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In addiction treatment we tend to focus on those with substance use disorders (SUDs), rather than their loved ones.
But the loved ones of people with SUDs have an important role to play – one which should not be overlooked.
We all went the best for our loved ones. But sometimes we can make things worse for them. In addiction treatment, this is what is known as ‘enabling’.
Enabling is when you contribute to someone’s destructive behaviours. Destructive behaviours are often caused by addiction, such as when someone with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) goes on an alcohol binge. They can also be caused by behavioural disorders, such as gambling disorder.
Enabling can be intentional, or accidental. Most of the time it is accidental, especially when loved ones are involved.
The most common reason for loved ones to enable an addiction is because they are trying to help.
If you are using substances to self-medicate for a physical or mental health problem, your loved one is unlikely to discourage this – unless they see that it is harming you.
Unfortunately, it may not always be obvious that alcohol or drugs are causing harm until it is too late.
Self-medicating for other health problems (physical or mental) is a very common cause of substance dependency. In the UK, 59% of people receiving treatment for substance use also had a mental health treatment need, according to government statistics.  18% of people in treatment for substance use had a disability of some sort. 
If you’re worried you may be enabling your loved one’s addiction, there are several enabling behaviours to watch out for.
People with substance use disorders can be very difficult to live with because substances become their number one priority. They may be bad-tempered and prone to lashing out, especially if for some reason they don’t have access to substances on a particular day.
You may allow them to treat you badly because ‘they’re depressed’ or ‘their having a bad week’. But remember: you have to look after yourself, too. Personal boundaries are important, and you shouldn’t have to suffer because of someone else’s addiction.
Addictions bring real-life social consequences, such as issues with work, the law, and so on.
If your loved one has been in trouble with the police, or has failed to show up for work/school, and you have protected them from the consequences, then that can be classed as enabling. It may seem like the right thing to do, but sometimes people need to experience the consequences of their actions – even if those consequences seem unpleasant at the time.
Addictions cost money. Some substances are more expensive than others, but regardless of the substance, it will cost money – and probably quite a lot of money.
Funding your loved one’s addiction is an example of enabling. So why do people do it?
One reason is that people are often concerned that their loved ones will borrow money from someone who they can’t pay back, or turn to crime in order to fund their addiction. ‘It’s better for me to pay for it than someone else’, is a justification that many people use when paying for their loved one’s substance of choice.
Whatever the justification, this is still enabling, and should be avoided where possible.
If someone is beginning to develop a substance use habit, no matter how sneaky they are about it, they will leave signs.
If you continually turn a blind eye to these signs – whether it’s coming home late at night, being more irritable than normal, or smelling of alcohol – then you may be enabling their addiction.
You have to be open and honest when dealing with people who are dependent on substances. Allowing them to get away with blatant, destructive behaviours will only encourage them to continue acting in the same way.
People with substance dependencies often deny that they need treatment, even when they do.
Another form of enabling is going along with someone’s denial, when you know they are seriously in need of treatment.
You may go along with their denial because you don’t want to lose them, or because you’re scared of how they might react.
Of course, if there’s a chance your loved one might become abusive, don’t take any risks.
But, if not, it might be a good idea to gently suggest that they reach out for help. Ultimately, your loved one getting treatment will be the best thing for both of you.
If any of the signs above apply to you, you should consider ways you can stop enabling your loved one, and start helping them to overcome their addiction.
Below we’ve listed a few simple steps you can take to avoid enabling.
It may sound obvious, but using substances around your loved one is a guaranteed way to legitimise their substance use – stop doing it, and they will have to find a different justification for using substances.
Even if your actions don’t lead to any decrease in their substance intake, it will make them more aware of how much they are drinking/using drugs, which is the first step towards accepting they have a problem.
Enablers often struggle to go against what their loved one says they want, even if they know it’s bad for them.
Remember: going along with your loved one’s substance use may placate them, but it won’t help them in the long run. People who are dependent on substances need treatment, or they will begin to face the myriad of negative consequences that come with a substance use disorder (SUD).
Therapy and counselling are important for the loved ones of people with SUDs too. Not only can therapy help with your mental health, it can also offer practical advice for how to cope with being around someone with a SUD.
You should consider telling your loved one that you won’t do anything to enable their addiction. That means no paying for alcohol/drugs, and no lying to cover up for their substance use.
Instead, tell them that you will always be there to offer support if they want to get sober. For instance, you can give them lifts to therapy appointments, pick up medication for them, and so on.
Honesty is key to most relationships; it is even more important in relationships where one party is addicted to substances.
If you recognise that your loved one is using substances, bring it up with them. They may deny it, and they may hate you for it, but the alternative – allowing them to slide into addiction – is much worse.
We hope this has given you some useful advice for how to stop enabling your loved one’s addiction.
The advice given here is fairly generalised, and we should stress that everyone’s situation is different. You need to do what is best for you and your loved one. If you are worried that your loved one may be in danger of hurting themselves or someone else, be careful.
If you would like free and confidential advice, we’ve included some resources below for the loved ones of people with SUDs.
This UK-based charity gives help and advice to parents.
This charity gives advice to loved ones of people with SUDs.
This is a support group for loved ones of people with SUDs.
If you have a mental health problem, such as depression or anxiety, you are much more likely to have a substance use disorder (SUD). Similarly, if you have a SUD, …