How to love an addict without enabling

Worry, fear, and enabling are ways that we cope with addiction. But what if you could do something else? Learn more here.

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The Up and Downside of Truth

“There is almost nothing outside of you that will help in any kind of lasting way, unless you are waiting for an organ. This is the most horrible truth.” – Ann Lamott

This truth also can be the most liberating. But you must first come to accept that you can’t fix anyone no matter how much you love and cherish them. And when that loved one abuses alcohol and/or illegal drugs, focusing inside yourself rather than outside on your loved one’s problems is a challenge.

In this article, we briefly review the main traps that family and friends of addicts can fall into when it comes to loving someone who is chemically addicted to alcohol or drugs. What’s the antidote to these traps? Dig in and do the work…on YOURSELF.

More on Worrying

When you love or care for an addict, worry and “what if” become constant companions.

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  • What if he loses his job?
  • What if she can’t take care of her kids?
  • What if he lands in jail or prison?
  • What if he kills someone in an auto accident?
  • And worst of all, what if he dies from a drug overdose or the cumulative effects of alcoholism?

This fear is not unfounded. According to the Center for Disease Control, overdose deaths more than doubled from 1999 to 2012. In 2012 alone, there were 41,502 drug overdose deaths, of which 16,007 involved analgesics and 5,925 from heroin.

To put it another way, consider this. One person (often young) dies every 4 minutes from alcohol or other drug related problems. That’s 15 every hour or 360 every day. This is equivalent to a jumbo jet falling from the sky with no survivors every day of the year.

Enabling: Well intentioned but misguided

However, our worries and “What ifs” cause us to rush in and assume responsibility for our loved one’s destructive behavior. It’s called enabling and it’s a stinker. I read somewhere that addicts crave enabling like plants need water. We enable because we want to protect our loved ones. We enable because we don’t want our family to be disgraced. We enable because we don’t know what else to do. We enable because we don’t want our husband, wife, daughter or son to become another fatal statistic.

Although misguided, our actions are well-intended. After all, family and friends help one another when a member is in need. However, if our loved ones have any chance of recovery, we must get out of their way and let them take responsibility for their behavior. Enabling is not helping! We need to move the spotlight from them and shine it directly at us. To take a long, hard look inside ourselves, even when we don’t like what we see. “This is the most horrible truth.”

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Accepting this horrible truth was a challenge when my adult son was abusing drugs. A loving mom, I enabled, big time. When my son stole money from me, I ignored it. When his checks bounced, I covered them. When he landed in jail, I bailed him out. And when the phone rang in the middle of the night, my heart raced.

No amount of nagging, preaching, begging, or threatening, worked. Finally, when I had enough, I went to my first twelve-step meeting and was told flat out, “This program is about you, not about your loved one.” Say what? How can this be? I was there to learn how to fix my son. I didn’t need fixing. He did.

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Digging In

Turns out that nothing changed until I decided to dig deep inside myself. To toss aside my “God suit” and face the naked truth that I was the one who needed fixing. (More here on tools of codependence recovery.)

During a support group meeting, someone said, “All you have to do is to be willing.” To be willing to make recovery a priority. To be willing to unearth unhealthy behavior. To be willing to abandon my pride and embrace humility. To be willing to admit my faults, fears, and frustrations.

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I’ve learned that almost everything inside of me: my thoughts, actions, beliefs, and attitudes, determines how I live my life with all of its joys and sorrows. I have choices. I can choose to live in the grip of my loved one’s addiction or I can choose to become free. This is the most liberating truth.

Do you love an addict? Let us know…

So, do you love an addict but can’t get free from worry or enabling patterns? Are you looking into how to address addiction and family issues? Please leave us a comment in the section below. We’ll do our best to respond to you personally and promptly. You are not alone.

About the author
Fran Simone is a Professor Emeritus from Marshall University, South Charleston Campus in West Virginia. Recently her memoir, Dark Wine Waters: a Husband of a Thousand Joys and Sorrows was published by Central Recovery Press. She can be reached through the Dark Wine Waters website or at darkwinewaters [at] gmail.


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  1. I posted in 2015. I just wanted to update everyone that my situation has really improved. My husband has been clean for a few years. Life is so much less chaotic and he is in a different place emotionally. We both have a very strong faith in God which has been a huge help. He speaks to a counsellor and a spiritual director regularly. I have opened my eyes to addiction and know that this has not gone away but a daily decision for him. I just wanted to share a hopeful story.

  2. My 33 year old son is addicted to gambling. He doesn’t gamble all the time but when he does he gets into to big debt. This past Christmas we found out he was gambling again. We usually pay his credit cards off so he won’t have to pay interest then he will pay us back every penny of his debt. He has always paid us back and we always felt like this was the last time. But this past time we told him we would not help him anymore in that way because we are not really helping you. He has a house but is serval months behind on his house note and other bills . He is a Respiratory Therapist but we found out today he just lost his job because he failed to go to work because of depression and then lied about it. I don’t know how to deal with this—I am miserable although I know it is not my fault but I can’t stand to see him destroying his life. I gave him a phone number where he could seek help and I pray he will.

