The term “enabler” generally describes someone whose behavior allows a loved one to continue self-destructive patterns of behavior.

This term can be stigmatizing since there’s often negative judgment attached to it. However, many people who enable others don’t do so intentionally. They may not even realize what they’re doing.

Enabling usually refers to patterns that appear in the context of drug or alcohol misuse and addiction. But according to the American Psychological Association, it can refer to patterns within close relationships that support any harmful or problematic behavior and make it easier for that behavior to continue.

Enabling doesn’t mean you support your loved one’s addiction or other behavior. You might believe if you don’t help, the outcome for everyone involved will be far worse. Maybe you excuse troubling behavior, lend money, or assist in other ways.

But it’s important to realize enabling doesn’t really help. Over time it can have a damaging effect on your loved one and others around them. It’s difficult for someone to get help if they don’t fully see the consequences of their actions.

If you’re concerned you might be enabling someone’s behavior, read on to learn more about enabling, including signs, how to stop, and how to provide support to your loved one.

Enabling vs. Empowering

It’s not always easy to distinguish between empowering someone and enabling them. There may be little difference between the two.

Most people who enable loved ones don’t intend to cause harm. In fact, enabling generally begins with the desire to help. Enabling behaviors can often seem like helping behaviors. You may try to help with the best of intentions and enable someone without realizing it.

But empowering someone doesn’t mean solving or covering up problems. Rather, when you empower someone, you do one or more of the following to help them succeed or change on their own:

  • give them tools
  • help them access resources
  • teach them skills

In other words, you give them the power to make their own choices and solve problems.

Enabling often describes situations involving addiction or substance misuse. But this isn’t always the case. Enabling can describe any situation where you “help” by attempting to hide problems or make them go away.

This help is ultimately not helpful, as it usually doesn’t make a problem entirely go away. It often makes it worse since an enabled person has less motivation to make changes if they keep getting help that reduces their need to make change.

Signs or characteristics of an enabler

The following signs can help you recognize when a pattern of enabling behavior may have developed.

1. Ignoring or tolerating problematic behavior

Even if you personally disagree with a loved one’s behavior, you might ignore it for any number of reasons.

If you believe your loved one is looking for attention, you might hope ignoring the behavior will remove their incentive to continue.

You might avoid talking about it because you’re afraid of acknowledging the problem. You or your loved one may not have accepted there’s a problem. You might even be afraid of what your loved one will say or do if you challenge the behavior.

Example of this behavior

Say your partner struggles with alcohol misuse. They say they haven’t been drinking, but you find a receipt in the bathroom trash for a liquor store one night. The next night you find a receipt for a bar in your neighborhood. Instead of asking them about the receipts, you decide not to press the issue.

2. Providing financial assistance

There’s often no harm in helping out a loved one financially from time to time if your personal finances allow for it. But if they tend to use money recklessly, impulsively, or on things that could cause harm, regularly giving them money can enable this behavior.

Financially enabling a loved one can have particularly damaging consequences if they struggle with addiction or alcohol misuse.

Example of this behavior

Your adult child struggles to manage their money and never has enough to pay their rent. Helping them out each month won’t teach them how to manage their money. Instead, they may become more dependent on you.

3. Covering for them or making excuses

When worried about the consequences of a loved one’s actions, it’s only natural to want to help them out by protecting them from those consequences.

It’s tempting to make excuses for your loved one to other family members or friends when you worry other people will judge them harshly or negatively. But this won’t help your loved one change.

Examples of this behavior

You might call your partner’s work to say they’re sick when they’re hungover or blackout drunk. Or you may call your child’s school with an excuse when they haven’t completed a term project or studied for an important exam.

Your actions may seem to help in the moment: They keep your partner from facing a reprimand or even losing their job (and source of income). They prevent your child from experiencing academic consequences that could affect their future.

But your actions can give your loved one the message that there’s nothing wrong with their behavior — that you’ll keep covering for them.

4. Taking on more than your share of responsibilities

You might be enabling a loved one if you find yourself frequently picking up their slack: doing household chores, looking after their children, or taking care of essential daily activities they leave undone.

