When Loved Ones Enable Addictive Disease

enable addictive disease broken windmill

In the world of addiction, to “enable” means to assist the progression of the disease by interfering with the natural consequences of addictive behaviors. As you are reading this, you’re probably thinking, “Why would anyone enable addictive disease? Make the situation worse?”  Unfortunately, and often very unintentionally, family members dealing with addictive behaviors, do just that.


Addictive Behaviors and Enablers

Please note that in these first paragraphs, I have used the words, “addictive behaviors” and not “the addict in your family”. There’s a good reason for that. Too many family members of those with substance use disorders (SUDs) believe their loved one is public enemy #1. Or wrong or bad because of the behaviors their addictive disease requires them to perform. The truth of the matter is that addiction is a brain disease. And therefore, regular or normal human behavior is impacted to keep the disease progressing forward. When a family member believes their loved one with an SUD is “bad or wrong”, that family member fights against the person – not the addiction.


Battling an addictive disease and battling a person are two distinctly different situations.


When we engage in enabling behaviors, we are battling a person. We are fighting with our loved one.  When we battle with an addictive disease process, we engage in purposeful and strategic behaviors to disrupt the progression of the addictive disease



When we enable, we engage in behaviors like:

Avoiding the real issue with our loved one, and not saying what we think or feel.

Keeping secrets about our situation from our family or friends.

Blaming our loved one for our feelings or situation.

Arguing with our loved ones.

Begging or pleading with our loved ones to stop their substance use.

Make excuses or covering for our loved one’s actions.

Taking our negative thoughts and feelings out on our loved ones.

Threatening our loved ones without follow-through.


When you attempt to enable …

The above list is certainly not exhaustive, but I hope it’s captured your attention, your honesty and your awareness.  Do you find any of your behaviors on this list?


When we battle a process, we engage in behaviors like:

Learning about addictive disease and the family. Attending family education classes and reading about addiction and the family system.

Seeking support for our thoughts, feelings and behaviors in mental health counseling and support groups.

Openly discussing our actions, thoughts, and feelings with our loved ones and family.

Apologizing for our behavioral shortcomings to our loved ones.

STOP arguing and blaming our loved ones for their addictive disease process.

Engage in managing our own well-being, hobbies and self-care.


enable addictive disease windmill


You are in control of yourself now …

Do you find any of your behaviors on the above list?


When we battle a disease process and not a person, we become more effective people.  And we no longer stand in the way of natural consequences occurring in the course of addictive disease.  We feel less captive to the chaos and uncertainty presented by the addictive disease process. And we begin to feel hope for our future.


At Sanford Addiction Treatment Centers, we believe that family treatment is essential for effective recovery. “Family” includes everyone closely involved with a person who is in the addictive disease process.  Our family psycho-educational group engages family members while their loved one is in treatment. We also recommend that all family members seek mental health counseling for themselves. And Sanford recommends ongoing therapy sessions for families members.  We also recommend recovery and addiction reading material and informal support groups for family members of those recovering from SUDs.



Caroline (Carli) Parmelee-Noffsinger has 20 years clinical experience including: primary therapist and case manager for residential, IOP and outpatient therapy. Carli’s primary role at Sanford House is facilitating the Family Program. She is currently updating and revising the program design and content and hopes to improve upon an already successful approach to family intervention. In her free time, Carli spends time with her horse. She has been a horse lover and owner for most of her life and has facilitated equine therapy sessions. She says, “The back of a horse is good for the inside of a person.” You can reach Carli with questions about The Sanford House Family Program at cnoffsinger@sanfordhouse.com