Enabling an Alcoholic? How Can I Tell if I’m an Enabler? How Can I Stop?

Enabling an Alcoholic

Could I be enabling an alcoholic? Enabling occurs whenever a person makes it easier for an alcoholic to continue drinking. By enabling, we allow the alcoholic to avoid the negative effects of their actions. This makes it easier for them to continue behaving badly. We shield and protect them. This is a very natural reaction. Unfortunately, this actually promotes exactly that which we are attempting to prevent.

Enablers are often called codependents. They generally want to solve other people’s problems. Indeed, they usually feel compelled to do so.

The Dynamics

Enablers begin by wanting to help. But their efforts fail to solve the problem. Then they act out of desperation. The more the enabler does, the easier it is for the alcoholic to continue abusing alcohol.

enabling an alcoholicThe alcoholic then expects the enabler to deal with the problems that the alcoholic creates. And the enabler feels forced to do so. “If I don’t, he’ll lose his job!” “But if I don’t, Social Services will take the kids!” “If I don’t….”

The dynamics are destructive. The alcoholic feels entitled. The enabler feels exploited. Resentment is the natural result.

Signs of Enabling

Enablers tend to be unaware of the actual consequences of their actions. These are some signs of enabling. Have you

• Made excuses for the alcoholic’s drinking or alcohol-related behaviors?
• Lied to cover up for the alcoholic’s behavior?
• Repeatedly given the alcoholic just “one more chance”?
• Threatened to leave if the alcoholic’s behavior didn’t improve. But then not done so in the absence of change?
• Accepted any blame for the alcoholic’s behavior?
• Avoided discussing the problem with the alcoholic for fear of the response?
• Acted on the basis of the alcoholic’s promises, although they’ve been repeatedly broken before?
• Helped the alcoholic avoid the consequences of unacceptable drinking behavior. Called in sick because of a hangover? Posted bail? Paid legal fees? Done the alcoholic’s work?

Am I an Enabler?

If so, you have enabled the alcoholic to continue drinking abusively. That’s understandable. However, you can help by forcing the alcoholic to face reality. This is easy to say but very hard to do.

You have to replace misplaced kindness with tough love. But it has to be done in order to help the alcoholic. It’s also necessary, but hard, to look beyond the short term consequences of our enabling actions. Yet it’s absolutely essential to do so. Otherwise, we’re caught in an endless cycle. And the alcoholic continues to abuse alcohol.

To Stop Enabling

Stop doing anything that makes it easier for the alcoholic to continue drinking. This is absolutely essential. Stop

• Covering up for the alcoholic.
• Helping the alcoholic avoid the consequences of unacceptable drinking behavior.
• Giving or loaning any money to the alcoholic.
• Make threats, plead or argue with the alcoholic.
• Failing to set boundaries and stick to them.
• Accepting any blame for the alcoholic’s behavior.
• Reacting to the alcoholics unacceptable actions. This forces the person to respond to your reactions instead of defending their behaviors.

What If?

If these actions fail, you need help. Any 12 step program, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.), is generally ineffective for most alcoholics. It actually reduces recovery for most people. The problem seems to be the 12-steps themselves. They teach powerlessness, dependence, and other counterproductive beliefs.

Non-Twelve Step Programs are available for those wishing either to cut back or to quit drinking. They include HAMS (Harm reduction, Abstinence, and Moderation Support). LifeRing Recovery. Women for Sobriety. Moderation Management. Rational Recovery. SMART Recovery (Self-Management and Recovery Training). And SOS (Secular Organizations for Sobriety). Although rarely needed, there are also dozens of non-12-step rehabs.

Ask yourself, “Am I an enabling an Alcoholic?” If so, vow now to stop. It promotes the very behavior you want to end

Resources on Enabling an Alcoholic

• Falkin, G. and Strauss, S. Social supporters and drug use enablers. Addict Behav, 2003, 28(1), 141-155.
• Harkness, D. and Cotrell, G. The social construction of co-dependency. J Sub Abuse Treat, 1997, 14(5), 473-479.
• Rotunda, R., et al. Enabling an alcoholic.  J Sub Abuse Treat, 2004, 26(4). 269-276.
• Rice, J. A Disease of One’s Own. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1998.