cleaning up after them, bailing them out of jail, or even ignoring the problem altogether, the addict is protected from reaching rock bottom. However, evidence has shown that the most powerful incentive for change is when an addict reaches this point. Rock bottom may refer to a time or an event where there is nothing good left to destroy in their lives. It is a unique process for everyone and can take many forms, such as the loss of a job, marriage, home or family, but the results are just the same. The addict’s life spirals into the total destruction of everything they hold dear.

Many addicts are in denial about the severity of their disease, and there are numerous complex reasons behind this denial. Of great concern though is that enabling tends to be one of the more common reasons, and this just serves to highlight the powerful impact enabling has on the addict’s behaviour, and potential recovery.  The dynamics of the relationship become dysfunctional, to the extent where the enabler increasingly over-functions and the addict increasingly under-functions. By “managing” the addict, the enabler is passively allowing the behaviour to continue because removing the consequences of the behaviour only serves to fuel the denial.

The enabler will often overlook their own needs in order to take care of the addict. This results in a significant amount of physical, emotional, or financial drain, and areas of the enabler’s own life may start showing signs of inattention and neglect. An enormous amount of energy is expended in the management of the addict. The co-dependent relationship may be defined as one where the enabler’s life seems to revolve around the addict, to the point where the enabler may be accused of having an addiction of their own. Their sense of worth or identity may be tied into the caretaking of the addict, and the addict’s dependence on them. Their own insecurities may be soothed by the notion that another person relies on them to be the fixer. They are needed, and this gives them a sense of security.

Interaction between the enabler and the addict

The challenge is to break these patterns of interaction between the enabler and the addict. Each has become comfortable in their co-dependent roles – someone with a fierce addiction will be desperate to continue using, and will employ every manipulation tactic possible in order to do so. The enabler may experience fear when thinking of not enabling anymore, or the potential conflict and retaliation from the addict. It is vital that the enabler learn to be assertive and establish boundaries. It is easy and comfortable to slip back into the old patterns of interaction with the addict because breaking habits takes courage and hard work, and the resistance from the addict may wear down the enabler’s initial determination to break the pattern and bring about a change.

Should this happen, the enabler can ask one question to shift their focus back to the goal – “is what I am doing making it easier for them to continue using?”,

Karen P