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The Five Most Common Trademarks of Codependent and Enabling Relationships

Do you enable your loved one? Here's the difference between enabling and support.

The concept of codependency and enabling sounds simple and straight forward—doing for a loved one what they can and should do for themselves—but it can be incredibly difficult to tell the difference between supporting and enabling a loved one.

So what's the difference? After all, enablers want to help their loved one, too, and codependency might feel like healthy support. But enabling allows the status quo—drinking or using drugs—to continue, whereas healthy support encourages a person to address their addiction and all of its consequences.

When we transition away from codependency and enabling, we can help our loved one realize the severity of their addiction, and guide them toward treatment and hopefully into recovery.

The Most Common Codependent and Enabling Behaviors

Do you enable your partner or loved one? Here are five of the most common patterns found in codependent relationships where partners enable their loved one—and a few suggestions to change the dynamic.

1. Protecting a Loved One from the Consequences of Addiction

Rather than allowing a person to face the natural consequences of addiction, a person in a codependent relationship will try to shield their loved one from consequences—and enable them in the process.

This can take many forms, including paying a person's rent or debt, lying to people about a loved one's substance use, fixing their tickets or bailing them out of jail.

To stop codependency and enabling, you have to allow them to confront and manage the consequences of their addiction, even though it may feel unnatural, unloving or mean.

2. Keeping Secrets about Your Loved One's Addiction

When your loved one realizes their alcohol or drug use is considered problematic, they may ask or expect you to keep it secret so that their addiction can remain undisturbed. Or you might feel tempted to keep secrets in order to keep the peace.

This includes talking (or not talking) about their behavior while under the influence, like getting a ticket for drunk driving, or acting erratically or violently.

But your silence may keep their addiction going. Talk to family members or loved ones about your concerns, and consider attending Al-Anon or another support group where everyone shares similar experiences and everything is kept confidential.

3. Refusing to Follow Through with Boundaries and Expectations

One sign of codependency or enabling is the failure to follow through on boundaries and expectations.

If you clearly outline your expectations and your loved one disrespects them, you have to follow through with your predetermined consequence, regardless of how painful it may be.

When you're unable or refuse to maintain boundaries, it says to your loved one, "There are no consequences to your behavior, and addiction is welcome here."

4. Making Excuses for Your Loved One's Behavior

In a codependent relationship, you can enable a loved one by explaining away all of their choices and behaviors.

You might think recent hardships legitimately explain a loved one's misbehavior, making excuses like "his new boss has been working him to the bone" or "she's had a hard time since she got the college rejection letter."

Although life circumstances can indeed cause undue stress, some things—like excessive alcohol or drug use—can't be explained away by stress. Addiction is addiction, regardless of external circumstance.

5. Avoiding the Topic or Your Loved One Altogether

The topic of addiction will understandably create some conflict. Your loved one may show signs of denial, where they refuse they have a problem with alcohol or other drugs. Or they may have decided that their drinking or drug use "is what it is" and are unwilling to change.

This is an obvious red flag that their alcohol or drug use is affecting you enough to cause pain, and they are unwilling to change their substance use.

You should clearly outline to them your expectations about alcohol or drug use, express your hope that they will attend treatment, then follow through on your predetermined consequences and attend support meetings in the meantime.

Other Signs of Codependency and Enabling

There are many additional signs that may suggest the presence of codependency or enabling, including:

  • Giving money that is undeserved or unearned

  • Blaming others for the loved one's behavior

  • Viewing addiction and related behaviors as a result of something else

  • Attempting to control things outside of your control

  • Caretaking of the person who is addicted

With all that being said, there are a few shortcomings to the concept of enabling.

The Concept Blames an Enabler for the Presence of Addiction

When we point out enabling, it can feel like we're blaming a loved one for the presence of addiction. As in, "You enable him, so it's partly your fault." But no one is to blame for addiction, and it's okay to respond imperfectly to the disease—in fact, it's to be expected. We're all learning how to respond to addiction and move toward recovery, and that's what matters.

The Concept of Enabling Ignores the Role of Physical or Emotional Abuse

Sometimes an enabler will have no choice because their loved one reacts poorly if they feel unsupported or attacked, responding with physical or emotional violence. This is extremely complicated, and although someone may be "passively endorsing" a loved one's addiction through silence or other trademarks of codependency and enabling, we must always look after our own health.

Victims of emotional or physical abuse should contact authorities whenever possible, and reach out for help from support groups or meetings.

The Teachings of Al-Anon: How to Detach with Love

Al-Anon, a mutual-help group for people with alcoholic friends or family members, pioneered the idea of detachment with love—and recovery for the loved ones of alcoholics.

A core principle of Al-Anon is that alcoholics cannot learn from their mistakes if they are overprotected. Detachment with love means caring enough about others to allow them to learn from their mistakes. It also means being responsible for our own recovery and making decisions without ulterior motives or the desire to control others.

Ultimately, we are powerless to control others anyway, and we cannot force them into recovery. Most family members have been trying to change their loved one for a long time, and it hasn't worked. We are involved with other people, but we do not control them. We realistically cannot stop people from drinking alcohol or using drugs.

Understood this way, detachment with love plants the seeds of recovery. When we refuse to take responsibility for other people's alcohol or drug use, we allow them to face the natural consequences of their behavior.

** Editor's note: We much prefer the person-first language that emphasizes a person's identity before their disease. However, in keeping with the history of AA and NA, their founding principles and the language that still exists within the fellowships, we have decided to keep the word "alcoholic" to describe people with alcohol use disorders.

Our hope is merely to capture the spirit of the fellowships, and to approach people with the language they commonly use to describe the disease of addiction.


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