You can be supportive of your spouse without enabling his or her addictive behavior.

If you have a family member or close friend who is struggling with addiction, I’m sure you want to help them. Most people aren’t sure what to do in that situation. You’ve probably heard people described as “enablers,” and maybe hesitantly wondered if that term applies to you.

There’s a big difference between helping someone who is struggling with addiction and enabling their addiction. I understand it’s a touchy subject and it all comes down to boundaries, which are different in each relationship, so let’s start with defining boundary. What is a boundary? It’s a personal line that marks what we are responsible for and what we are not responsible for. It tells us what is okay, as well as what is not okay. There are a variety of boundaries in our relationships with other people. Some are physical, some are mental, some involve emotions, and believe it or not, other boundaries are actually spiritual. There are boundaries in parenting, boundaries in dating, in marriage, in our jobs, and with our friends.

One of the best guides to understanding these boundaries is a book written by Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend called “Boundaries.” If you’re wondering about whether you’re helping or enabling, the book may be able to offer you some insight. The authors talk about the fact that boundaries are not selfish. In fact boundaries are essential to having a healthy, balanced lifestyle.

When we understand those boundaries, we understand that it’s possible to help those we love without enabling addictive behaviors. For example, we can provide access to resources that can support their needs without impeding our own lives. We can take steps to provide safety without making it easier to continue their addictions. It’s one thing to cook a meal and serve it in your home, and something entirely different to hand money to someone with an addiction who assures you that they’re going to spend it on food. When someone is addicted, they’re no longer in control of their own lives. Above all else they need the next fix of whatever the addiction centers upon.

Sometimes, establishing those boundaries means life will become difficult or unpleasant. That’s hard to do, but without the boundaries, the addict’s problems can and most assuredly will become yours. If, for example, you continue to pay the living expenses for child who is addicted to drugs, you’ve made it possible for them to use all of their money to support their addiction. Yes, you do that out of love, but you’re actually enabling the addiction instead of helping them move past it. Sometimes the most loving thing you can do is to set boundaries.

If you are not sure where those boundaries should be or how to establish them, you may benefit from conversations with a professional counselor who has experience in supporting people who have relatives or family members dealing with addiction. Do it for your own good — and for the good of those you love. Tune in to our podcast next week to hear more on this topic.


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