A Crutch for Addiction: Enabling Delays Addiction Treatment

In healthy relationships, people give and take, drawing on their strengths to compensate for the other’s weakness, and creating a stronger whole. However, in the presence of addiction, this natural dynamic can move from healthy symbiosis to destructive enabling, delaying addiction treatment and damaging both people involved in the relationship.

Enabling long has been recognized as a pervasive and damaging dynamic. When your partner suffers from an addiction, it is natural to want to support them. In the absence of meaningful intervention and with the best of intentions, many people try to shield their loved one from the consequences of their substance use in order to protect them both psychologically and practically. For example, you may give them money to cover debts, assure them that no one noticed the scene they made while drunk, cover for them at work, or make excuses for them to hide their addiction from others. You may compensate for your partner’s shortcomings at home by taking on a disproportionate amount of housework, working more to cover their expenses, and cleaning up both their literal and figurative messes. In extreme cases, you may take the blame for your partner’s actions; for example, some people have been known to tell the police they were driving to avoid their partner being arrested for a DUI. You do this out of love, and sometimes you also do it out of emotional and practical self-interest; your partner’s addiction has cast a wide net and maybe threatens not only his or her physical and psychological health, but your own emotional and financial well-being.

The True Effects of Enabling

In the short term, your enabling behavior may indeed be effective. Your partner may be temporarily saved from the pain of self-awareness, their job may be preserved, and they may avoid legal conflict. In the long term, however, not having to face the consequences of their actions can keep them blind to the true extent of harm they are causing themselves and others, leaving them without a realistic understanding of their addiction. By preventing them from hitting bottom, you are inadvertently prolonging their substance abuse and keeping them from seeking out addiction treatment. Taking on responsibilities that should fall on the shoulders of your partner may also be reinforcing their sense of helplessness and lack of agency. The actions you take to make your partner’s life easier may, in fact, be contributing to a negative self-image, where they feel powerless to make positive change.

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Breaking the Cycle

Breaking out of a deeply entrenched pattern of enabling behavior can be difficult for both you and your partner, but doing so is vital to the health of your loved one, your relationship, and to your own mental wellness. Recognizing your role in your partner’s addiction may be a painful process; do not dwell on the past or assign blame. Instead, talk with your partner, explain that your current dynamic is causing damage, and calmly and firmly establish boundaries. For example, you may stop acting as their designated driver when you go out and ask that they find their own way home if they choose to drink. You may stop cleaning up after them when they get sick, looking for jobs for them, making social excuses, and interrupting your own plans to stay home with them when they are coming down from substance use. At first this can create friction; your partner may see it as a betrayal, rejection, or selfishness, and act out in protest. You may also feel a sense of panic and fear as you relinquish control and allow the true consequences of their addiction to play out. It is crucial that you stay strong and resist the urge to go back to your old ways. The uncomfortable reality that you have been hiding must emerge to allow your partner to gain clarity and recognize that they need help.

Enabling Recovery

Reorienting your relationship to end enabling does not mean that you completely disengage from your partner, stop being kind, or no longer have an interest in their well-being. It does, however, require that you stop taking short-term measures to limit damage, and look at the bigger picture to promote real, lasting recovery. Connecting with addiction treatment resources such as Alta Mira can help your loved one find solace and support to begin the healing process, using evidence-based therapies targeted to his or her specific needs. Alta Mira recognizes the important role you play in your partner’s life, and encourages your involvement throughout treatment, from assessment to aftercare planning to, in some cases, family therapy. We also provide a specialized 4-day program for families of those living with addiction to gain a greater understanding of substance abuse and learn how to support your loved one without falling into damaging relationship patterns. By focusing on long-term recovery rather than stop-gap measures, your partner can develop the inner resources to make meaningful change and allow both of you to create healthier, happier lives free from addiction.


Alta Mira is a premier treatment center for people suffering from addiction issues. Contact us to learn more about how we can help you or your loved one.