If one partner in a relationship is addicted to alcohol or drugs, it can lead to a great deal of suffering for everyone involved. It is understandable that in a lot of cases, the person who is not engaged in the substance abuse will want to just walk away from the relationship – either because they have simply had enough or as an attempt to use tough love to encourage this person to change. This can certainly be the right decision in many situations, but it can also be possible to continue to support the partner without enabling them.
What Does It Mean to Enable an Addicted Partner?
The line between supporting a partner and enabling them is not always clear-cut. People who are caught up in addiction can be manipulative in their attempts to continue drinking or drug use. It is rare for a person to knowingly enable their partner to continue with this self-destructive behaviour; these are just individuals who are doing the best they can.
To enable an addicted person means to make it easier for him or her to remain addicted. This could happen if this individual is being protected from the negative consequences of their behaviour. An example of this would be the husband who needs to phone his wife’s workplace to say that she has the flu when the reality is that she is too hung over to work. This phone call will save that individual from experiencing problems with her job, but it also means she will have escaped the consequences of her behaviour. Other examples of enabling include:
- not talking to them about their bad behaviour even though they are causing a great deal of suffering for others
- paying this persons bills or lending him or her money
- allowing the individual to talk his or her way out of trouble
- tolerating unacceptable behaviour from this person
- putting up with physical, mental, or emotional abuse
- helping this individual to hide his or her addiction
- bailing this person out of trouble.
Why is Enabling a Bad Thing?
Protecting this person from the consequences of their bad behaviour can seem like a good thing to do, but it may be making the situation much worse. The problem is that the reason individuals tend to break free of addiction is that life becomes too uncomfortable. People can stay trapped in the denial of addiction for years, but pain is often they best way to knock them out of this delusion. It is called hitting rock bottom, but if the person is being spared the negative side effects of what they are doing then they may never reach this point. In other words, protecting this person can be preventing them from getting better.
How to Support Addicted Partners without Enabling Them
The key to supporting addicted partners without making the situation worse is to have clear boundaries. This means being there for the person but not helping them to avoid the consequences of what they do. It can be tricky to get the balance right, but the secret is to make some clear rules and to stick to them. If this individual believes that you will not follow through on threatened consequences for bad behaviour, he or she will continue to be manipulative.
Being supportive means that you let this person know that you are going to be there for them. It means being willing to listen and offer help where appropriate and encouraging this person to get the help they need. Sometimes being there for the person can be the most powerful thing you can do for them. The relationship should not only be about them taking and you giving, though.