  3. Hello my name is Tanya I’ve been with my husband for about 8 years now we have 3 kids together. It so long ago I found out my husband was doing drugs and started drinking too, he keeps lying that he’s going to change for us but we both know that’s a lie. I offered myself to help him out but he refuses. At this point I don’t know what to do I have a 1 month old and not only do I have to stay up to take care of my baby but to make sure my husband is not contacting anyone for his drug. It got to the point were he don’t even respect his kids and does his drugs in our restroom. I really know what I can do to stay strong I know I have to leave but how do I start? I really need to know before it’s too late

  4. My 34 year old son has been hooked on drugs most of his life. He is homeless and he text me asking to go get gas for his car. Its freezing out side and i told him no. He than asked to spend the night. I cannot trust him. Hes been on drugs for dsys and now says he hasnt used today. He carries a gun and has a girlfriend with him.i feel bad because it t is freezing. I hate to say i dont trust him and cant be up all night babysitting as i go to work in the early morning hours. He text me earlier and asked if i could bring him warm food and cigerettes. I took him that earlier. I dont know if thats enabling. I need your help.Asap

  5. My husband is no longer with me…but sometimes he comes home. When he is at home, I become an enabler may be because of pity towards my husband. It is hard to accept that I can do nothing. I am a strong believer of my faith, thus my conscience is hunting me. Is it right to accept that i can do nothing at all? Does he still have the correct state of the mind to determine that his body needs help already?

    1. Hello Ymax. It’s best to work with a family therapist and get help and support for yourself. It is important to learn how not to enable his addictive behavior, which contributes to him finally seeking treatment. Also, he may be well aware he can no longer continue with his addiction and wants to stop, but doesn’t have the right tools to help him ask for help or stay motivated to quit. You will need to know how to support him once he starts his recovery journey.

  6. I have read many of these articles about being married to an addict. Most of them I read that people will say leave as soon as you can or other will say its been so long and we still are struggling. What I would like to know if there can actually be any hope, I know every relationship is different but is there actually anyone that makes it out good. I love my husband so much, I am an enabler because I knew he wouldnt able to fix his mess and so I had to fix it because if not it would bring me down as well. I also am a co-addict because I have completely lost myself in this painful process. I know the good person he can be And i know he has potential it just takes a lot or hard work to get there. I am in the middle of filing for divorce because I don’t want to keep suffering yet I love him so much and I don’t want to abandon him, because like it is said “for better or for worse , in sickness and in health”, that is why I don’t know what to do, I feel so broken and at the toughest decsion if my life!!! 🙁 🙁

  7. I have decided to take the step and stop enabling my husband. My things are packed and as soon as I have a chance to leave I am leaving. I love my husband and I know he loves me. I have not been able to attend meetings but these blogs have helped me tremendously. I have been telling him for a long time that I would leave but have just now gotten the courage to do it. There is no turning back because I have a lease on an apartment. My husband has no is idea how much I agonized over this decision. I cried the day I signed the lease and almost didnt do it but I didn’t want to regret not doing it. I tried to tell him just the other day that I didn’t want a divorce but just wanted to show him how serious I was about his drug use. He uses right in our home like it is no big deal. I have emotionally detached myself from him and didnt realize thats what I had done until I started researching. I told him the other day that I would find a place to go and his response was as long as I knew my responsibilities were which is to take care of him. You see I have a regular 8 hour job plus we have a business that is strictly in my name for business purposes so his thing is I will take care of him one way or another. It was like a kick in the gut because I put the business in my name out of my love for him because he couldnt do it for legal reasons. He thinks the threats like that will keep me from leaving but he will get a surprise because I am willing to leave everything behind even though its all in my name. Then he comes back like everything is ok and we never even had a conversation about anything. He walks around like everything is okay and good to go. I told him he missed the whole point and all I wanted was for him to get help. Anyway thanks for the articles, they have really helped.

  8. i have recently discovered that my husband of 10 Months has been using drugs throughout our marriage despite being told differently. I have found out about nar anon and am going to attend. He is reluctant for me to talk to mine or his family as he found their questions too difficult and felt that they didn’t understand. I desperately need to share this with someone and I am torn with what to do. I am scared and feel very alone. I am also living in a different country away from my family and close friends. Just need some advise. We have had financial issues because of this.

    1. Hello Jo. Going to those group counseling sessions is a good idea. Your husband needs to seek professional help to get off drugs and work out any issues that compelled him to start using drugs in the first place. Is he willing to give up his addiction? Since you say that you are living in a different state, you may be able to use the SAMHSA treatment locator ( to find rehab centers in your area.

  9. Thank you for sharing this post. It is incredibly well written. I love the statement, “We need to move the spotlight from them and shine it directly at us”. That particular statement resonates with me. I know that this is one of many faults and issues I need to work on.

    1. Thank you, Amy for your feedback and kind words. I’m glad you found it helpful and uplifting.

  10. This is a great article. We do forget that we have to step aside and let the addict take responsibility for their recovery. It’s so hard to be a bystander when we love the person, not the addict. Thank you for this post.

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