Substance abuse problems across the United States are rampant. This unfortunate reality affects more than 21 million Americans. Even worse, this widespread pattern of drug abuse has put millions of American families in proximity to a dangerous addiction.
The challenges of supporting a family member who struggles with drugs and alcohol are significant. The problem becomes even more extreme when family members are actively contributing to the addiction.
Why would the family members of those struggling with substance abuse actively want to keep acting out a pattern of toxic family dynamics known as “enabling behaviors”? Answering this question, exploring examples of what enabling behavior looks like, and understanding the need for a professional intervention can help solve the problem for good.
This post outlines six of the most common forms of enabling behavior and what may motivate family members to act out these emotionally destructive patterns.
How Does Enabling Happen?
The truth is that it’s very rare for a family member to actively plot against the health and success of another. Enabling behaviors are more often related to emotional baggage and unresolved tension between family members that existed before the addiction.
These are some of the most common examples of negative emotional baggage that lead up to enabling behaviors between family members:
Guilt Over the Addiction
It’s not uncommon for a family member to feel a sense of responsibility for a loved one’s addiction. This person may even feel that a mistake they made in the past pushed the loved one into drug use. Alternatively, a family member may feel like allowing the loved one to pursue treatment out of the home is a form of failure as a parent or sibling.
As long as this guilt clouds their judgment, a family member can’t be counted on to help support their loved one in getting real help. This may lead to actively working against the treatment process so that they still have a chance to solve the problem themselves.
An expectation that the Addiction Will Pass
Accurate information about addiction is scarce. Some individuals strongly believe that overcoming addiction is as easy as locking a family member in a bedroom and waiting for the cravings to pass. However, this approach is not only ineffective but also puts a family member’s life in danger.
Family members won’t be able to move past this obstacle until they recognize that they have much to learn about combating addiction. Furthermore, they’ll need the assistance of medical professionals and addiction specialists to find long-term success in addressing their loved one’s addiction problem.
Fear of Family Abandonment
A long-term substance abuse problem begins to affect a person’s brain chemistry. Eventually, individuals suffering from addiction will be willing to do just about anything to keep using, including weaponizing the love of their family members. They may threaten to run away or commit self-harm if they are pressured into treatment.
For many family members, this threat is sufficient to give up on the idea of getting help. The cycle of enabling is particularly dangerous because it leads to family members accepting a loved one’s addiction as an inevitable part of their lives.
How Enabling Becomes Codependency
When family members engage with addiction specialists and get their addicted loved ones into treatment, they address enabling relationships quickly and establish healthy family social dynamics. When families don’t take these steps, however, the problem risks becoming even more serious.
Some individuals eventually develop their own psychological dependency on enabling an addicted loved one. This two-way addiction relationship, known medically as codependency, creates even more barriers between a loved one with a drug addiction problem and live-saving treatment.
Reasons Why Enabling Happens
Understanding why enabling happens is the first step toward putting a stop to it. Next, family members must be able to recognize what enabling looks like in their own household. Being able to spot enabling in action means understanding what motivates someone to enable an addicted loved one in the first place.
Here are a few scenarios to help illustrate why a family member would enable another:
Keeping a Secret
A pair of siblings are very close to one another. They’ve shared and kept each other’s secrets since childhood. In college, one of them starts to experiment with methamphetamine and becomes addicted.
Not wanting to undermine years of trust, the sibling does not reveal this startling development to other family members. Eventually, the sibling is willing to cover and lie for the addicted family member, not wanting to risk a lifelong friendship with a close loved one.
A grandmother sends a small allowance to one of her adult grandchildren who recently lost his job, hoping to help support him as he looks for a new one. She finds out that he has been spending her money on marijuana instead.
After asking him to promise to not spend the money she sends him on drugs, she continues to forward him the allowance for months. Ultimately, she ignores her better instincts because she is attached to the feeling of being a provider.
Supporting Through Excuses
A husband notices that his wife has been drinking (and mixing alcohol with her antidepressant medication) more and more often. She gets defensive about the issue when he confronts her.
The husband resolves to monitor her behavior and only intervene when he feels like the problem has escalated too far. In the meantime, he begins to call her in sick to work and make excuses to family members when she is too hung over to function. His reasoning is that it his duty as a husband is to protect his wife’s reputation.
Protecting by Delaying
A mother has watched multiple news reports about underqualified drug treatment programs and has developed a fear of sending her child into treatment for heroin addiction. She is eventually convinced into touring a few facilities to ease her fears, but she instead finds even more excuses to delay treatment.
Eventually, she becomes convinced that the best way to address the problem is to perform her own form of detox and rehabilitation in her own home.
The youngest of three siblings is currently struggling to keep up their grades in school and is relieved when their oldest sibling is caught using MDMA. Now, the attention of the family is on the oldest sibling instead of the youngest sibling’s performance in school.
The youngest even go out of their way to not mention anything when they observe the oldest slipping back into drug-using patterns. This passive enabling can be just as dangerous as handing a loved one money to buy drugs.
A father has recently found out that his daughter, a high-powered attorney, has been using cocaine on a regular basis on weekends. He confronts her on this and she doesn’t deny it, arguing that she can afford it and that as long as it doesn’t interfere with her work, it’s not a problem.
Feeling helpless about solving the problem, the father gives up and goes home. Not wanting to feel like a failure as a parent, the father resolves to pretend the problem isn’t there.
Contact an Intervention Specialist
Codependent and enabling relationships are complex, toxic and dangerous. It’s too much to ask for one family to handle this issue by himself or herself. After all, most of the family drama that would undermine an attempt at treatment develops long before the addiction. Without the watchful eye of a neutral third party, figuring out how to untangle these emotional webs is nearly impossible.
Thankfully, professional intervention specialists are available to help with this exact predicament. In addition to helping family members plan an intervention, these specialists can spot the troubling family dynamics that arise with codependency. Doing this work early ensures that the intervention that guides a loved one into treatment is ultimately successful.