Recognizing addiction in a loved one is often a painful experience frequently leaving the loved one and/or family members feeling lost and helpless. Many will turn to denial and attempt to rationalize the addict’s behavior while others will try to control and change the behavior. While these attempts to cope and “help” the addict typically stem from a genuine desire to support him or her and relieve distress, they often create more chaos and harm within relationships and the family system.
This is a common scenario in family systems and in relationships where one or more person suffers from a substance use disorder. Loved ones believe that they are helping when in fact they are enabling the addiction and ultimately causing the problem to become worse. How loved ones respond to the addict or alcoholic’s behavior is crucial in supporting their path to recovery.
Enabling can be defined as:
• Standing between a person and his or her consequences.
• Doing for someone something he or she should be doing for him or herself.
• Engaging in actions that ultimately perpetuate someone’s problematic behavior.
Families and loved ones often enable the addicts and alcoholics in their lives by:
• Getting stuck in the defenses
• Denying there is a problem
• Minimizing the problem
• Avoiding discussions about the problem
• Blaming others or lashing out with anger
• Joining in the rationalizations/justifications that their children create
• Taking over their responsibilities
• Continuing to provide financial support
• Helping to resolve legal problems
• Promising rewards for abstinence
• Suggesting a physical fitness program or a job change
• Threatening to kick them out
• Provoking arguments/nagging
• Avoiding getting help for themselves
In order to stop the cycle of enabling, it is important for not only the addict to receive help, but for families and loved ones to get their own support. Learning how to say no and set boundaries with someone who is active in an addiction is challenging and can often be frightening. Loved ones can benefit greatly from counseling, support groups, and coaching on how to practice self-care and set healthy boundaries with the addict in their lives.
Healthy functional boundaries create a system of limit setting that protects a person from being a victim and contains a person so that he/she is not offensive to others. They help to protect a person’s reality in relationships. They also allow for meaningful exchanges, healthy self-expression, and vulnerability. Addiction violates our boundary systems and requires loved ones to reestablish healthy boundaries in order to stop enabling behaviors that contribute to the chaos and harm that occurs within addicted family systems.
A healthy family with functional boundaries:
• Communicates honestly, directly and thoughtfully
• Supports and affirms one another
• Maintains trust through reliability and consistency
• Practices respect for each other and for others
• Shares a sense of order and responsibilities
• Shares leisure time and a positive sense of humor.
• Teaches traditions, values and right from wrong
• Shares attention among members in a balanced way
• Respects appropriate boundaries among each other
• Values service to others
• Is flexible under stress
• Resolves disagreements without damaging words
• As a system that is open to other people and new ideas
• Admits problems and seeks help from others
• Has a sense of optimism for the future
When working on establishing healthy functional boundaries in order to stop enabling behaviors within an alcoholic or addicted family system, it is almost always recommended that the entire family receive support and help while doing this work. Furthermore, it is important for family members to remember the “3 C’s” of addiction when breaking dysfunctional old patterns: “I didn’t Cause it, I can’t Cure it, and I can’t Control it.” Family members and loved ones of alcoholics and addicts can practice these principles with support, coaching, and guidance. With help, it is possible to break the cycle of enabling and thereby create a foundation in recovery for the entire family unit.
Marie Tueller, MEd, LPC