Codependency and Enabling Substance Abuse Behavior

Codependency and Enabling Substance Abuse Behavior

The definition of enabling in Random House dictionary is as follows: to make able; give power, means, competence or ability to; authorize. To make possible or easy. Now, what does that have to do with drug abuse? After all, no one wants a loved one to do something that would hurt themselves or others. So, how could an individual possibly enable someone else’s behavior? Furthermore, why would one want to enable someone to utilize drugs?

The reality is, this behavior does occur and contributes to substance abuse. There are three factors which are related to perpetuating substance abuse: denial, enabling and codependency.

Enabling Drug and Alcohol Abuse

As stated at the beginning, enabling is defined as making possible or easy. In this case, behaviors by family members allow individuals with substance use problems to avoid the negative consequences that may accompany their actions. There are many ways in which this behavior can manifest. In addition, enabling behavior can be instigated by various individuals including:

  • Parents
  • Siblings
  • Co-workers
  • Supervisors
  • Neighbors
  • Friends
  • Teachers
  • Doctors
  • Even therapists


Though initially enabling occurs as a way to protect the individual from their behavior, it can go on to perpetuate actions that cause repetitively bad behavior. Some ways in which enabling takes place is as follows:

  1. Doing something for another that they should do themselves.
  2. Making excuses for the individual’s behavior
  3. A spouse calling his or her significant other’s employer to say that they are sick and can’t work when they are just hung over.
  4. Bailing out a child who has been arrested for possession, use or abuse of drugs, or breaking other societal rules.
  5. Instead of recognizing a problem the enabler may defend the substance abuser thereby allowing the behavior to continue.
  6. Generally covering the tracks of the individual in question whether it be by giving/loaning money, finishing up work, or just generally ignoring behaviors that should have repercussions. Usually the enabler stays silent when faced with repeated inappropriate or destructive behavior.



Part of enabling behavior is the concept of denial. Denial is when family and friends refuse to recognize or refuse to admit to a problem. This does not only refer to substance abuse, denial is a defense mechanism that is utilized when an individual finds the truth of a situation too difficult to deal with. In this case, denial of substance abuse behavior can mean that family and friends do not recognize how the behavior is affecting work, school, relationships, or causing financial problems.

Most striking in the denial phenomenon is the enabler’s refusal to acknowledge the deterioration of the relationship he or she has with the substance abuser. In fact, quite often the denial mechanism will continue until it no longer can. Meaning, until something horrific occurs; the individual may refuse to acknowledge the problem.

What is the purpose of enabling?

The benefits of enabling are twofold: the individual who is using substances can continue the behavior they want and secondly, the enabler does not have to acknowledge that anything is wrong. This action however, is a short term solution to a long term problem. Long term, enabling drug abuse behavior leads to unhappiness for the enabler and the further deterioration of the individual using drugs. Another reason enabling occurs is because of the idea of co-dependency.


Co-dependency is the idea of being overly involved in another person’s life. Having a constant preoccupation with the other person’s behavior and feeling unnecessarily guilty when not taking care of the other person’s needs. This often times stems from not having adequate self-esteem. Some common themes in the co-dependency cycle on the part of the dependent person are as follows:

  1. My feelings are not important
  2. I'm not good enough.
  3. I’m not lovable
  4. My having problems is not acceptable
  5. It's not OK for me to have fun.
  6. I don’t deserve love
  7. I’m responsible for my friend or significant other’s behavior


What can one do about being co-dependent?

Co-dependency is a vicious circle in which the person being enabled and the enabler need to extricate themselves. It is recommended by experts in the field, that co-dependent family members or loved ones remind themselves on a regular basis that they did not cause the problem, cannot control or fix the problem. They need to understand that the only thing they can do is offer assistance which may or may not be heeded. The codependent person needs to understand that the only person, who can help the substance abuser, is the substance abuser- he or she needs to go obtain the help that is available.

Everyone Here Needs Help

In a co-dependent situation, both the abuser and dependent person need assistance. The substance abuser needs to fix both the chemical and psychological bonds, he or she has to alcohol or substances and the co-dependent individual has to understand why he or she feels the need for this dependency. Experts in the field recommend that help in the form of substance abuse counseling be obtained for the substance abuser as well as therapy for the dependent person.

Can this cycle be broken?

Like any other substance abuse problem, steps can be taken towards recovery. In this case, help should be obtained for all parties involved. There are treatment centers in which everyone in this scenario can be assisted. It is a matter of the co-dependent person to realize he or she has a problem and then go from there.

Works Cited
Banta JE, Montgomery S. (2007). Substance abuse and dependence treatment in outpatient physician offices, 1997-2004. American Journal of Drug Alcohol Abuse.;33(4):583-93.
Campbell CI, Wells R, Alexander JA, Jiang L, Nahra TA, Lemak CH. (2007). Tailoring of Outpatient Substance Abuse Treatment to Women, 1995-2005. Med Care. Aug;45(8):775-780.

“Codependency Resources” Accessed on 1st August 2007.

Topic Discussion

  1. Addict

    I want to write from personal experience how utterly painful and exhausting it is to be in the position of seeing the co-dependency of your close relatives and being so unable to do much, because, and it sounds banal, but a person really wants to have to change in order to change, and trying to GET the codependents to change can also put you in the position of being one of them! Treatment centers always want the family involved but not everybody is open to doing the work they need to. Too easy to point the finger just at the addict or to just 'hope". Can the cycle be broken? Not always.

  2. Addict

    Where can I download references on how to do my own action or safety plan for substance abuse ? Does anyone know, anyone ?

Leave a comment


To protect the integrity of our site all comments are reviewed prior to being shown, we apologize for the small delay, but this brings a better experience for our readers. SPAM & rude comments are not tolerated. Using the 'Connect with Facebook' option will get your comment up faster!

Contact A Substance Abuse Counselor

We help people take the first steps toward getting help for their drug and alcohol usage and having drug-free lifestyles. To contact an alcohol/drug abuse counselor, please call 1-800-591-6474(Info iconWho Answers?).

Socialize with us
Close Icon

Where do calls go?

Calls to numbers on a specific treatment center listing will be routed to that treatment center. Additional calls will also be forwarded and returned by a quality treatment center within the USA.

Calls to any general helpline (non-facility specific 1-8XX numbers) for your visit will be answered by a licensed drug and alcohol rehab facility, a paid advertiser on

All calls are private and confidential.