View Full Version : Helping vs Enabling - what's the dif?

12-20-2007, 09:50 PM
Although this refers to alcoholism and "him", this can apply to many family situations where enabling occurs with a sick family member. - Catty1
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Enabling Takes Many Forms

Many times when family and friends try to "help" alcoholics, they are actually making it easier for them to continue in the progression of the disease.

This baffling phenomenon is called enabling, which takes many forms, all of which have the same effect -- allowing the alcoholic to avoid the consequences of his actions. This in turn allows the alcoholic to continue merrily along his (or her) drinking ways, secure in the knowledge that no matter how much he screws up, somebody will always be there to rescue him from his mistakes.

What is the difference between helping and enabling? There are many opinions and viewpoints on this, some of which can be found on the pages linked below, but here is a simple description:

1. Helping is doing something for someone that they are not capable of doing themselves.

2. Enabling is doing for someone things that they could, and should be doing themselves.

Simply, enabling creates a atmosphere in which the alcoholic can comfortably continue his unacceptable behavior.

Are you an enabler?
Here's a few questions that might help determine the difference between helping and enabling an alcoholic in your life:

1. Have you ever "called in sick" for the alcoholic, lying about his symptoms?

2. Have you accepted part of the blame for his (or her) drinking or behavior?

3. Have you avoided talking about his drinking out of fear of his response?

4. Have you bailed him out of jail or paid for his legal fees?

5. Have you paid bills that he was supposed to have paid himself?

6. Have you loaned him money?

7. Have you tried drinking with him in hopes of strengthening the relationship?

8. Have you given him "one more chance" and then another and another?

9. Have you threatened to leave and didn't?

10. Have you finished a job or project that the alcoholic failed to complete himself?

Of course, if you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you at some point in time have enabled the alcoholic to avoid his own responsibilities. Rather than "help" the alcoholic, you have actually made it easier for him to get worse.

If you answered "yes" to most or all of these questions, you have not only enabled the alcoholic, you have probably become a major contributor to the growing and continuing problem and chances are have become effected by the disease yourself.

As long as the alcoholic has his enabling devices in place, it is easy for him to continue to deny he has a problem -- since most of his problems are being "solved" by those around him. Only when he is forced to face the consequences of his own actions, will it finally begin to sink in how deep his problem has become.

Some of these choices are not easy for the friends and families of alcoholics. If the alcoholic drinks up the money that was supposed to pay the utility bill, he's not the only one who will be living in a dark, cold, or sweltering house. The rest of the family will suffer right along with him.

That makes the only option for the family seem to be taking the money intended for groceries and paying the light bill instead, since nobody wants to be without utilities.

But that is not the only option. Taking the children to friends or relatives, or even a shelter, and letting the alcoholic come home alone to a dark house, is an option that protects the family and leaves the alcoholic face-to-face with his problem.

Those kinds of choices are difficult. They require "detachment with love." But it is love. Unless the alcoholic is allowed to face the consequences of his own actions, he will never realize just how much his drinking has become a problem -- to himself and those around him.

Updated: August 21, 2007

12-20-2007, 09:55 PM
Again, about alcoholism - though the roles the enabling family member(s) can play are the same for families affected by another member's sickness.
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There are Many Ways to Enable an Alcoholic

As the saying goes, you are not the cause of someone else's drinking problem, you cannot cure it and you can't control it.

But there are ways that you may be contributing to the problem.

Before placing the blame for all the problems in your family or your relationship on his (or her) drinking, it might be wise to examine how the other person's drinking may have affected you, and how you have reacted to it. For example, does the following statement sound familiar?

"I don't have a problem with my drinking! The only problem is your attitude. If you would quit complaining about it, there wouldn't be a problem!"

Well, obviously that statement is not completely accurate; after all denial of the problem is one of the more frustrating parts of the problem.

On the other hand the statement may not be completely false either.

How do you react to the alcoholic's drinking? Could your reaction be a part of the overall problem? Have you fallen into "role playing" in the family? Is there anything that you can do to improve the situation?

The following describes an incident that could be an example of alcoholic behavior, and some examples of reactions to the incident. Does any of these sound familiar?

The alcoholic comes home late and he is drunk, too drunk in fact to get the key into the front door lock. After several futile attempts, he decides that it is a lost cause. Since he does not want anyone in the house to know that he is too drunk to unlock his own door, he makes a brilliant decision that solves his problem. He goes to sleep in the front yard!

How would you react?

The Rescuer
The "rescuer" doesn't let the incident become a "problem." Since she has been waiting up for him anyway, she goes out in the yard, gets the alcoholic up, cleans him up, and puts him into bed. That way the neighbors never see him passed out in the flower bed!

She never mentions the incident to him or anybody else. If anyone else mentions it, she denies there is a problem. She lies for him, covers up for his mistakes, and protects him from the world.

As the problems increase and his drinking gets worse, she takes on responsibilities that were once his. She may get a job or work extra hours to pay the bills. And if he gets in trouble with the law, she will move heaven and earth to come up with his bail.

