Co-dependency and enabling the substance abuser

The definition of enabling in the Random House Dictionary is as follows:

To make able, give power, means, competence and ability to, authorise. To make possible or easy.

Now, what does that have to do with drug abuse? After all no one wants a loved one to do something that would hurt themselves or others. So, how could an individual possibly enable someone else’s behaviour? Furthermore, why would one want to enable someone to use drugs? The reality is, this behaviour does occur and contributes to substance abuse. Denial, enabling and co-dependency.

Enabling Drug and Alcohol Abuse

As stated at the beginning, enabling is defined as making possible or easy. In this case, behaviours by family members that allow individuals with substance use problems to avoid the negative consequences that may accompany their actions. There are many ways in which this behaviour can manifest. In addition, enabling behaviour can be instigated by various individuals including parents, siblings, co-workers, supervisors, neighbours, friends, teachers, doctors or even therapists. Though enabling initially occurs as a way to protect the individual from their behaviour, it can go on to perpetuate actions that cause repetitively bad behaviour.

Some ways in which enabling takes place are as follows:

Doing something for another that they should do themselves Making excuses for an individual’s behaviour
Calling the substance abuser’s employer to say the person is sick when they are just high or hung over
Bailing out a child who has been arrested for possession, use or abuse of drugs, or breaking other societal rules Instead of recognising the problem the enabler may defend the substance abuser thereby allowing the behaviour to continue Generally covering the tracks of the individual in question whether it be by giving / loaning money, finishing up work. Or just generally ignoring behaviours that should have repercussions.

Usually the enabler stays silent when faced with repeated inappropriate behaviour.


Denial is when family and friends refuse to recognise or refuse to admit to a problem. This does not only refer to substance abuse, denial is a defence mechanism that is utilized when an individual finds the truth of a situation too difficult to deal with. Most striking in the denial phenomenon is the enabler’s refusal to acknowledge the deterioration of the relationship he or she has with the substance abuser. In fact, quite often the denial mechanism will continue until it no longer can. Meaning until something horrific occurs the individual may refuse to acknowledge the problem.

What is the purpose of enabling?

The benefits of enabling are twofold – the individual who is using substances can continue the behaviour they want and secondly, the enabler does not have to acknowledge that anything is wrong. This action however, is a short term solution to a long term problem. Long term, enabling of drug abuse leads to unhappiness for the enabler and the further deterioration of the individual using drugs.

Another reason enabling occurs is because of the idea of co-dependency

Co-dependency is the idea of being overly involved in another person’s life. Having constant preoccupation with the other person’s behaviour and feeling unnecessarily guilty when not taking care of the other person’s needs. This often stems from not having adequate self-esteem. Some common themes in the co-dependency cycle on the part of the dependent person are as follows: My feelings are not important, I am not good enough, I am not loveable, My having problems is not acceptable, It is not OK for me to have fun, I don’t deserve love, I am responsible for the substance abusers behaviour.

What can I do about co-dependency?

It is recommended by experts in the field that co-dependent family member or loved ones remind themselves on a regular basis that they did not cause the problem, cannot control or fix the problem. They need to understand that the only thing they can do is offer assistance which may or may not be heeded. The co-dependent person needs to understand that the only person that can help the substance abuser is the substance abuser – he or she needs to obtain the help that is available.