There’s a difference between supporting someone and enabling them. Someone struggling with depression may have a hard time getting out of bed each day. Temporary support can help them make it through a difficult time and empower them to seek help. You can’t enable depression since it’s not a behavior.

But if your help allows your loved one to have an easier time continuing a problematic pattern of behavior, you may be enabling them.

Example of this behavior

You might let your teen avoid chores so they can “have time to be a kid.” But a young adult who doesn’t know how to do laundry or wash dishes will have a hard time on their own. It’s important to strike a balance.

5. Avoiding the issue

Whether your loved one continues to drink to the point of blacking out or regularly takes money out of your wallet, your first instinct might be to confront them. You want the behavior to stop.

But after thinking about it, you may begin to worry about their reaction. You might decide it’s better just to ignore the behavior or hide your money.

It’s often frightening to think about bringing up serious issues like addiction once you’ve realized there’s a problem. This can be particularly challenging if you already tend to find arguments or conflict difficult.

But avoiding discussion prevents you from bringing attention to the problem and helping your loved one address it in a healthy, positive way.

Example of this behavior

Your loved one tends to drink way too much when you go out to a restaurant. Instead of talking about the issue, you start suggesting places that don’t serve alcohol.

6. Brushing things off

People dealing with addiction or other patterns of problematic behavior often say or do hurtful or abusive things. They might insult you, belittle you, break or steal your belongings, or physically harm you.

You might tell yourself this behavior isn’t so bad or convince yourself they wouldn’t do those things if not for addiction.

But the reason for the behavior doesn’t really matter. If the behavior causes harm, it causes harm. Minimizing the issue implies to your loved one that they can continue to treat you similarly with no consequences.

By pretending what they do doesn’t affect you, you give the message they aren’t doing anything problematic.

Example of this behavior

Your partner frequently ridicules you in public. Because they also struggle with alcohol addiction, you tell yourself it’s the alcohol talking and they don’t really mean it.

Even though it’s starting to affect your emotional well-being, you even tell yourself it’s not abuse because they’re not really themselves when they’ve been drinking.

7. Denying the problem

It can be hard to admit a loved one needs help. They could say they’ve only tried drugs once or twice but don’t use them regularly. They might also ask if you think they have a problem. You reassure them you aren’t concerned, that they don’t drink that much, or otherwise deny there’s an issue.

You may choose to believe them or agree without really believing them. You might even insist to other family or friends that everything’s fine while struggling to accept this version of truth for yourself.

But by not acknowledging the problem, you can encourage it, even if you really want it to stop. Denying the issue can create challenges for you and your loved one.

It isolates you both, for one. It also makes it harder for your loved one to ask for help, even if they know they need help to change.

Example of this behavior

Your partner has slowly started drinking more and more as stresses and responsibilities at their job have increased. You remember when they drank very little, so you tell yourself they don’t have a problem. They can quit at any time.

8. Sacrificing or struggling to recognize your own needs

Missing out on things you want or need for yourself because you’re so involved with taking care of a loved one can also be a sign you’re enabling that person.

Do you struggle financially after giving your loved one money? Do you lack time for your work, self-care, or other relationships since you’re doing more at home?

Sometimes we want to make sacrifices for the people we care about. This doesn’t always mean you’re enabling someone. The reason you’re letting your needs go unmet matters.

It’s certainly important to take care of yourself first, especially when taking care of a sick loved one, but you may not mind missing out on some of your typical activities for several days or a few weeks.

But if you’re consistently struggling to get things done or feel worn down by your attempts to take care of a loved one, it may help to consider your reasons for helping and the effect they’re having on your loved one. Does your sacrifice allow their behavior to continue?

Example of this behavior

Your teen spends hours each night playing video games instead of taking care of their responsibilities. You fill your evenings with their laundry, cleaning, and other chores to ensure they’ll have something to wear and a clean shower to use in the morning.

But you also work full time and need the evenings to care for yourself. You’ve let this slip by the wayside. You figure it’s just a fact of life.

