Am I Enabling an Addict?

One of the most difficult things to do, especially for a loved one, is to watch them battle addiction. For many of us, our first instinct when seeing someone in trouble, especially for parents, is to help. But many times this “help” is actually hurting – and you could be enabling addictive behavior.

How do you know? Like many issues dealing with drug or alcohol abuse, there are no easy answers. What’s worse, realizing that you are enabling addictive behavior is a difficult emotion to deal with – and many enablers make excuses for their own — and their addicted loved one’s behavior.

How to Love an Addict Without Enabling

A loved one will often recognize addiction before the addict does. When you are suffering from addiction, you don’t see the world clearly. It is as if the substance has hi-jacked your brain and is telling you what to think. The last thing you want to believe is that you have a life-threatening problem. You think you are hiding your habit from everyone, and you create excuses for your behavior.


As someone who loves an addict who hasn’t yet admitted his problem, you see the changes. You understand there is a problem, even if you are not sure exactly what it is or how it developed. Many times, you try to protect your loved one from his own addiction rather than letting him face it. For some people, it is a reflex to put themselves between their loved ones and pain.

By intervening between your loved one and the pain of her addiction, you are enabling. You are actually helping her to maintain the addiction under a comfortable cover of secrecy. Addicts not only keep secrets from the world, they also keep secrets from themselves. They work hard at avoiding the truth of where their pain is coming from.

Enabling addicted loved ones can be a tricky situation. When you love someone, you try to take care of him, but recognizing where to draw the line with addiction is important. It can mean the difference between seeking help for the addiction or not. Stopping your protective behaviors when you realize they are actually enabling an addiction can put additional stress on your relationship, too. You must be wiling to brave that immediate strain to achieve a long-term solution.

But how do you know where to draw the line between taking care of someone you love and perpetuating his addiction? It is not unusual to think, “Am I enabling my addicted loved one?” Here are some common enabling behaviors:

Calling in “sick” for the addict. “Covering” for an addict when they are too drunk or high to work may feel like you are helping him/her keep a job. But long term, it only reinforces the addictive behavior.

Everyone has engaged in covering for someone they love at one time. Maybe she made an awkward comment at a dinner party, showed up late to an appointment, or forgot an important birthday. You step up and tell your dinner companions your loved one didn’t mean her comment the way it sounded. You may explain to the doctor’s office that she is very busy. You let her best friend know that she has been sick and that is why she missed her birthday.


Those are all harmless excuses to take the edge off difficult situations. They are the kinds of things we do for people we love. We want them to appear in the best light all the time, and we’re willing to go out of our way to smooth things over. If the situation warrants it, you might talk with your loved one later, privately, and find out what exactly went wrong. You seldom, if ever, express your concern or disappointment in front of others.

When your loved one consistently drinks too much at dinner parties and makes awkward comments, however, it may be time to draw the line. If she starts showing up late to all of her appointments, you have to wonder what is going on. When you finally figure out that your loved one’s odd behavior is due to a possible addiction, you have to stop making polite excuses.

If you continue to make excuses for bad behavior that is the result of addiction, you are allowing your loved one to ignore the problem. You are becoming complicit in his attempts to hide his substance abuse and its effects on the rest of his life.

It is hard to let someone you love face the consequences of his actions, but if you don’t the addiction will only get worse. You do not have to confront him yourself to stop this enabling behavior. All you have to do is examine your own behaviors and recognize how you are making excuses for him. When he shows up for a social event obviously under the influence, say nothing. When your friends look at you for an explanation of your loved one’s tardiness to a gathering, simply shrug and say nothing.


It is important to understand that adults are responsible for their own behavior. If someone presses you to make an excuse for someone else because they are used to you explaining away her bad behavior, you can redirect that person. Suggest that he ask your loved one to explain herself instead of expecting the explanation to come from you. This tactic will remove you from the defensive. People will start to understand that you are also confused or upset by this bad behavior. You can all look to your addicted loved one for an explanation. Ultimately, this approach might force her to face the fact that she has a real problem.

