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Woman Ignoring Husband
Enabling Takes Many Forms, Some of Them Very Subtle

What Exactly Is Enabling?

By BuddyT

Dealing with a loved one who has a severe alcohol use disorder can be confusing. Baffling even. Sometimes in a sincere effort to help the alcoholic with a problem or through a crisis, those close to him will try to help, but sometimes unintentionally enable him instead.

A simple definition of enabling is doing something for the alcoholic that he could or should be doing for himself. Or doing something that allows him to avoid the consequences of his actions.

But, it's not that simple. There are many different ways that love ones can inadvertently enable an alcohol to continue in his lifestyle.

Examples of Enabling

Here are some simple examples of enabling:

  • Calling in sick for him.
  • Giving him money to pay bills.
  • Completing a project he failed to finish.
  • Making excuses for his behavior.
  • Bailing him out of jail.

These examples should be self-explanatory. If you call his workplace for him to say he can't come in today because he has a stomach bug, when he's really hung over, you are enabling.

First, you are lying. You have allowed his behavior to put you in the position of being a liar. Second, you are allowing him to avoid the embarrassment and discomfort of having to face his boss himself.

How Is This Enabling?

If you do for him things he should do for himself, or things that cushions him from feeling the pain of his behavior or choices, then he never experiences the consequences.

If he's allowed to feel the discomfort, the pain, or embarrassment that just might be what he needs to finally decide to reach out for help. Most alcoholics do not decide to get treatment until their circumstances become painful enough.

If you have done things along the way to protect him from those consequences - sometimes called "putting pillows under him" - he never hits bottom. He is free to continue along as if nothing happened.

Please understand, we are not suggesting that you caused him to keep drinking. You didn't cause it, you can't control it, and you can't cure it. But if you can contribute to the problem, if you have unknowingly enabled him to avoid consequences.

Other Ways to Enable

The above "caretaking" efforts that enable the alcoholic are easy to recognize and identify, but other methods of enabling are much more subtle. Sometimes, loved ones will try to provide the negative consequences in the alcoholic's life.

Family members will try to "punish" the alcoholic for his behavior by scolding him or nagging him. Or punish him by giving him the silent treatment - love withdrawal - to try to make him feel ashamed and guilty.

Giving Him an Out

How is that enabling? Because it allows him to focus on your reaction to his behavior instead of focusing on his behavior. I gives him the opportunity to put the focus on your behavior rather than having to face his own.

You are giving him an "out." If he has to face your wrath (provoker) or your silent treatment (martyr), then his natural response is to react to that behavior, rather than his own.

If you don't react at all, then he is left with nothing but his own behavior. He is alone to face his own embarrassment, pain and shame by himself. When that pain gets to be strong enough, maybe he will be ready to get help.

The Solution: Detachment

The solution to enabling is to begin to intentionally practice detachment - not from the person, but from his problems. You are not responsible for his disorder or his recovery from it.

Here is what Al-Anon Family Groups teaches about detachment:

We let go of our obsession with another's behavior and begin to lead happier and more manageable lives, lives with dignity and rights; lives guided by a Power greater than ourselves.

In Al-Anon We Learn:

  • Not to suffer because of the actions or reactions of other people;

  • Not to allow ourselves to be used or abused by others in the interest of another's recovery;

  • Not to do for others what they could do for themselves;

  • Not to manipulate situations so others will eat, go to bed, get up, pay bills, not drink;

  • Not to cover up for anyone's mistakes or misdeeds;

  • Not to create a crisis;

  • Not to prevent a crisis if it is in the natural course of events.

Detachment is neither kind nor unkind. It does not imply judgement or condemnation of the person or situation from which we are detaching.

It is simply a means that allows us to separate ourselves from the adverse effects that another person's alcoholism can have upon our lives.

Detachment helps families look at their situations realistically and objectively, thereby making intelligent decisions possible.

Source: Al-Anon Family Groups World Headquarters. "Detachment." Free Downloadable Items April 2017

Learn more about familes of alcoholics.


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