What Is Unconscious Enabling?

unconscious enabling

Addiction affects the whole family: members who aren’t “addicts” typically take on other unhealthy roles, such as “hero” (trying to make everything better by being personally perfect), “scapegoat” (acting up to distract from the addiction), or “invisible man” (staying quietly out of the line of fire). Or the best-known and most frequently observed role, particularly common with spouses/partners: “enabler.” What is enabling, and how do you curtail this behavior?

What Is Enabling?

“Enabling” in the unhealthy sense means acting in ways that make it easier for someone else’s toxic habit to continue. It’s a frequent symptom of codependence and may involve cleaning away the evidence of drunken vomiting, “loaning” money to buy more drugs, or inventing a false reason for a hung-over spouse’s sleeping late.

The most subtle and common form is unconscious enabling: behavior that appears at first glance to be simple “helping out” or “business as usual.”

Why You May Be Enabling Without Realizing It

If you’re moaning, “I do everything I can, yet the drinking just gets worse,” ask yourself the following questions.

Are you used to being the family problem-solver? Pride or “somebody has to do it” thinking leads many people into enabling. You’re probably prone to this if you’re chronically annoyed that others “won’t do their share,” but never ask them directly because “it’s too much trouble, and they wouldn’t get it right anyway.”

Are you easily swayed by emotional displays? Most enablers hate conflict: any show of hurt or anger, and they’re all appeasement and apologies. As a result, they’re easily manipulated by partners seeking excuses to continue in addiction.

Do you find it impossible or terrifying to visualize life without the addicted person? Codependency creates its own form of addiction: the relationship becomes the primary focus of life, and the codependent party will suffer anything rather than risk a breakup.

Finally, are you unfamiliar with the medical facts surrounding addiction? Addiction disorders involve many more issues than “won’t/can’t stop using”—a fact that enablers may not see when preoccupied with immediate worries.

Subtle Signs of Enabling

You’re probably guilty of unconscious enabling if the following symptoms sound familiar.

Turning a blind eye to signs of trouble. Like chemical addiction itself, enabling frequently starts small. If you notice subtle signs of addiction but brush them off with “I’m probably just being paranoid”—think again, lest your whole household be trapped in a disaster situation before anyone notices the trouble growing.

Always putting the other party first. Selflessness has its limits as a virtue—the limit being where you regularly neglect your own self-care to satisfy others’ whims and thoughtless expectations. Such as expectations that their drunken messes will be cleaned up for them.

Not really thinking about what’s best for the other party and the situation. The most effective lesson-learning comes from taking the consequences, as in having to personally retrieve the car one parked in the neighbor’s garden “under the influence.”The typical enabler response is to bring in the car and deal with the neighbor while the hangover is being slept off, then complain to the guilty party after the fact—by which time the reprimand is mere words.

Making excuses—to yourself—for a partner’s behavior. If you live with an addicted person who spends food money on illegal drugs and is prone to violent outbursts, what thoughts go through your head at each new offense? If they’re anything like, “He’s under so much pressure, and it’s probably my fault for not being more helpful,” you’re enabling him by convincing yourself to do nothing and change nothing.

When “Helping” Can Be Dangerous

If you have an addicted family member, you may think your enabling is protecting your family from painful situations—but in fact, you’re only delaying a more painful reckoning. Guarded from immediate consequences, people with addiction have every excuse to go on subtly destroying their health, their careers, and their families. Repercussions don’t even stop with the current generation: children of addicts frequently grow up to be addicts or enablers themselves.

You may not be able to immediately convince your loved one to get treatment, but you can get help for yourself and the rest of the family—including learning healthy alternatives to enablement. Seek help today.


BRC Recovery’s services include an integrated Family Program to educate the entire household on the best ways to eliminate enabling and help a recovering family member. Participants are introduced to support groups and are kept updated on their loved one’s progress throughout the inpatient care period.

If addiction is an issue for you or a family member, don’t delay in seeking help. Contact us at 1-866-291-2676, or through our online form, to learn more about our programs.