The Provoker
The "provoker" reacts by punishing the drunk for his actions. She either waits for him to wake up the next morning and gives it to him with both barrels, or she goes out and turns the water sprinklers on!

She scolds, ridicules, and belittles. She nags. She screams insults at him loud enough for everyone to hear. She gets on the telephone and tells all her friends he's a loser. She is angry and she makes sure that the alcoholic and everybody else knows it. Or she gives him the cold shoulder and doesn't speak to him. She threatens to leave.

She doesn't let it go, either. The anger and resentment continue to build as these incidents become more frequent. She never lets him forget his transgressions. She holds it against him and uses it as a weapon in future arguments -- even months or years later.

The Martyr
The "martyr" is ashamed of the alcoholic's behavior and she lets him know it by her actions or words. She cries and tells him, "You've embarrassed us again in front of the whole neighborhood!"

She sulks, pouts, and isolates. She gets on the telephone with her friends and tearfully describes the misery that he has caused her this time! Or she is so ashamed of it she avoids her friends and any mention of the incident.

Slowly she becomes more withdrawn and depressed. She may not say much about it to the alcoholic, but she lets him know with her actions that she is ashamed of him. Quietly she tries to make him feel guilty for his behavior.

Which is the Enabler?
The above examples may be somewhat of an exaggeration, but then again they may be very typical of what goes on in an alcoholic home. The "roles" the nonalcoholic spouse plays in the family may not be as well defined, as they are outlined here. Depending upon the circumstances, the spouse may fall into one of these roles, or may switch back and forth between them all.

So which of the spouses described above is an enabler? Which one is actually helping the alcoholic progress in his disease? Which one, although they are trying to make things better, are actually contributing to the problem?

All of them.

12-20-2007, 09:59 PM

So which of the spouses described -- the Rescuer, the Martyr, or the Provoker -- is an enabler? Which one is actually helping the alcoholic progress in his disease? Which one, although they are trying to make things better, are actually contributing to the problem?

All of them.

It's easy to define the "rescuer" or "caretaker" as an enabler.

She is enabling him simply by not allowing him to face the consequences of his own actions. He wakes up in the bed warm and toasty the next morning, not even remembering that he passed out in the front yard.

Why should he ever admit that he has a problem? With her rushing in to "put pillows under him" each time he falls, he never feels the pain of the fall. If his drinking never becomes painful, due to her heroic efforts to protect him, why should he ever decide to stop?

But the other two role models are also enabling. How? Because their reactions to the alcoholic's behavior allows him to focus on their reaction rather than his own behavior.

If he wakes up the next morning in the yard and comes into the house to face the wrath of the provoker or the shame of the martyr or "victim," then his natural response is to react to that behavior, rather than his own.

Moreover, both the provoker's and the martyr's actions are designed to manipulate him with guilt, which believe it or not, he feels. But if he is truly an alcoholic, his reaction will not be to own up to his mistakes, but to try to escape them once again -- in the bottle.

The Correct Reaction?
So what is the best way to react to the situation described? How do you react when the alcoholic has pulled another one of his stunts? The answer is to not react at all! Pretend as if nothing happened!

If the alcoholic wakes up the next morning and comes into the house where everything is going on normally -- the kids are getting ready for school, you are doing your hair and the coffee's on the stove -- then the only thing left for him to face is his own behavior.

Any embarrassment or shame brought on by him passing out in the front yard for all the neighbors to see, belongs to him and him alone. It's his problem, not anyone else's. His behavior is the problem, not your reaction to it.

If you greet him with a "Good morning, dear, the coffee's ready!" just as if nothing unusual had happened, you have done your part right. You did not allow someone else's inappropriate behavior to provoke your own inappropriate behavior. You have not given the alcoholic the opportunity to "change the subject." He is left alone to face his own pain and shame by himself. When that pain gets to be strong enough, he will be ready to get help.

Until he is ready to reach out for help with his drinking problem, all the scolding, manipulating, and controlling efforts on your part are not going to do any good whatsoever and will only cause you to get pulled further into the family disease of alcoholism.

Updated: August 11, 2006

12-20-2007, 11:19 PM
Candace, my parents and me went through a bit of counselling years ago for my brother's drug addiction. That is when the term "enabling" was the new concept. Each of us in the family were assigned our "roles" as to how we were enablers. That is also when we first heard the term "tough love". My parents began practicing that and it was very difficult. As it turned out for my brother, he never got clean. He ended up in a pharmacy late at night trying to get more medication, had a seizure from withdrawals, fell on the concrete floor, fractured his skull and was brain dead. My parents had to make the difficult decision to remove his life support. He was in Florida at the time, probably just moved there for the easy access to drugs. Anyway, his body was flown back to TN for his funeral.

Tough love is very difficult to practice, and the fear of my tough love resulting in my daughter's death is always something playing in the back of my mind. Although I know it wouldn't technically be my fault, it would be very hard not to feel that I somehow let her down.

I appreciate your posting this thread. It is a good reminder.


12-20-2007, 11:29 PM
Kim, I am so sorry to hear about your brother.

