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Enabling Versus Caregiving

Enabling and caregiving both involve a strong desire to love, help and nurture another person. These desires are amplified, often with a sense urgency and desperation, for those with loved ones in active addiction.  The reality, however, is that many of the behaviors that seem “helpful” are actually quite the opposite. We can literally love others to death. Here we will differentiate between caregiving and enabling (which we can also refer to as “caretaking” or codependency), offering a more helpful approach to supporting your loved one in active addiction.

Caregiving is the act of giving care to another person who is incapable of giving it to themselves. For example, it is developmentally appropriate to tie a two-year old’s shoes (if they cannot). Enabling or caretaking, on the other hand is taking away another person’s ability to do something for themselves. When we get into a dynamic of enabling, we rob the other person of any opportunity to learn and experience the growth necessary to function on their own. This creates a mutual dependence that leads to more frustration and resentment for both parties.

When it comes to addiction, enabling adds fuel to the disease’s fire. If you enable your loved one in active addiction, these behaviors prevents them from experiencing the natural consequences of their own behaviors. Examples of enabling in relation to the addiction process include: giving money to an addict; repairing common property the addict broke; lying to the addict’s employer to cover up absenteeism; fulfilling the addict’s commitments to others; screening phone calls and making excuses for the addict; speaking for the addict or bailing him or her out of jail. It isn’t that these behaviors are “bad” or “wrong”, but it is clear they aren’t working to keep your loved one safe and sober.

To stop enabling isn’t easy. For many, the fear of a loved one losing his or her job, going to jail or overdosing is too much to create any lasting behavioral change. You may have to weigh consequences of short-term pain versus long-term misery in each case. However, the most important thing to know is that you do not have to make any of these decisions alone. Like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, Al-Anon and Nar-Anon provide space for those affected by the disease of addiction. Sponsors and other members of the community can help you navigate these challenging decisions, set boundaries that you are comfortable with and learn to enable your loved ones’ recovery instead of their addiction.

Written by
Jena Plummer, MA, LCAS-A, LPCA, NCC,