Enabling Relationships and Alcoholism

Addiction and alcoholism is often viewed as a problem that comes from within. While it is certainly true that recovery begins within the addict, it is also important to consider the influence that others can have.

The influence of enabling relationships is particularly important. Enablers can take many forms, and they are usually unaware of the negative effect they are having on the alcoholic. Despite their good intentions, enablers sometimes stand in between an addict and their recovery. However, by learning to foster healthy relationships rather than enabling ones, concerned friends and family can play a direct role in an alcoholic’s recovery.

Enabling Defined

In the context of alcoholism, an enabling relationship is one that makes it easier for the person with the addiction to continue in their destructive lifestyle. In most cases, enablers are well-intentioned and believe that their actions are beneficial to the alcoholic. However, the opposite is usually the case.

Without enablers in their lives, alcoholics typically descend much faster into the chaos and pain that their destructive lifestyle engenders. The enabler wants to protect the alcoholic from the pain of this descent, so they spend much of their energy trying to offset the potential damage. The reverse side of this dilemma is that any alcoholic who is protected from the ramifications of their drinking problem will be less motivated to seek rehabilitation.

For the enabler, the thought of letting the person they care about hurt themselves is too much to endure. What they do not realize is that their acts of kindness and protection may actually contribute to deepening the alcoholic’s addiction. Only by stepping back from this toxic relationship can the enabler hope to recover their sense of self, and truly help the alcoholic they care about.

Different Types of Enabling Relationships

Enabling relationships affect more than alcoholics. They can apply to any addictive lifestyle, including those that involve substances, gambling or even shopping. The archetype of an enabler as a spouse or close friend is most common. However, there are many people who can play the role of enabler in an addict’s life.

These are three of the most common enabling roles seen in an alcoholic’s life:

Drinking Friends as Enablers

Drinking Friends are primary enablers, and they help to reinforce destructive habits. This also applies to younger people in the form of peer pressure. Many people who start drinking before they are 14 years old go on to become alcoholics. With this in mind, stopping the enabling influence of peer pressure on young people has a dramatic impact on their chances of succumbing to alcoholism.

Family Members as Enablers

Family members are the most common enablers in an alcoholic’s life, though this often goes unrecognized. In an attempt to help the alcoholic, loved ones may be offering implicit consent to continue their addictive lifestyle. This may include cleaning up after the alcoholic, lending money, picking them up when they become severely intoxicated and escorting them home.

Medical Practitioners as Enablers

Medical Practitioners are rarely identified as enablers of addicts, but the doctor-patient relationship can sometimes turn into an enabling one. This applies more to abuse of medication than to alcoholism. For example, in order to save a patient from the short-term pain of withdrawal symptoms, a physician may continue to prescribe addictive pain medication after the initial need has passed. This sets the addict up for more complicated problems in the near future.

Identifying Enablers

After going through the process of alcohol rehabilitation, a recovering alcoholic needs to take inventory of their relationships to determine which may have an enabling effect on them. The addiction counselor will assist in this process, offering suggestions and recommendations where appropriate. Identifying enablers and decreasing their role in an addict’s life helps to reduce the chances of relapse.

Opposite this, the alcoholic and addiction counselor may work together to identify which relationships are especially healthy and supportive. Fostering and building on healthy relationships is extremely important early in the recovery model. These will ideally be people who do not drink and who do not exert an enabling influence on the alcoholic.

Of course, everyone’s situation is different. While going through rehab and developing strategies for recovery, a person may realize that they have few if any friends who supply positive support. If this is the case, the addiction counselor will probably recommend that the alcoholic in recovery intentionally seek out new supportive relationships. This can be a challenging process, but its rewards are substantial.

One of the easiest places to build positive relationships after completing rehab is through support groups back home. People in these groups naturally identify with one another and have many of the same short-term life objectives in mind. Again, counselors at rehab centers can be a resource for connecting with support groups in a particular area.

Healthy Relationships for Alcoholics

When a recovering alcoholic sets out to put their life in order, they need comprehensive support from those who care about them. This is an ideal opportunity to supply positive assistance. However, it also gives those with a tendency to enable an opportunity to return to their old ways.

To put an end to enabling behavior, family members of alcoholics are encouraged to attend classes and consider enrolling in support groups for alcoholic families. This can help them prepare for the possibility of relapse and equip them with strategies for encouraging total abstinence from drinking. Alcoholics who return from rehab to supportive friends and family members are much more likely to succeed in recovery.

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