Giving them money. Even if an addict claims they need money for food, clothing or paying bills, their mental state is being controlled by alcohol or drugs. Most likely, the money will be used to find the next high, and you have essentially become their drug dealer.

Bailing them out of jail or getting legal help for them. Part of the recovery process is learning to take responsibility for your actions, especially those caused by alcohol or drug abuse. It may seem cruel, but unfortunately, legal troubles are a harsh reality for many addicts.

As relationships develop, people tend to take up complimentary roles. You may be the one who prepares the meals and he is the one who takes out the trash. He may keep in touch with distant family members while you are the one who communicates with the neighbors. You might initiate social engagements while he manages your in-home technology network.

Many times when addiction comes into the picture, the non-addicted partner becomes the rescuer. If your loved one is suffering from addiction, he probably is the center of crisis most often. Your natural response to his emergencies is to bail him out.


The easiest way to visualize this situation is with an example of legal trouble, although bailing someone out of jail is not the only way you might get him out of bad situations. When you get that call late at night that your loved one has been arrested for driving under the influence, disorderly conduct, or drug possession, you rush to the police station to bail him out.

Leaving her there, turning your back on her, seems too cruel. The problem is that her addiction led her into this bad situation, and if you keep bailing her out, the addiction will continue. If it is too difficult to end this enabling behavior all at once, try weening yourself off of it. Don’t rush right out to rescue her, take your time. Make sure the rescue comes with some consequences and is not another free pass.

Let your loved one know this is the last time you will rescue him from a bad situation that is his fault. Do not accept any excuses, and do not go back on this promise. You could offer some terms the next time, such as saying, “I will help you this time, but only if you get into rehab immediately.” Let him know that you love him and will support any efforts he makes to get clean, but that if he doesn’t face this problem you will not be bailing him out again.

Believing their lies again and again. If the story sounds fishy, it probably is. Understand that doubting an addict is telling the truth isn’t cruel – it’s reality. Remember, addiction is a powerful disease which causes those afflicted to do almost anything – even if it means lying to someone they love.

Avoiding discussions of their substance abuse. You may fear that talking about a loved one’s substance abuse will “make things worse.” However, just the opposite is true. Making their drug or alcohol abuse uncomfortable may actually help speed an acceptance of a need for help.

Ignoring bad behavior is one of the more self-destructive things you can do to enable a loved one to continue her addiction. Remember that although you are not the addict, the addiction has consequences for your life, as well. Ignoring your loved one’s bad behavior puts added stress on you. That behavior affects you, and by keeping your reactions to yourself, you are hurting yourself and at the same time not doing anything positive for her.


When you ignore your loved one’s bad behavior, you allow it to continue. It may not be your responsibility to bring the situation to light, but ignoring it does the opposite. Ignoring bad behavior makes it okay. Your loved one respects your opinion — not expressing it is called tactic acceptance. As long as you accept his behavior, your loved one is going to continue.

For your own well-being, as well as that of your addicted loved one, you cannot ignore bad behavior. It is your responsibility as an adult to address the situation. It doesn’t have to be an intervention, but you must protect yourself. Ask the obvious questions:

  • Why did you do that?
  • What were you doing there?
  • What did you mean when you said _____?

Make your loved one explain his behavior. It might provoke him to see that he is acting out of character and something must be wrong.


This does not have to be confrontational to be effective. Your main goal should be to release your tension about what happened. You don’t have to argue with his response. You don’t have to follow up at all. Simply forcing him to explain is enough. Once you ask the questions, you are no longer ignoring the bad behavior.

Putting Their Needs Before Your Own

In healthy relationships, people put the other person before themselves frequently and vice versa. There is a balance in which everyone’s needs are met. When addiction becomes part of the picture, it is easy for this balance to tip — and the non-addicted person becomes severely short changed.

