What Not to Do: Damaging Behaviors That Hurt the Addict Instead of Help


Sober Recovery Expert Author

The elephant in the room is the empty chair at dinner.

The entire family used to all gather at the same time every night to talk about their day, let the kids convey what they did in school and plan for the future. The chair sits empty more and more...and it seems to have stolen all hope with its daily void as a reminder of your loved one’s absence.

You may have the best intentions in the world, but these actions bring more trouble than good.

Regrettably, there are actually times at the dinner table where this empty chair has been a welcome sight. An empty chair means no arguing, no incomprehensible conversation from being high, no fear of relapse and no trying to cover up in front of the kids.

Even if the alcoholic or drug abuser quits and gets into recovery, that does not mean the problems come to an end. Everyone plays a role in the addict’s ability to succeed. Unconsciously, family members and friends may engage in actions that they believe are useful, but are actually having the reverse effect.

Take a good hard look at your own actions. What are they communicating to your loved one. Are your actions helping or hurting his or her overall recovery?


Whether it is your son, sister, spouse or best friend, loving an addict is simply one of the most difficult experiences anyone can confront.

Sometimes, without understanding, we support our family member’s weaknesses by enabling instead of helping. Enabling can be thought of as doing things for someone that they should be doing for themselves.

This action occurs when good-intentioned actions actually encourage the recovering drug abuser to relapse or stay stuck in drug dependent activities.

Those involved with the recovering alcoholic or drug user may be just as “addicted” to their enabling behaviors as the addict is to their manipulations. Excessive caretaking is a form of enabling. And for many, it may be frightening to think about giving up these actions that are part of their comfort zone.

There are four types of enabling you can fall into:

1. Financial Enabling

It is common for an addict to do everything and anything they can to get financial support for their habit. If you have a recent recovering addict in your home, they may ask you for money for “basic needs” (groceries, toiletries, etc.). If they live outside your home, they may solicit your assistance in paying bills, rent, car, etc.

Without a second thought you may feel relieved that they are concerned about everyday issues, so you easily turn over the money to them. However, your actions may be enabling the negative behavior to continue. It is not uncommon to discover that the cash was actually used to purchase drugs or alcohol, enabling the person to continue living with their dependence on illegal substances. No matter how much the addict may plead, it is your responsibility to face reality and realize that the money you are “lending” them is helping to destroy their life.

In extreme circumstances, you can attempt to identify a compromise. For example, if you are asked for funds for necessities, don’t hand over the money but rather offer to go to the store for them. Have them make you a list and stand your ground.

If the individual truly wants to mend their destructive behavior, they will welcome a way to avoid temptation. If they do not want constructive assistance, you must stay firm, regardless of how much they plead or threaten. After all, love does not mean always saying “yes.”

2. Emotional Enabling

We all have our moments where we need to vent and give voice to our problems. What parent would not want to hug and cradle their offspring, no matter what their age and “make everything better.”

And yes, it is important for you to listen and support your loved one when they talk about the stresses of kicking their addiction. But you must be aware of your part in this conduct.

By always being available to listen and take their side, you are enabling them to create unnecessary drama and prolong the healing process. You develop into an enabler by providing positive reinforcement for agreeing that others are to blame for the ongoing addiction.

The more you allow yourself to be manipulated by the addict, the more manipulative the addict is likely to become. Hold your ground. Refuse to accept their excuses.

As an alternative, direct them to a trained therapist who can understand their problems and guide them in building positive relationships.

3. Physical Enabling

When we are young, we are nurtured by our family when we become ill. We receive attention, comfort and support.

It is common for the health of a recovering substance abuser to be fragile. But if the ailments continue, they must be investigated. Urge them to visit a healthcare professional instead of smothering them with caretaking. Only a qualified medical expert is trained to determine if something is truly physically wrong, or if these occurrences are more psychologically based and a cry for nurturing attention.

4. Accepting Responsibility

Have you found yourself making excuses to others when your sibling, spouse or friend is late or does not show up for an appointment, or at the very worst, misses a child’s event? Do you find yourself taking on extra work at home (cleaning, driving car pool, shopping, helping with homework, etc.) so others won’t notice that there is a problem in your family?

These behaviors give permission to the addict to avoid consequences associated with their undesirable actions. They know you will bail them out of any awkward situation. Remember, the individual is likely not intentionally harming others. But circumstances will never improve unless the situation grows severe enough that the person is motivated to make changes.

Silence is NOT Golden

The empty chair at meal time is often ignored by others in the room. Everyone, including you, try to pretend that things are “just fine,” when actually, nothing could be further from the truth.

Even if the recovering user is at the table, it is common to avoid issues that need to be addressed out of fear that the addict will become angry. Everyone walks on eggshells, masking their true feelings and enabling the addict to control others. Certainly, the recovering addict has all the power. Lack of honest communication enables the individual to sidestep any tricky question.

No one is suggesting that every meal include an intense conversation regarding drug or alcohol dependency. But if the addict is refusing to attend an important milestone event, then searching for the true reason behind the decision is absolutely necessary. It is not okay to just say, “No problem…you can come next time.”

When you finally address an uncomfortable topic, stick to the facts and keep away from judging others. It is appropriate to discuss your own feelings, but not to inflict blame or guilt.

Lighten Up

It is completely understandable that you will incur some battles with your family member before, during and after they are recovering from their disease. But not every moment has to be so serious.

When addiction causes a problem, everyone involved experiences pain. Enabling takes a toll on family members and friends, too. Well-meaning attempts to control the situation actually increases stress for everyone involved.

Take a minute to breathe. It is okay to enjoy moments of laughter. Not everything has to be so serious.

You should support the recovery process, not try to rescue the addict. It is only once you stop your enabling behaviors that you can genuinely help your loved one. And lowering your intensity will help.

If you need some inspiration, remember the Serenity Prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

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