The Relationship Between Codependency and Enabling Behavior

Last Updated: Aug 30th 2020

Reviewed by Brittany Polansky

The Relationship Between Codependency and Enabling Behavior

Although substance abuse affects relationships in very negative ways, it’s typical for spouses, partners, siblings, friends, or co-workers to develop enabling behaviors that help them cope with the stress.

Although enablers are well-intended, they create an unhealthy codependency, making matters worse and sometimes straining relationships to the point of no repair. Family members and friends want to help the addicted person, but instead, they end up feeling anger, fear, guilt, pity, or resentment. It becomes difficult to communicate, and solving problems becomes an uphill battle.

What’s the Difference Between Codependency and Enabling?

Codependency is sometimes known as a “relationship addiction” because neither person can function well without the other. Problems arise when one person takes advantage of another, and the relationship gradually becomes emotionally harmful.

Enabling is a sign of codependency, in which one person, who acts as a caretaker or rescuer, enables another person to continue their destructive behavior. Enablers continually try to fix the problem, or they ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist. For instance, a wife may make excuses or call the boss when her husband is too hungover to come to work, a friend may bail a buddy out of jail, or a parent may pay the rent or buy groceries for a grown child with a substance abuse problem.

Codependent relationships are one-sided and often manipulative, with the enabler invariably doing more than his share. Enablers eventually become resentful and angry because they’ve sacrificed their own needs for the other person. However, they fear abandonment and go to great lengths to hold on to the crumbling relationship.

Problems with Codependency and Enabling Relationships

Enablers have good intentions, but they may stay in destructive relationships because helping another person boosts their own fragile self-esteem. Eventually, they may become so wrapped up in the other person’s problem that they lose their own identity. At the same time, they may be fearful of what will happen if they stop helping, and they may struggle with extreme guilt for their feelings of anger or resentment. Life becomes increasingly chaotic.

The problem is that enablers make it possible for the destructive behavior to continue. Why should a person stop using drugs or alcohol when the enabler steps in to take care of all the problems? Often, people seek treatment when the struggle becomes too difficult.

It’s a hard pill to swallow, but sometimes you have to let natural consequences play out. By enabling your loved one, you prevent her from getting the help she needs to get well.

Are you Helping or Enabling?

Doing everything for a person with substance abuse issues doesn’t help because you may be standing in the way of recovery. You may think they can’t survive without you because they have dropped out of school, lost a job, can’t pay their bills, developed legal problems, or fallen behind on child support payments. 

Don’t be deceived that your friend or family member is completely helpless, and don’t feel guilty that you’re not helping enough. There’s a good chance that he can manage things on his own, but denial and manipulation go hand-in-hand with substance abuse. 

It isn’t easy to determine if you are enabling or helping. If you aren’t sure, stop and think for a moment. If you’re doing things for another person that he should be doing for himself, you are probably enabling. 

Although stepping in to rescue another person doesn’t help, you don’t want to turn your back on a person who is struggling. It’s fine to express your worry and concern. You can help by encouraging your loved one to seek treatment, and by supporting healthier choices. 

However, that doesn’t mean you look the other way if the person’s behavior is dangerous to himself or others, such as drunk driving or making threats of suicide. Call for help, and don’t try to solve life-threatening problems on your own.

How to Stop Being Codependent With an Addict

The addiction isn’t your fault. You didn’t cause it, even though the addicted person may try to blame you for their problems. Remember that by taking responsibility for another person’s problem, you are actually making things worse. Let go of the idea that you can fix the problem. Addiction is a disease, and you can’t control it any more than you can control another person’s heart disease or cancer.

Learn everything you can about the disease of addiction, and the effect of substances on the brain. This complicated illness affects everybody in the family, but knowledge will help you understand.

Establish healthy boundaries and clear rules about what you’re willing to accept. Learn to say no to unreasonable demands of your time and energy. Be consistent about enforcing those rules; otherwise, your rules will be merely empty threats, Don’t give in; this isn’t easy,and it takes practice.

Don’t protect a person with a substance abuse disorder from the natural consequences of his behavior. For instance, stop making excuses. Don’t smooth over embarrassing situations. Don’t intervene in legal or financial problems.

Consider therapy for yourself. If your family member decides to enter treatment, you can benefit tremendously from family therapy sessions or events often held in conjunction with treatment. If she isn’t ready to begin treatment, continue to be encouraging and supportive, but in the meantime, take steps to help yourself and change the way you react to the situation.

Monitor your behavior and your use of drugs and alcohol. Remove any substances that may be a source of temptation.

Don’t buy into the idea that a person with a substance abuse problem won’t seek treatment until he reaches rock bottom. When it comes to treatment, sooner is always better than later.

Seek Treatment at 1st Step

1st Step Behavioral Health is a licensed, long-term rehab center located in Pompano Beach, Florida. We are ready to help you and your family every step along your journey to recovery. Call us today at 855-425-4846 or contact us here for more information.

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Brittany Polansky

Brittany PolanskyBrittany has been working in behavioral health since 2012 and is a Primary Clinician at our facility. She is an LCSW and holds a master’s degree in social work. She has great experience with chemical dependency and co-occurring mental health diagnoses as well as various therapeutic techniques. Brittany is passionate about treating all clients with dignity and respect, and providing a safe environment where clients can begin their healing journey in recovery.