The Many Facets of Enabling

Family Members Can Get Locked Into Playing Roles

Stressed Couple
How You Respond Is Important. © Getty Images

If you find yourself locked into playing a role in the alcoholic's life, maybe it's time to call "time out."

In Part I of this article, "Games Alcoholic Families Play," we described three of the "roles" that family members can find themselves adopting as they try to deal with alcoholic behavior.

Those examples may be somewhat of an exaggeration, but then again they may be very typical of what goes on in an alcoholic home.

The "roles" the nonalcoholic spouse plays in the family may not be as well defined, as they are outlined here. Depending upon the circumstances, the spouse may fall into one of these roles, or may switch back and forth between them all.

Rescuer, Martyr, or Provoker?

So which of the spouses described -- the Rescuer, the Martyr, or the Provoker -- is an enabler? Which one is actually helping the alcoholic progress in his disease? Which one, although they are trying to make things better, are actually contributing to the problem?

All of them.

He Never Feels the Pain

It's easy to define the "rescuer" or "caretaker" as an enabler. She is enabling him simply by not allowing him to face the consequences of his own actions. He wakes up in the bed warm and toasty the next morning, not even remembering that he passed out in the front yard.

Why should he ever admit that he has a problem? With her rushing in to "put pillows under him" each time he falls, he never feels the pain of the fall.

If his drinking never becomes painful, due to her heroic efforts to protect him, why should he ever decide to stop?

Taking the Focus Off the Alcoholic's Behavior

But the other two role models are also enabling. How? Because their reactions to the alcoholic's behavior allows him to focus on their reaction rather than his own behavior.

If he wakes up the next morning in the yard and comes into the house to face the rath of the provoker or the shame of the martyr or "victim," then his natural response is to react to that behavior, rather than his own.

Moreover, both the provoker's and the martyr's actions are designed to manipulate him with guilt, which believe it or not, he feels. But if he is truly an alcoholic, his reaction will not be to own up to his mistakes, but to try to escape them once again -- in the bottle.

What Is the Correct Reaction?

What is the best way to react to the situation described? How do you react when the alcoholic has pulled another one of his stunts? The answer is to not react at all! Pretend as if nothing happened!

If the alcoholic wakes up the next morning and comes into the house where everything is going on normally -- the kids are getting ready for school, you are doing your hair and the coffee's on the stove -- then the only thing left for him to face is his own behavior.

It's Not Your Problem

Any embarrasment or shame brought on by him passing out in the front yard for all the neighbors to see, belongs to him and him alone. It's his problem, not anyone else's. His behavior is the problem, not your reaction to it.

If you greet him with a "Good morning, dear, the coffee's ready!" just as if nothing unusual had happened, you have done your part right. You did not allow someone else's inappropriate behavior to provoke your own inappropriate behavior. You have not given the alcoholic the opportunity to "change the subject." He is left alone to face his own pain and shame by himself. When that pain gets to be strong enough, he will be ready to get help.

Why They Call It a 'Family Disease'

Until he is ready to reach out for help with his drinking problem, all the scolding, manipulating, and controlling efforts on your part are not going to do any good whatsoever and will only cause you to get pulled further into the family disease of alcoholism.

Going on about your own business as if nothing happened may not have any effect on the alcoholic's behavior, but it will help you practice detachment - not getting drawn into his drama and his problems - and learning to live your life whether he is drinking or not. For more information & to understand how you may be enabling them, take this quiz!

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