Addiction runs in my family and others - and I keep hearing how addiction is a progressive illness - even if one is sober (for example) for many years, if one has a drink, you are back as bad as ever, and actually where you would have been if you HADN'T stopped. :(

We lost a young fellow here, about 22 years old, Dec 17 2006...he had had some sobriety, his parents trusted him at home alone again, he was working! I don't know if he stopped going to recovery meetings, or what happened - but he started again, and where he was healthy in the spring, he died in his family's arms a year ago.

I saw him in October...he came to a meeting just before it closed, a long IV line hanging out of his arm, he was sick, he stand, he was drunk - one of our ladies gave him a big big hug, and the guys - the men here are amazing - they all took him out for coffee and to talk to him. He asked me to go - and I said if he was back the next week, I would go with him. He agreed with a smile.

That was the last time I saw him.

It's a tough balance, Kim, I know...the first of the 12 steps means we are powerless over people, places and things.

And it's not only drugs and alcohol...there is a PTr missing right now, and she might well be dead. But she had to hit her own bottom, and though several of us tried everything, in the end, we can only hope she bounces back up.

Some don't.

Prayer is more powerful than anything we can do, sometimes.

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On a lighter note - You know you're codependent WHEN
- you're dying and someone else's life flashes before your eyes. ;)


12-21-2007, 12:18 AM
That's so sad about your friend, Candace!

I also pray for our fellow PTer! I pray that she turns up safe and sound soon!!!


12-21-2007, 07:59 AM
Boy did THIS thread hit close to home!!!!

Guilty as charged. I was my father's enabler and primary caregiver for 2 1/2 years after my stepmother died, all the while fighting with my own sobriety. Did I feel guilty? You bet I did! My reasoning was I either go get the vodka for him, or he gets in his truck and drives to buy it himself, while intoxicated, taking the chance of killing someone else or himself in the process. Did I enjoy keeping my father drunk? No, but I knew if he stopped (he drank 24/7, vodka with milk :p ) cold turkey, it would NOT be pleasant.

I tried talking to a lawyer, fought with my Dad about his drinking, offered to go to AA meetings, even quit my job to care for him!!! He turned it all down.

Sometimes you do what you have to do in certain circumstances. This was one that could not be avoided, in MY opinion.

It's not a fun position to be in.

12-21-2007, 06:37 PM
Gosh, Donna, that must have been terribly hard on you!


12-21-2007, 07:46 PM
Two people (people who are trained in this stuff and whom I respect) have told me I am enabling my Dad, who is not caring for himself with his diabetes; that I should never have quit my career to have him move in with me. He moved in 7 years ago. They also agree he would have been dead within 6 months if he had NOT come to me.

So he is with me, and I get frustrated wtih him and we bicker and what not; and I deal with the EMTs and the ER on a regular basis.

Not an easy decision here, either.

12-21-2007, 11:38 PM
:( :( :( I'm an awful, sad enabler (for other reasons). Can't seem to break it. *Slaps self*

12-22-2007, 12:38 AM
Freedom - so these 'experts' tell you what you 'shouldn't' have done. Do they have any bright ideas as to what you should do now?

Ask them, if for no other reason than to watch them stammer.

You might want to consult an Elder Lawyer in your area. It's a whole national organization in the USA.

K9 - don't slap yourself. I've done my share of enabling, because the person's sickness is contagious...and I get it too, and that is how I act. Both people get sick, and the enabler doesn't even have to drink or use or do what the other person does. Google a support or al-anon group in your area and check it out.


12-22-2007, 12:54 AM
Two people (people who are trained in this stuff and whom I respect) have told me I am enabling my Dad, who is not caring for himself with his diabetes; that I should never have quit my career to have him move in with me. He moved in 7 years ago. They also agree he would have been dead within 6 months if he had NOT come to me.

So he is with me, and I get frustrated wtih him and we bicker and what not; and I deal with the EMTs and the ER on a regular basis.

Not an easy decision here, either.

My dad played the same role with his father, who also was a diabetic. He ended up in the hospital needing a pacemaker, and then was in total organ failure. He didn't make it. That was 11 years ago. My dad had done his grocery shopping for him, buying him his Little Debbie Snack Cakes, Hershey bars and ice cream... cause if he didn't, my grandfather would have done it anyway. He'd eat all the treats and then give himself more insulin. Even in the hospital, my grandfather snuck candy, or had others do it for him. When they picked him up from the bed when he passed away, they had found 3 Hershey bars underneath him.... sigh. So, no matter how sick, he was going to do what he wanted anyway.

12-22-2007, 08:15 AM
Freedom - so these 'experts' tell you what you 'shouldn't' have done. Do they have any bright ideas as to what you should do now?

Ask them, if for no other reason than to watch them stammer.
This was back when I was trying to decide what to do, before Dad did move in. Now they try hard not to say "I told you so" when I vent, fret, and worry about my future. MOstly I don't ask what to do now, as I feel I know the answer and don't want to do it. :rolleyes:

12-23-2007, 02:30 AM
I am sure everyone of us sometime in our lives have been guilty of either being an enabler or rescuer, protector, i sure can relate to all of them at some stage in my life with different people, we are human after all.