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What is An Enabling Relationship?

By January 2, 2019 April 29th, 2019 No Comments
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When someone close to us is struggling with addiction, we naturally want to do everything we can to support them. However, this compassionate instinct can ultimately result in enabling behaviour.

Enabling behaviour means supporting the addicted person in a way that is ultimately damaging to you both. The behaviour leads them to become dependent upon you and to avoid facing the true consequences of their addictive behaviour. This allows the addicted person to remain in denial about their problems. Ultimately, enabling relationships can become co-dependent. This means that the enabling person’s life revolves around the support they provide for the addicted person. This form of relationship usually results in resentment building on both sides. The enabling person will often feel unappreciated. They will resent the amount of their time and energy being spent on supporting the addicted person. The addicted person may feel judged or stifled by the enabling person.

Common Features of Enabling Relationships

It is ultimately better for the addicted person to have to deal with the consequences of their addictive behaviour, even if these consequences are very serious. This will lead them to confront their problems and hopefully to seek real help. It can be extremely difficult to change the nature of an enabling relationship, but identifying enabling behaviours and committing to changing them will ultimately benefit everyone involved. Below are some of the common features of enabling relationships.

Ignoring or Excusing Addictive Behaviour

Often, people feel compelled to ignore, excuse or minimize the addictive behaviour of someone close to them. They may also lie about the behaviour to others. These are understandable impulses as they can make you feel that you are fprotecting the person or saving them embarrassment or more serious repercussions. However, it is actually a form of enabling behaviour. By managing other peoples’ reactions to the behaviour or disguising the facts, you are allowing the person to avoid the consequences of their actions. This will make them more likely to continue their behaviour as they do not encounter all of its negative results.

Taking On the Addicted Person’s Responsibilities

Do you take on responsibilities that are really the addicted person’s? You might complete tasks or honour commitments that were really for them to manage. For example, you might clean up a mess that they made while intoxicated. Providing an addicted person with accommodation, loaning them money, paying fees for them and accepting the blame for their behaviour are all forms of enabling behaviour. They may help them in the short term. However, it will ultimately make them more likely to continue their addictive behaviour without seeking true support, such as treatment.

Prioritizing Their Needs and Desires

If you often prioritise the needs and desires of the addicted person above your own, this is a form of enabling behaviour. They are likely to take advantage of this in order to continue attending to their own needs and avoiding the full consequences of their actions. You may also find that you lie to others about the extent of your support for the addicted person, which is a strong indicator of enabling behaviour. It can be really beneficial to offer support that is genuinely constructive, such as offering to attend support groups for addicted people with the person, or not drinking with them at social events. However, other forms of support, such as cancelling your own plans to collect them from a bar when they are too drunk to drive, only enable them to continue their behaviour without facing consequences.

Lack of Gratitude

If you continually prioritise the addicted person’s needs and desires above your own despite a lack of gratitude or appreciation, this is a sign of enabling behaviour. The desire to support someone that you care about can be overwhelming. It may not be reduced by a lack of appreciation. This means that our need to help someone can become compulsive. However, telling them that you cannot continue to support them and setting firm boundaries may in fact be far more helpful to them in the long term.

Resentment On Both Sides

If you regularly take on responsibilities for the addicted person, prioritise their needs over your own, or face the consequences of their actions in other ways, this will likely cause you to resent them. If they do not appreciate your efforts, this will only add to your resentment. This feeling will only build over time if you do not adjust your own enabling behaviour. If you identify this happening, you may be enabling the person rather than truly helping them. Negative feelings are likely to occur when confronting an addicted person about their behaviour. However, offering constructive support assures you that you are helping them. This will also help you to avoid behaviour that causes you to resent the person.

Shifting the Blame

If you often find yourself shifting blame away from the addicted person, this is probably an enabling behaviour. You may feel that you are protecting them by moving the blame onto others or certain circumstances. However, this is really diminishing the person’s need to deal with the consequences of their actions. This will make them more likely to continue their behaviour and avoid seeking help, as they will not truly face the consequences of their actions.

Difficulty Expressing Emotions

You struggle to communicate your thoughts or feelings about the person and your relationship with them. This can make it more difficult to adjust your behaviour. Many of us are uncomfortable with the prospect of confrontation or arguments. This can make having an open discussion with an addicted person very difficult. You may fear that they will become emotional or aggressive. They may also manipulate you and make you feel guilty for addressing their problems. If you cannot have a frank discussion with the person about your feelings and their problems, it will make it very difficult to establish boundaries and consequences or to adjust your own enabling behaviour. However difficult it may be, it is essential to raise your concerns to the addicted person. It is also crucial to make commitments about your future behaviour and to follow through on them.

Fear of Change

If you avoid discussing the addicted person’s problems and your own feelings out of fear of their reaction, this is a sign that you are in an enabling relationship. You may feel that they will become angry, aggressive or emotionally manipulative way if you raise your concerns. This is a real problem. For example, the person may threaten to leave or to stop speaking to you when you raise your concerns. This is a manipulative reaction. If you accept it and end the discussion, they may continue to use these methods to avoid confronting their problems. You must instead communicate clearly and establish firm boundaries and consequences. If the person will not engage in any discussion over their addictive behaviour, you can establish these boundaries in writing.

“One More Chance”

Setting boundaries and consequences for an addicted person’s behaviour means defining what is acceptable. It means establishing what will happen if they do not change their behaviour. This might mean no longer letting them live with you or ceasing to assist them financially if they continue to use. If the person does not change their behaviour or respect these boundaries, you must also communicate how you will respond. This response might be as serious as ceasing communication with the person or no longer providing them with excuses for serious misbehaviours.

Once you have established these boundaries and consequences, it is essential that you follow through on them, regardless of how upset or angry the addicted person may become. Many people in enabling relationships with an addicted person will continually give them “one more chance,” despite the addicted person’s failure to change. This tacitly gives them permission to continue their behaviour, and is therefore enabling.

Drinking Or Using Together

Sometimes, out of desperation or misguided efforts to help, people will try to drink or use substances with an addicted person in an attempt to strengthen the relationship. This is a very bad idea, as it implies that the person’s addictive behaviour is not a problem, in the relationship or more generally, and that it may in fact solve some of their problems. You should never attempt to bond or communicate with an addicted person by drinking or using substances with them.


Many addicted people behave in manipulative ways towards those around them in order to continue their addictive behaviour. They may try to make you feel guilty or to blame you for their problems. They may explicitly or implicitly threaten to hurt themselves or others if you try to intervene. It is possible that they will become angry or aggressive if you attempt to discuss their addictive behaviour. If you continually make excuses or lie to cover for the person, this also makes you complicit in their behaviour. They may manipulate you by suggesting that if you change your behaviour they will reveal your dishonest enabling actions. This kind of behaviour from the addicted person is a clear indication that you are in an enabling relationship, and it is important not to give in to manipulation.

The Bottom Line

If you are concerned that you may be in an enabling relationship, considering some of this information will be useful. Our next blog will go into further detail about ways to change an enabling relationship in a progressive way that will benefit everyone involved. If you have any questions about addiction or addiction treatment, contact Trafalgar Addiction Treatment Centres today.

Trafalgar Addiction Treatment Centres

Trafalgar Addiction Treatment Centres

We offer residential and outpatient rehab treatment programs for addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders.

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