Enabling and Tough Love: Is There a Middle Ground in Addiction?
Addiction is a form of self-destruction. It’s painful for the addict, who feels a growing sense of helplessness as they become more consumed. But it’s also incredibly painful for the people who love them. These include their close friends, family members and significant others, who also feel a sense of helplessness as they watch someone they love self-destruct.
The concern and helplessness they feel often leads to one of two default responses: enabling or tough love.
Enabling describes behavior that is usually well-intended, coming from a place of wanting to help, protect or even rescue a person struggling with an addiction. While well-intended, these loyal and protective responses are ones which can actually facilitate a person’s addiction.
The tough love approach is usually also well-intended but much harsher. Tough love is an approach that often involves confrontation, an “intervention” and an ultimatum to “get sober or else”.
In times when emotions run high, there is a human tendency to respond in rather extreme ways, overlooking some of the “middle ground” options that exist.
Enabling and tough love are examples of these extremes, each typically fueled by strong emotions. Before we explore these middle ground options, it might be helpful to establish a working definition of both enabling and tough love approaches.
What is Enabling?
An “enabler” is a word used to describe a person who (usually unintentionally) facilitates another person’s addiction. With love comes a sense of loyalty, protectiveness and selflessness, which are often the very qualities that drive enabling behaviors.
While these are typically seen as positive qualities that strengthen and protect relationships, they can also drive behaviors that strengthen and protect a person’s addiction.
Enabling behavior describes any behavior that makes it easier for an addict to keep using, and includes actions that:
- Help a person get or obtain drugs or alcohol
- Help a person hide their addiction, keep it a secret, or appear “functional”
- Protect a person from the consequences of their drug or alcohol use
- Allow a person to remain in denial about their addiction
- Repair or reverse damage resulting from a person’s drug/alcohol use
- Assume blame or responsibility for a person’s actions, responsibilities, or safety
- Make excuses for a person to continue putting off treatment or recovery
As you can see, there are a wide range of behaviors that encompass “enabling” behaviors. Enabling is sometimes obvious, like when a person gives money or lies or covers for someone with an addiction.
Other times, enabling is less obvious, like having a silent agreement to not openly acknowledge a person’s addiction, pretending it isn’t a problem.
Tough Love Approach
The tough love approach is often touted as the best approach to help a loved one struggling with an addiction. This approach involves setting clear and firm boundaries with the addict and giving them ultimatums to get clean and sober. A classic representation of the “tough love” approach is having an “intervention”, which has been popularized by the reality TV show by the same name.
An intervention is when a group of family members, friends, or acquaintances confront an addict, often unexpectedly.
During an intervention, an addict hears from each person and their feelings and opinions about the addict’s behaviors, including how they have been personally hurt by it.
An intervention almost always ends in an ultimatum where the person is urged to get treatment for their addiction, with the threat that if they do not, they will lose the help and support of everyone in attendance.
The tough love approach is an attempt to place the responsibility of change and recovery solely in the hands of the person with the addiction, but goes even further than this by stating an ultimatum.
The ultimatums that come from the tough love approach can vary depending on each situation, but some of the more common ultimatums include:
- Cutting the person off financially by vowing to not lend them money or help financially
- Not allowing the person to see or spend time with their children
- Threatening to divorce or end the relationship
- Disclosing the person’s addiction (like to an employer or probation officer)
- Calling the authorities or filing criminal or civil charges
- Not talking to or having any contact with the person
- Excommunicating the person from the family
The tough love approach is usually well-intended. The intention is to compel the person with the addiction to change by raising the stakes if they continue to use drugs or alcohol.
The ultimatum is an attempt to construct a “rock bottom” scenario where the drug or alcohol use will take away the things the addict cares about most.
Problems with Enabling and Tough Love Approaches
The problem with both enabling and tough love approaches is that strict adherence to either approach rarely leads to the desired outcome.
The enabler is rarely able to actually protect the person with the addiction from the consequences of their actions, and the interventions in the tough love approach rarely lead to lasting sobriety.
The fatal flaw in both approaches is ultimately the same: people cannot control other people.
Lasting change only comes when a person has determined for themselves that change is necessary, that they are capable of it, and that it will be worth it in the end.
This is a foundational part of change theory, and one which forms the basis of many successful addiction treatment programs. Both enabling and tough love approaches often interfere with this process, instead of facilitating it.
Enabling interferes by shielding a person from the consequences and discomfort of their addiction, making sobriety seem less necessary and desirable. Tough love interferes by attempting to force this process to occur on a set day and time, and according to specific rules.
Not only do enabling and tough love approaches often not work, they can sometimes even make things worse. Research consistently shows that the support and involvement of family and friends is an essential element in addiction recovery (2, 3). Both enabling and tough love approaches have a high risk of damaging relationships instead of protecting them (1).
Because enablers repeatedly put themselves on the line for the addict, they often experience some of the direct consequences of the person’s addiction (financial debts, damaged reputations or relationships).
These can build up into resentments and deepen rifts in the relationship, sometimes even beyond repair.
Tough love damages relationships by using them as leverage to try to force the person to change, inadvertently sending the message that the love is completely conditional upon the person’s sobriety.
Effective Middle Ground Approaches
Decades of research has helped researchers understand that having strong, supportive relationships with friends and family members greatly increases the likelihood of a successful and lasting recovery.
While enabling and tough love approaches seldom work, there are many other ways to offer help and support to someone with an addiction.
The following specific recommendations are drawn from extensive research on what actions are most likely to help a person struggling with addiction (1, 2, 3):
- Learn about addiction: Take the time to learn more about addiction, the causes, and to develop more understanding and empathy for what your loved one is struggling with.
- Offer honest feedback: Be open and honest about your feelings, opinions and the concerns you have about your loved one’s use of drugs or alcohol. Don’t sugar coat or avoid these conversations when they are impacting you or your relationship with them.
- Set boundaries without shutting them out: When possible, avoid completely cutting off the relationship, even if your loved one is still using. Set boundaries to protect yourself and limit your involvement but let them know you are still there and still care about them.
- Encourage treatment: Encourage treatment but be cautious and thoughtful before giving an ultimatum. Learn about treatment options and offer to share information or help the person access treatment if and when they are ready.
- Support recovery efforts: If your loved one enters treatment, support their recovery efforts as much as you can. Offer to attend sessions or group meetings with them, to be there if they need support, or to help them get on their feet in other ways if you can.
- Remain aware: Even after the person gets clean and sober, monitor their behavior. Understand that the risk of relapse is high, and that many people relapse several times before they are able to completely stop.
- Practice self-care: Adjust the help you give and your level of involvement according to the person’s behaviors. Consider pulling back or setting stricter boundaries if they continue using, if you feel like you are enabling or if you are starting to become upset and resentful. Prioritize your own emotional self-care before overcommitting.
- Do your own work: If you have been emotionally affected by the person’s addiction, the best thing to do is to seek professional help for yourself. Counseling can help you work through your emotions, support your loved one, while also setting effective boundaries that protect you and the relationship.
- Enabling and Tough Love.
- Daley, D. C. (2013). Family and social aspects of substance use disorders and treatment. Journal of Food and Drug Analysis, 21(4), 573-576.
- Family Support as an Intervention Strategy in Drug Addiction Recovery.
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