How To Stop Enabling and Rationally Detach

By Akua Treatment Programs 08/23/16

The cycle of addiction will always outlast the sympathetic efforts of those closest to the addict.

How To Stop Enabling and Rationally Detach

It is always difficult to watch a loved one suffer from discomfort, pain and distress, whether physical or psychological. People suffering from alcoholism and substance abuse disorders typically have complicated health, financial, and interpersonal problems resulting from their substance use. Even with the knowledge that many of these problems are self-made, those who love them will need to learn new ways to express their love.

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Love as an act of caring about another’s health and happiness as much as one’s own can often be manipulated by those in the grip of addiction. Emotional manipulation by the user may be unintentional in the beginning; however, intentional manipulation is quickly and easily learned, especially when it proves to be effective. For an addict, effective manipulation supports their current cycle of behavior by providing them with opportunities, financial means, or access to their drug of choice; the other desired outcome of effective emotional manipulation is reality distancing.

Reality distancing is an active form of denial, by which an addict blames situations or others for their current problems, and refuses to acknowledge the role addiction plays as the common denominator in the negative aspects of their life. When friends and family do not disengage themselves from their loved one’s emotional manipulation and when they help him or her maintain distance from their reality, they become enablers. Until the people closest to the addict stop enabling him or her, meaningful and life-saving interventions will not be effective and the addict’s behaviors will not change.

Signs of Enabling

Do you find yourself…

• rationalizing your loved one’s behaviors by blaming yourself or situations (past or present)?

• cleaning up “messes” (physical or social) left by your loved one after he or she was intoxicated?

• ignoring your loved one’s new constellation of bothersome behaviors that includes lying, being late, not following through with plans or looking unkempt?

• fearful of upsetting or angering your loved one, leading you to keep thoughts and feelings unspoken? 

• putting your loved one’s financial or emotional needs ahead of your own?

• excusing the behaviors of your loved one to other important people in your life, including family, friends, and co-workers

• becoming resentful towards your loved one for negative aspects of your life, such as increased stress and anxiety that he or she does not appear to be experiencing with you?

• physically and emotionally drained of energy, exhausted, and overwhelmed?  

• easily angered or increasingly impatient or oversensitive in your other personal relationships and friendships?

• unable to find time to do things you love to do, such as hobbies and other autonomous activities ?

• lying to others to cover your loved one’s addiction ?

• loaning or giving money, paying bills, lending cars or providing rides and offering other accommodations for your loved one

• always coming to the rescue of your loved one when he or she is in a jam, such as when he or she needs to be bailed out of jail, provided financial help for legal fees,or other emergencies?

• giving ultimatums that you cannot or do not want to follow through with?

• always giving “one more chance”?

Under normal circumstances, it is natural to sympathize with the desperation, fear and angst felt by loved ones; however, sympathy under the circumstance of addiction leads to enabling. If you recognize your actions as any or all of the above-mentioned examples, then you are most likely enabling the same behaviors that are leading to the unhappiness and poor general health experienced by you and your loved one.

Unfortunately, the cycle of addiction will always outlast the sympathetic efforts of those closest to the addict. For example, if your loved one is out of work, covering his or her expenses or lending small to moderate amounts of money will simply cover the costs of maintaining his or her intoxication; unless the supply of money is limitless, the funds will run out before the addiction ends. With financial support, there is a lack of incentive to look for employment. Additionally, there is little motivation for seeking treatment until the effects of the addiction are felt by the addict. Shifting from sympathy to rational detachment is a healthy way to take care of yourself and your loved one.

Ways to Rationally Detach:

• Talk openly and honestly about your own feelings regarding your loved one’s addiction

• Do not lend money, provide rides, or pay your loved one’s bills

• Avoid blaming yourself, others, or situations for your loved one’s addiction

• Do not engage in the behaviors of your loved one that you do not support

Rational detachment allows you to prioritize yourself, regain your autonomy, protect yourself from the negative consequences of your loved one’s actions, and provide empathic support for your loved one. Unlike sympathy, which too often portrays approval and commiseration, empathy allows you to portray compassion, without judgement or approval. Instead of putting yourself into the shoes of your loved one, you can relate to their feelings without sharing their experiences.

For example, your loved one may feel overwhelmed by the consequences of his or her addiction; you can relate to the feeling of being overwhelmed, but for your own reasons. By expressing empathy, you validate the emotional experience without adopting your loved one’s reason for the emotion. Rationally detaching will also allow you to stop feeling equally accountable for your loved one’s addiction; this will help you stop blaming yourself, others, and situations for the problems created by the cycle of addiction.

By rationally detaching yourself, you can also regain emotional control and take better care of your own health, which should always be your own first priority. When you feel better physically and mentally, you can take better care of your loved one through his or her struggle.

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