Every adult has a basic responsibility to take care of himself. In relationships, you share that responsibility with others back and forth, but ultimately you are responsible for making sure your needs are met. When you put your addicted loved one’s needs before your own, you run the risk of hurting yourself. People who are actively addicted to substances cannot properly share this responsibility with you.


In many cases, the person who puts his addicted loved one’s needs before his own ends up developing an addiction of his own. He spends so much energy focusing on the other person’s needs that the act of “helping” becomes his only source of pleasure and self-worth. In a sense, he ends up addicted to the addict, or the crisis, or his role as the helper. This situation perpetuates the original addiction because now the non-addicted partner needs the addiction to continue, as well.

Practicing appropriate self-care can help avoid codependency. Whether you feel overwhelmed or not, you should schedule certain activities away from your loved one each day. Good nutrition, healthy amounts of sleep, regular exercise, and time away from the crisis are what will help you maintain a healthy balance.

Blaming Others for the Addict’s Situation

When things go wrong, sometimes the easiest response is to figure out whose fault it is. Somehow most of us think that pinning the blame on someone will take the edge off the hurt. Blaming is mostly an unproductive exercise.


In the case of addiction, there is no one to blame but the person abusing the substances. Trying to blame anyone else is deflecting and will distract everyone involved from dealing with the central problem. Blaming others is another form of making excuses, and it can be a natural tendency when you want to protect someone you love.

The only thing you can do is try to get her some help. It can be difficult to convince a person who is actively using drugs that she has a problem. It will be easier if you do not supply excuses for her by blaming the situation on other people. A lot of time and energy can be wasted running around after nameless others when you could be working on healing instead.

Not Expressing How They Make You Feel

Most people find it easy to express their feelings when they are positive. Expressing negative feelings is often much harder. Addiction changes people, so telling your loved one how he makes you feel when he is abusing drugs is hard. You first need to wrap your head around the fact that someone you love is doing something that makes you feel uncomfortable or is even painful to you. When dealing with an addict, you often feel like you are talking to a different person.

It is tempting to believe that holding back your negative feelings is protecting your loved one. You do not want to make her hurt the way she is causing you pain right now. You might even think that it will pass, and therefore, is better left unsaid. Or maybe you think she already knows it, so verbalizing it would simply be rubbing it in.

Not expressing how your addicted loved one makes your feel, however, is similar to ignoring bad behavior. By not mentioning it, you are making it seem okay. You are basically condoning his propensity for hurting you. By not expressing your feelings, you are allowing the addiction to continue unchallenged.



Learn More

Approximately 23.2 million people suffer from addiction in the U.S., and only about 10% of them are seeking treatment. If you suspect your loved one has a substance abuse problem, your enabling behaviors will only prolong the problem. When you love someone who is addicted, the kindest thing you can do is encourage him to face the problem and get help.

Professional help is needed to overcome addiction, so your first call should be to 12 Keys. We can answer your questions about enabling behaviors and other issues related to addiction. Our compassionate staff is experienced in talking with family members who are concerned about their own role in the addiction. We can help you understand what is happening and what steps you can take to begin healing.

Knowing that your loved one is addicted and in need of help can be a difficult situation. At 12 Keys we can advise you on the best approach when suggesting rehab. We understand how addiction can affect family dynamics, and we know you are concerned about upsetting the delicate emotional balance you have been maintaining.

We want you to know you are not alone, although dealing with an addicted loved one sometimes makes you feel that way. We are here to help you address your own issues as well, because we understand the effects addiction can have on everyone in the household. We can talk to you about how to love an addict without enabling.

12 Keys offers individualized treatment programs that include group and family counseling and follow up care. We not only want to make sure your loved one gets the right treatment for a successful recovery, but we are also invested in making sure the whole family is taken care of. Our support extends well beyond rehab with programs to ensure a smooth transition back into home and family life after rehab. Contact 12 Keys today as a first step toward a successful, long-term recovery.

The Addiction Blog