Ask a Family Therapist: how am I enabling my partner?

Ask a Family Therapist

with Sunil Boodhai, MSW (RSW), BEd., manager of Renascent’s Family Care Programs, therapist and counsellor.

Q: My husband Albert is an alcoholic and has not sought treatment. My children tell me that I am enabling their father to continue drinking. I don’t give him alcohol and I tell him that I wish he would stop drinking every time he becomes intoxicated. I do not understand, how am I enabling him?
– Tammy

A: Hi Tammy. Thank you for your question. Enabling is a term that is used frequently when speaking about family members of people with addiction issues. Enabling is not any one behaviour, but a complex set of behaviours in relation to the addict and their drive to continuing using their substance. It’s not uncommon for people to enable an addict without realizing they are doing it.

Here are a few instances where people commonly enable their addicted loved ones without actually knowing they are doing so:

 

1. Keeping up appearances. In an earlier column I discussed “the elephant in the living room.” In these scenarios, everyone knows about the addiction but nobody says anything about it. When people are not willing to talk openly about the addiction, or avoid naming the addiction, that’s an example of enabling behaviour.
An extension of this is keeping secrets from each other when you know a problem exists. If your husband’s drinking is causing problems for him and you are not telling your adult children about it, you are enabling your husband. In protecting him from facing the consequences of his children knowing about the effects of his addiction, you are allowing the addiction to go on. His active addiction is relying on you to keep secrets. You think you are doing the right thing by protecting your children from worrying or becoming stressed as a result, but your good intentions are working against you, and you’re unknowingly enabling your husband’s addiction to continue.
Furthermore, if you have ever made an excuse for your husband, you are enabling him. This includes covering for him when he’s late for work or doesn’t show up to a family event. Once again, his addictive behaviours and his drive to continue using his substance are dependent on you to make excuses for the addiction to continue. And again, your intentions might be good: you are preventing him from losing his job, and not causing family members to worry or gossip about your family, but those intentions are working against you and your family in the long run. These are the more common ways of enabling; it can be even more complicated and subtle.

 

2. The Magic Cure. This is when your husband is sober and getting back to being his wonderful self. He begins to act like the man you married all those years ago. This is real and not an act, so during this time you begin to think that he has overcome his addiction. Somehow, something miraculous has happened to finally make him turn a corner and recognize the evil of his ways! And because his behaviour is so great, you also put the addiction out of your mind. You do this because you do not want to spoil the good mood he’s in — you do not want to talk about anything sensitive because you might cause him to become defensive or angry, and he might start drinking again.
The sad news is that there’s no magic cure for addiction, and chances are he will be drinking again in due time. Therefore, not addressing the addiction during those positive times is in fact enabling. It is by no means your sole responsibility to talk about the addiction, but you must become brave enough to talk about addiction with your husband while he is sober, rather than when he is drunk. You might even invite your children to join this conversation when their father is sober.

 

3. The Bargain. Recovery for you as the spouse of an alcoholic means taking an honest look at yourself and evaluating your shortcomings or weaknesses. Where are the points in your life where you find yourself completely dependent on your husband? If you find yourself bargaining with yourself because you fear that you may not be able to do something in your own and therefore you are constantly rescuing your husband from feeling the consequences of his addiction, you are enabling him.
The most common example of this is usually financial, and is wrapped up in the fear of upending a lifestyle to which you have become accustomed. To skirt around that possibility, you bargain with yourself about how much to “push this issue” because of what it might mean for your marriage and your home and your ability to maintain your lifestyle without your partner’s support. These worries keep you in a place of doubt and fear and prevent you from addressing your husband’s addiction.
My answer to this is to not worry too much about the future, but address the issue in front of you today. You cannot control the outcome, but you have to believe that no matter what changes you may have to make, you will survive this process.

 

Tammy, these are just some ways enabling happens beyond the ways we usually have in mind. I hope this has sparked some ideas for you to facilitate change in your behaviour. As I am in the habit of doing, I urge you to find the nearest Al-Anon meeting in your community and commit to attending regularly. It will help you to see your role in your husband’s addiction more clearly, and give you the strength to make some of the changes necessary to stop enabling your husband.

To learn more about Renascent’s various Family Care Programs or to submit a question of your own, contact Sunil at sboodhai@renascent.ca or 416-927-1202, ext. 3010.

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