When we care about another person, it is normal to want to help, support, and encourage them through their struggles. Often, however, the loved ones of a person who is addicted may find themselves crossing into territory that goes beyond helping.


Enabling behaviors, even if they are unintentional, allow substance abuse to continue by reducing a person’s accountability for their actions. At Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, we assist our guests and their loved ones in addressing this and other unhealthy behaviors that could be inhibiting recovery.

Why Do People Become Enablers?

Psychology Today suggests that enablers have many things in common:

  • Often grew up in families that faced addiction.
  • Often replicating unhealthy behaviors they witnessed in childhood.
  • Have the best of intentions and truly believe that their actions are helpful and loving.
  • Struggle to have healthy, mutually satisfying relationships.
  • Like to rescue people.
  • May take on a role like a martyr or a benefactor.
  • Struggle with their own self-esteem.

What Is Enabling?

There are many examples of enabling, as it applies to substance abuse:

  • Making excuses for someone who is hungover, drunk, or high.
  • Giving money to someone in active addiction, so they won’t be “forced” to steal.
  • Trying to solve problems that the person who is addicted has created for themselves.
  • Trying to shield the addicted party from the full consequences of their choices.
  • Attributing unsafe, unhealthy, or illegal choices to something outside the person’s control.
  • Entirely ignoring unacceptable behaviors.
  • Taking on responsibilities and then feeling resentful.
  • Putting the needs of the other party first and neglecting oneself.
  • Doing something out of fear of upsetting the other person, possibly because they could become violent.
  • Lying to cover for someone.
  • Taking over some of the person’s responsibilities that they are no longer fulfilling due to their substance abuse.
  • Covering bills for a person who had sufficient funds to pay them, but used the money for substances, gambling, etc.
  • Consistently assigning blame for a problem to a different person (or an event) instead of the person responsible.
  • Continuing to offer help when it is no longer appreciated, reciprocated, or acknowledged.

How Is Enabling Actually Hurting?

When a person in addiction is not required to face the consequences of their choices or to make choices to fix the problems they have created, they have no motivation to change. If they know someone will jump in to solve problems for them, they can continue to make the same unhealthy choices over and over without experiencing any actual loss. This sort of relationship, between a person who is addicted and an enabler, is sometimes called codependency.

Distinguishing Enabling from Helping

People who are recovering from addiction still need and deserve, love and support from their family and friends. At Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, we try to help our guests and their loved ones to redefine what that looks like, if enabling has been part of previous interactions.

SMART Recovery, a recovery program for people working to overcome addiction, suggests that the best help comes in the form of paying attention to the person in need and actively supporting them. While SMART Recovery suggests that paying attention is unlikely to cause harm, the program suggests that active help could either support or enable, depending on the situation and the parties involved. Simply paying attention to someone is unlikely to shield someone from negative consequences. It gives them the opportunity to share their successes, celebrate progress, brainstorm solutions, and make their own choices without someone else taking over for them.

SMART Recovery encourages loved ones who are ready to cut off other forms of help to continue paying attention. By not ending the relationship and continuing to see and talk to the loved one, the support person can remind their friend or family member in addiction that they are not alone while giving them the chance to learn the power of their own decisions.

Steps to Overcome Enabling

Suggestions for better engaging with loved ones in active addiction and in recovery include:

  • Get educated. Read about codependency and attend support groups for the friends and family of people struggling with addiction.
  • Consider co-occurring disorders you may have. Codependency often accompanies mental health problems such as depression or anxiety. Enabling behavior is much easier to treat when these issues are also addressed.
  • Establish boundaries. For example, you may decide only to answer text messages outside of work hours, that you won’t be around your loved one when they have been using, or that you will no longer issue apologies on their behalf. The important thing is to set boundaries that keep you safe and healthy and stick to them.
  • Spend time alone. Codependent relationships erode one’s sense of self. The person who has a tendency to enable must work hard to maintain an independent identity.

At Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, we help the family and friends of our clients learn to provide the most effective support for the long-term recovery journey.

For more information about programs at Safe Harbor Recovery Center, addiction treatment in Virginia, contact us at (888) 932-2304. We are ready to help you make a new beginning.