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How Codependents Enable Addicts

With any addiction to chemicals or to a habit, loved ones trying to help addicts need to realize and continually remind themselves of three things:  “I didn’t cause the addiction, I can’t control it, and I can’t cure it either.”  But you can make it easier for addicts to keep their addiction going.  How?  The counterproductive efforts people make to help and reform their addicted loved ones are called enabling behaviors.  Those who do them are calledcodependents, because these behaviors make them just as dependent or hooked on helping the addict as the addicts are hooked on their addictions.   This over-protection and over-indulgence just stimulates the shame and irresponsibility that fuel the addict’s habit.   

How come most efforts to reform addicts work in reverse?

Because addictions work on people like hypnosis does.  I have studied and seen how skilled hypnotists can hypnotize virtually anyone, especially people trying the hardest to resist.  Their secret is that they know how to make your efforts to resist hypnosis work in reverse to stimulate the trance. Hypnotists wear out those who resist them, by getting them to push against themselves to the point of exhaustion. Those trying to resist hypnosis surrender to the trance in any manner much like addicts slipping into their mindless habit.  So when loved ones try to straighten out addicts, this enables even more addictive behavior, excuses and cover-ups, which wears the loved ones out to the point of exhaustion and surrender.  And like hypnosis, this all works out under the cover of denial, subconsciously, with loved ones thinking they’re helping when they’re actually playing right into the hands of the addiction.

Here are twelve of the most common enabling behaviors to avoid:

  • Colluding:  joining in with or excusing the addiction, to stay connected to the addict
  • Denying/minimizing:  making believe the problem isn’t very real or large
  • Manipulating:  using logic or persuasion, making deals or bribes, brain-washing, sending others to do it  (when addicts do finally get reasonable about their addictions, it is almostalways with professionals, strangers or other addicts, and NOT with their enablers)
  • Detective work:  obsessions and compulsions from trying to read the addict’s mind, protect him from himself, or know his whereabouts
  • Taking responsibility:  over-protection by taking over the addict’s duties, including the design, management, and monitoring of her recovery
  • Moral compromise:  dulling or defying one’s conscience to appease the addict, to stay connected
  • Getting on stage:  creating or entering into emotional turmoil  (if you must be present during the drama, it’s best to think and act as if you were just pulling up a chair, grabbing some popcorn, and enjoying the show)
  • Blame and punishment:  playing cop or judge by shaming, hurting or getting even with the addict
  • Guilt-tripping: playing parent/martyr (“after all I’ve done for you,” “after all you’ve put me through,” etc.)
  • Playing therapist:  trying to predict, explain or figure out the addict’s behavior (acting out your illusion of control)
  • Playing anti-therapist:  saying or thinking the addict can’t change

So what does work to help loved ones recover from an addiction?

Tell the truth.  Say that their addictions, excuses, and lies disgust you, and make you want to leave them alone.  Tell others the truth about the addict too—stop covering up for them.

Withhold whatever they abuse.  Take away the money, housing, vehicles, jobs, privileges, responsibilities, and loved ones you can’t trust them with. They all fuel the addiction anyway.

Show love by giving only your self to the addict, not the things in the previous paragraph. You talk on the phone or meet them for a meal, but you don’t hang out for long. If they have stolen, meet in a restaurant, not in your home.

Ask about their recovery, what they are learning, what responsible things they are doing.  

Discipline lies with doubt.  “I would like to believe you, but you know you have lied about this kind of thing before. Time will tell. Actions speak louder than words.”

In the Later Stages 

Leave them alone.  Stop paying attention to them.  Don’t spend time with them.  Don’t let them see that they tick you off, just that they turn you off.  If necessary, kick them out or separate from them.  This may require that you “get a life,” or at least live a life full enough for you to let go of the addict.

Take better care of yourself.  Most enablers don’t know how, or don’t care enough about themselves to do it. Those who do care would benefit from counseling.

Join a support groupa recovering community of friends and family.  Sharing your “experience, strength, and hope” with others in your situation will give you the strength you can’t find elsewhere, and can’t do without. This happens in the 12-step program for enablers, Al-Anon (www.al-anon.alateen.org).

Conduct an intervention.  When you’re tired of doing everything else, you might do well to gather loved ones and let a professional teach you whether and how to present an offer the addict can’t afford to refuse.  For details on this and other suggestions for codependents, see www.interventioninfo.org/research/family.php.   From what I know, the best local treatment available for addicts is at the nationally acclaimed Healing Place, in Louisville.

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About Dr. Paul Schmidt, PhD

Dr. Paul Schmidt, PhD is a psychologist life coach with offices in Louisville and Shelbyville, KY, 502 633 2860.