Helpfulness is a sign of a healthy relationship. Couples who support one another, sharing the burdens of the family and preventing pain whenever possible, seem to be doing all they can to keep the relationship moving forward in a healthy and positive manner. However, there are times when helpfulness begins to morph and change into something else altogether.
When one person in a relationship is addicted to alcohol or drugs, the other half of the partnership may keep trying to help solve problems and prevent pain. That act of helpfulness can be destructive if it serves to prevent the person from feeling the consequences of the addiction. Simple helpfulness can become enabling, and that behavior can delay the treatment an addict needs in order to heal.
Helping and Enabling
There are thousands of ways in which families help one another, and many of these behaviors are completely harmless. Making meals to mark special occasions, performing half of the household chores or stepping up childcare duties when one partner is sick are all common, helpful activities that shouldn’t cause concern. Enabling behaviors, in turn, are slightly more insidious.
A person who enables, in trying to help, is placing a shield between the person and the addiction. The enabler may believe that the activities are helpful, but in reality, they serve to lock the addiction in place. Enabling is typically defined as doing something for the addict that the addict would be capable of doing alone, if the addiction wasn’t a factor. A few examples might help to make this distinction easier to understand.
After a night of binge drinking, a man with a long history of alcoholism staggers home to his wife. She may enable his behavior by:
- Keeping the children quiet the next morning, as she knows he’ll be hungover
- Calling in sick for her husband
- Staying home from work, so she can care for him
- Cooking bland and soft foods to help him feel better
All of these activities help to shield the man from the consequences of his addictive behavior. He has a consequence of his addiction, but his wife is shielding him from that consequence. He isn’t required to feel the hangover, and he doesn’t have to explain his actions. His wife anticipates his needs and accounts for them.
Enabling can also occur between a parent and a child. A teen girl might spend a wild weekend with friends, using marijuana and other drugs. This is behavior she’s engaged in time and time again. When their party is broken up by the police, the parents may enable the behavior by:
- Bailing the girl out of jail
- Declaring that she does not have a problem with drugs
- Transferring the girl to a new school, to help her avoid stigma
- Providing the girl with money, so she can buy something to lift her mood
Again, these actions serve to shield the girl from the consequences of her addiction, and they also allow the parents to go on believing that addiction has no place in their home. Neither the girl nor her parents are required to face the truth in this situation.
Enabling can look different from one family to another, but some behaviors seem consistent among people who enable. For example, according to a study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, the majority of enabling partners took over household chores, drank or used drugs with the addicted partner, and lied or made excuses to cover for the addicted partner. These three behaviors should serve as red flags that enabling is taking place.
Over time, as the addiction strengthens, the enabling partner begins to consider the addiction the focus of his/her life. As an article in the American Journal of Family Therapy puts it, this focus can put the family in a vicious circle. The spouse attempts to control the addict’s behavior, but the addict responds by intensifying the substance abuse in order to assert his/her independence. These behaviors can be quite difficult to correct without help, as the family is now fully focused only on the addiction.
Some enabling takes place in the mind. A person who enables may justify the addiction with statements such as, “His job is hard, and so it’s no wonder he drinks!” Enablers may also think of terrible, horrible consequences that could befall an addict and then justify enabling with statements such as, “I couldn’t let that happen!” Enablers may also tell themselves that it’s better to be in a relationship, even if it’s dysfunctional, instead of being alone.
Enablers may also become quite controlling, cancelling plans, keeping track of all money, taking over all household responsibilities and otherwise completely infantilizing the addict. This may keep the addict from engaging in destructive behaviors at first, but it also frees up a significant amount of the addict’s time. That free time might be used to nurture the addiction.
If an addict agrees to get treatment for addiction, the enabling behavior may not magically disappear. In fact, the enabling behaviors may persist even when the addiction is gone. Enabling partners may:
- Continue to handle all chores
- Refuse to allow the recovering addict independence
- Hold back feelings of resentment left over by the addiction
- Feel pleased when the addiction returns and the familiar family roles are in play
Family therapy is designed to help these family members both see and understand how the addiction has changed their interactions, and as this knowledge becomes clearer and easier to understand, families can then work together to develop healthier ways of helping one another and communicating in less destructive ways. Family therapy has been widely studied, and it’s been proven effective. For example, according to a study in the journal Behavioral Psychotherapy, 12 families were given one of two types of family therapy. All 12 improved. It’s clear that this form of therapy has the ability to bring about real change, both in the addict and in the enabler.
While it’s ideal for addicts and their enablers to get help together, there are some addicts who are simply not ready to make the leap into a treatment program. It’s possible that the enabler will need to get help alone, and then hope that the changes made through that help will encourage the addict to follow suit. There are many ways in which enablers can get that help.
Some find that support groups such as Al-Anon are quite helpful. In a support group like this, partners of addicts meet and discuss their situations. The meetings are typically informal, allowing people to say anything they’d like without a script, and members can brainstorm solutions or just offer simple support. Most support groups also hand out reading materials to help members understand more about the nature of addiction. Support groups may also encourage members to form partnerships. When one member is having a difficult time and tempted to enable, the other partner can step in with advice or support to keep that enabling from occurring. According to a study published in the journal Social Work, of 262 wives of alcoholics, 116 were members of Al-Anon. Those who participated had a greater understanding of the nature of addiction, and they drank less themselves. It’s clear that support groups like this can be helpful for those who want to leave enabling behaviors behind.
Others find that they benefit from scheduling their own counseling sessions with a therapist. Here, they can openly discuss the addiction and the toll that addiction is taking on the family, and they can learn new techniques they can use to help communicate with the addict and move past trying to control the behavior. In therapy, the enabler may learn how to set limits on behavior, without making demands or extorting promises. For example, a spouse who once called in sick for a drunken spouse might allow that spouse to get a reprimand for absenteeism. A parent might learn not to loan money to a child who is planning to use the money for drugs. Overcoming the tendency to help and “fix it” is hard, but it can be done. And allowing the addict to face these sorts of consequences might allow him/her to see why treatment is so very necessary.
At The Canyon, we specialize in helping addicts overcome their behaviors, and we are quick to include family members in therapy, when appropriate. We know families have a key role to play, and we support them in every way possible. If you’d like to find out more about our program, or you need help in finding a different program that’s right for you, please contact us.