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How to Stop Enabling a Loved One’s Alcoholism

How and why addiction to alcohol develops can be incredibly complicated with multiple factors interacting to contribute to the problem, ranging from an individual’s physical and mental health to their social, economic and educational status. One important factor is an individual’s support network, family and friends.

On the whole, the more support and individual has around them when dealing with alcohol addiction, the better the chances are of recovery, a pattern which has been proven by a number of studies [1]. However, sometimes, and often inadvertently whilst trying to help, family and friends can actually be making the problem worse through the process of enablement.

In some cases, the line between helping and enablement is particularly thin so it’s important to understand the difference between helping and enablement. This article will aim to explore enabling, how to recognise it and what to do about it so that you can provide someone you care about with the support that they need.

Enabling or Helping?

Enabling describes a behaviour where you shield the addicted person by preventing them from the consequences of their behaviour. A classic example is excusing any of their negative behaviour on their behalf that has come about because of their drinking.

Instead of helping them this could be enabling as they take away the message that this behaviour is acceptable because they received no consequences. This could then lead to them not realising that they need help because they think their behaviour is ok.

Helping might look different, instead of excusing their behaviour, you could explain to them why this is wrong, how it harms others and how they can make up for it. This action, whilst it may seem harsh, is actually supportive.

How to Stop Enabling

As the above example suggests, stopping enabling can be difficult for two reasons; first you don’t recognise you are doing it and second, even if you do, enabling can seem like the kinder or easier thing to do. It’s important not to feel too bad if you recognise you are doing this, being ‘cruel to be kind’ isn’t what we naturally want to do when dealing with somebody we care about.

Here are a number of examples that are typical of enabling behaviour and some practical tips on what you can do to prevent them.

1) Don’t bail them out of trouble with the law

Unfortunately, alcohol addiction and crime have frequently been shown to go hand in hand with each other [2]. Common reasons for this relationship are the emotional changes that alcohol excess brings which can include angry and aggressive outbursts leading to assault or increased risk-taking behaviours like driving under the influence.

This is borne out in the statistics where the Office for National Statistics showed that alcohol is a factor in 39% of all violent crimes [3]. When these behaviours catch up with the individual, resulting in fines or interaction with the judicial system, it is natural to want to bail your loved one out. This could be through paying fines, hiring lawyers and more. Whilst this might be tempting, it is enabling because they might learn that you will always be there to bail them out, removing the need for them to change.

2) Don’t do things they can do themselves

Dealing with alcohol addiction is hard, it can disrupt a person’s day-to-day life as obtaining and drinking alcohol becomes their sole focus. This narrowing of focus can lead to the person in question neglecting all other aspects of life, particularly those concerning their recovery. Again this can be difficult to differentiate from help, but it might look something like the following.

If someone you care about can’t get to the treatment centre because their driving licence has been removed, you offering to drive them there would be helpful as this is something they can no longer do. This is different from you doing all the research to get their licence back or making appointments for their next treatment date which would be enabling as this is something they can do themselves.

3) Don’t give them money

This is perhaps one of the most common examples of enabling behaviour. it might be that your loved one ends up spending vast amounts of money to feed their habit which can lead to debt and in extreme cases, not having enough money to buy basic essentials like food or even homelessness if bills and rent aren’t paid.

It can be extremely difficult to see someone you care about in this position, but chances are that if you give them money, this too will go towards drink, despite what they may say. This enabling behaviour could not only harm them through the extra drink and removal of incentive to change but also yourself.

Sadly, it isn’t uncommon for loved ones themselves to be pulled into financial difficulties because of this situation. You might find it helpful to visit the debt charity StepChange’s website where they have specific advice for debt and alcoholism [4].

4) Don’t join them in drinking

Returning again to that narrowing of focus in alcohol addiction, it isn’t uncommon for you to feel shut out of your loved one’s world as they grow more distant and uninterested in activities outside of drinking. It is understandable then that some feel that the only way they can connect with the person they care about is by joining them in the drinking. Again, this is enabling behaviour and can be detrimental to not only their health but yours and won’t actually help solve the situation.

Instead, whilst they still may show no interest, it is worthwhile seeing if you can get them to engage in another activity with you, perhaps something that they used to enjoy doing. It may not work but will still be better than enabling.

5) Don’t make empty threats

Sometimes you can reach a crunch point and start making threats such as ‘I’m leaving if you don’t stop drinking!’. Half the time, these sorts of threats and ultimatums have no follow-through as you continue to stay despite no improvement in addiction. It is really important that you try to avoid doing this as again, they teach the individual that there are no consequences of their behaviour.

Also, at the end of the day, you can’t actually stop a person from drinking making this a pointless and potentially upsetting exercise.

Instead, you could consider setting boundaries such as ‘I won’t accept drinking in my house’. This is subtly different from making a threat as here you are stating what behaviour you accept in your life rather than control on the other person’s behaviour. Just ensure you prevent boundary setting from turning into an enabling behaviour by sticking to it.

6) Don’t try to control what is outside your ability to control

As mentioned above, you can’t really control another person’s behaviour and you certainly can’t choose what another person chooses to put in their body. Sometimes this wanting to control things can lead to people trying to plan activities, choose friends and obtain employment for their loved one, thinking that it is ‘in their best interests’.

Unfortunately, this can deprive the person of these skills which are an essential part of the recovery process and again won’t lead to them changing their behaviour. It can also be an added stressor for you, especially if they then go on to reject what you planned.

Stopping Enablement

In many cases, the cessation of enablement, whilst difficult, encourage the person you care about to seek help for their addiction which is great. However, it doesn’t always work out this way and it isn’t uncommon for the person to withdraw from you or even become angry.

This is really tough, especially if you feel that all the help, support and enabling you have done at a personal cost is thrown back in your face. It can also be difficult to accept that there is nothing you can do to change the person’s behaviour, it has to be something that they do themselves. Sometimes, this leads to people relapsing back into their enablement patterns as this can seem to be the easiest option.

Please know that you aren’t alone in these sorts of feelings and help is always available. A good place to start is the NHS page on alcohol addiction [5]. This has a number of links to support groups specifically for relations of those struggling with alcohol addiction. One example of such an organisation is Al-Anon who have family groups that you can reach out to even if the person you care about has stopped drinking [6].

Importantly, if you feel that things are really coming to a head, and you are beginning to struggle, please see your GP or another healthcare provider who will be able to signpost you towards support. Somebody is always there to help you.