External enablers: It takes two!

Enablers can help a loved one’s addiction recovery. How can you turn negative enabling into positive help? More here.

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Addiction Takes Two, So Does Sobriety

Working in the field of addiction, I see people every day who have made a big decision. They may have decided to give up their drug habit or cut down on drinking. These people walk into treatment centres, counselling sessions or visit an A.A. meeting each day. Some are determined, some are desperate, and some are still having trouble believing that they even have a problem. The one thing they all have in common though is that they are only half of their addiction problem.

Every addict has an enabler. An enabler is a person or portion of their personality that helps them continue their addiction. Signs of an enabler include taking on someone else’s responsibilities, difficult sleeping, anxiety, and/or financial problems.

However, no matter what type of enabler a person has, when they decide to seek treatment for their addiction, they forget that the enabler is a part of the problem. Even after they get treatment, the enabler will still help the addict maintain their addicted lifestyle. Until they learn how to quit enabling an addict.

External vs. internal enablers

So what are some examples of enabling behavior? First, let’s address the two main types of enablers.

External enablers – External enablers are often the people closest to the addict. They care deeply for that person and because of that, they often shield an addict from the full repercussions of their actions.

Internal enablers – An internal enabler is that little voice in the addict’s head that helps them justify their actions. Just like an external enabler, this little voice helps the addict avoid the problems that their addiction causes.

Treating the enabler

Because enablers help addicts maintain an addicted lifestyle, it is so important to get treatment for the enabler (not just for the addict). How can an enabler seek treatment to stop enabling?

1. Understanding the role of the enabler

Understanding the role of the enabler helps in other ways as well. Many addicts are brought into treatment by someone who wants a therapist or treatment centre to simply “fix” the problem. These people are often shocked and offended when they learn that they bear some of the responsibility for the addiction.

2. Accepting responsibility

While that can be hard to hear for an enabler and even harder to accept, the sooner it is dealt with the more quickly recovery can begin. Accepting that they contributed to an addiction is also important because it will help the enabler and the addict further down the line.

3. Family therapy

One of the best treatments is family therapy. This brings the addict and their closest relatives into a safe space and allows them to re-examine their relationships. Family and friends often do not know how to behave once someone is in recovery and this can throw an addicts relationships into chaos. With the right help, family and friends can understand their new roles and relationships to smooth the transition into recovery for the addict.

4. Changing behaviours

Once an enabler is able to recognise enabling behaviour they can stop it. This will do more than just help the addict stay clean. An addict who is trying to recover will also recognise enabling behaviour and this can cause arguments and other tension. The addict will be angry because they see someone trying to enable their addiction. The enabler will be angry because they see what they are doing as simply trying to help. If both parties understand what behaviours are inappropriate, they will be on the same page when the addict start recovery. This also means less stress for the addict which can help increase the chances of a relapse.

Getting on the same page

Once enablers and addicts are on the same page, they can work together to provide the best possible recovery environment. Do you have questions about the role of internal or external enablers in addiction recovery? Please leave your questions or comments below. We’ll do our best to respond to you personally and promptly.

About the author
Brad Girtz is a blogger working at Life Works Community, a residential treatment centre. He writes content about mental health, addiction and many other conditions treated at Life Works. Brad enjoys sharing news and information about the latest innovations and ideas in the field of addiction and mental health.


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  1. My 25 yr old son lives on his own but his drinking has caused him to face eviction and possibly lose his job. He checked into detox which I had to pay for and left early saying it was awful there. Now he doesnt want to go into residential treatment saying its too harse. If I dont pay his rent he will be on the street but if I do I feel like Im enabling him.

  2. Hi! My daughter is 22. She is a party girl. Recently I have seen her drunk in the mornings, and drunk late at night after her shift at work. She got in a wreck driving without a license, and left the scene of the accident. There were two other people in the car who she says were drinking and they begged her to drive. So my question is….Am I enableing her if I pay for her to have an attorney? I’m afraid she might go to jail.

  3. Hi Brad,
    We who care about the addicts in our lives walk a terrible tightrope. Leave a young woman on the street and she gets assaulted; take her in and she drives the household crazy. There are no easy answers, particularly when it is almost impossible to “kick” a person out of his or her home. People who say they have done it must have relatives who aren’t well versed in their rights. In my view, the entire society enables people who have the misfortune to be susceptible to addiction: there is alcohol on every street corner, alcohol is glorified as an integral part of a good life, supposed friends call attention to and criticize non drinkers, there are no laws and few resources to help the family who wants to divorce themselves from the problem drinker, insurance companies cover very little in terms of behavioral health services, and treatment centers promise far more than they can deliver, thereby draining families of both resources and hope. And then there are the holier-than-thou types who use a broad brush to paint families as “enablers,” families who would do the right thing in a heartbeat if it were at all clear what the right thing is.

  4. Hello Dianna. That’s a very frustrating situation. I’d suggest family therapy, which involves EVERYONE…for a period of at least once per week for at least a few months.

    Hello Lina. It sounds like you’re definitely in control of when and how you relate with your husband. I’d suggest that you seek counsel from a psychotherapist who specializes in addiction to work out how you’d like to proceed. Speaking to someone with experience in these cases can really help you sort out what you’d like to do next.

  5. I kicked out my husband about a month ago. he’s relapsed 3rd time in our marriage. I just had enough especially since we are expecting a baby together . I do keep in contact with him once in a while, like church and other things. i try to encourage him and we talk but sometimes its just things i need help with like my car or around the house, but i will not take him back till he is fully completely changed. do i cut off all contact with him? do i enable him if i keep in contact with him?

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