9. Not following through on consequences

If you state a consequence, it’s important to follow through. Not following through lets your loved one know nothing will happen when they keep doing the same thing. This can make it more likely they’ll continue to behave in the same way and keep taking advantage of your help.

Example of this behavior

There may come a time in your relationship when you’ve had enough. You might say, “If you spend this money on anything other than rent, I’m not going to give you any more money.”

Or, “I can’t stay in this relationship if you don’t get professional help.”

You might also say, “I’m only paying my share of the rent this month, so if you can’t pay yours, you’ll need to find somewhere else to live.”

But you don’t follow through, so your loved one continues doing what they’re doing and learns these are empty threats.

10. Not maintaining your stated boundaries

Healthy boundaries are important in any relationship. Some boundaries you might express to a loved one experiencing addiction, abuse, or another concern might include:

  • “I don’t want to be around you when you’re shouting, so I’ll only listen when you talk calmly.”
  • “I don’t feel comfortable having sex if you’ve been drinking.”
  • “I don’t want to hang out when you’ve been doing drugs, so please don’t come over when you’re high.”

If you or your loved one crosses a boundary you’ve expressed and there are no consequences, they might keep crossing that boundary.

Example of this behavior

If your loved one starts shouting during a discussion and you continue the discussion instead of walking away, they may get the message that the problematic behavior isn’t that big of a deal to you. They may also feel that you’ll easily give in on other boundaries, too.

11. Feeling resentment

When a pattern of enabling characterizes a relationship, it’s fairly common for resentment, or feelings of anger and disappointment, to develop.

Your resentment may be directed more toward your loved one, toward the situation, both, or even yourself. You might feel hurt and angry about spending so much time trying to help someone who doesn’t seem to appreciate you. You may feel obligated to continue helping even when you don’t want to.

Resentment can damage your emotional well-being, but it can also help you realize the situation may not be healthy.

Example of this behavior

Say your sister continues to leave her kids with you when she goes out. She says she has a job, but you know she’s lying. You agree to babysit because you want the kids to be safe, but your babysitting enables her to keep going out.

Over time you become angrier and more frustrated with her and with yourself for not being able to say no. This resentment slowly creeps into your interactions with her kids.

How to stop enabling a loved one

Do any of the above signs seem similar to patterns that have developed in your relationship with a loved one? These suggestions can help you learn how to empower your loved one instead.

Bring attention to the issue

Make it clear you’re aware of substance misuse or other behavior instead of ignoring or brushing these actions off. Offer compassion, but make it clear those behaviors aren’t OK.

Confronting your loved one can help them realize you don’t support the behavior while also letting them know you’re willing to help them work toward change.

Encourage them to get help

They may not agree to enter treatment right away, so you might have to mention it several times. Working with your own therapist can help you explore positive ways to bring up treatments that are right for your situation.

Set your boundaries and uphold them

Tell your loved one you want to keep helping them, but not in ways that enable their behavior. For example, you might offer rides to appointments but say no to giving money for gas or anything else.

Remember it’s OK to say no

This may be hard at first, especially if your loved one gets angry with you. But saying no is often essential for recovery. Remain calm, but be firm. Make consequences for crossed boundaries clear.

Try therapy for yourself

Therapists often work with people who find themselves enabling loved ones to help them address these patterns and offer support in more helpful and positive ways.

Avoid using substances around them

If your loved one is dealing with alcohol misuse, removing alcohol from your home can help keep it out of easy reach. You may not have trouble limiting your drinks, but consider having them with a friend instead.


Enabling someone doesn’t mean you agree with their behavior. You might simply try to help your loved one out because you’re worried about them or afraid their actions might hurt them, you, or other family members.

But it’s important to recognize this pattern of behavior and begin addressing it. Enabling can have serious consequences for your relationship and your loved one’s chances for recovery.

It’s difficult to work through addiction or alcohol misuse alone. And if the problem is never discussed, they may be less likely to reach out for help.

If you think your actions might enable your loved one, consider talking to a therapist. In therapy, you can start identifying enabling behaviors and get support as you learn to help your loved one in healthier ways.

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