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Addiction and Recovery: Tag Team Enabling of Alcoholism and other Drug Addictions

When there is addiction in your family,  you naturally want to solve the problem of the addiction, point them in the right direction, and make sure that they will be ok.  while these are normal reactions and family members try perfectly normal solutions to the problem, addiction does not lend itself to those solutions.  In an effort to problem solve, family members, either serially or collectively end up enabling. 

When you have a family member who has addiction, you want to help. You want to save them from having to experience the negative consequences of their addictions.  You can foresee these predictable problems occurring in the future. You want to make them be able to also see those consequences and thus avoid them. When you see someone that you love hurting, you want to kiss it, put a band-aid on it, or take away the pain in some way. These are normal reactions. 

Unfortunately, addiction does not lend itself to “normal” solutions.  Family members apply normal solving problem behavior to the "abnormal" problems of addiction and end up enabling the continuation of the very "thing" they hope to stop--the drinking/using. 

A simple applied definition of "enabling" is the removal, or reduction, of the natural negative consequences of someone else's behavior. When you remove the consequences of someone's behavior, they have no motivation to change that behavior. As far as they are concerned, what they are doing is working for them. You as a family member, and as an enabler, can be in the bankruptcy courts as a consequence of continuing to financially enable them. 

If they still have other enablers willing to step up to the plate to carry on after you are broke, they don't have a problem.  Having additional enablers waiting in the wings is commonplace for addicts. Most addicts have layers of enablers. 

Within a family, the enabling hierarchy would include spouse (if any), parents (individually or collectively), grandparents, siblings. The first line of enablers is usually the spouse or the parents if there is no spouse.   

A common phenomena occurs, that I like to call “tag team enabling”.  It starts when one enabler stops the enabling and another enabler steps up to take over that role.  If the primary enabler gets to a point where s/he is fed up and begins to detach (usually with anger), making a conscious decision to stop enabling, another person in that family system will usually step up and carry on the rescue services. 

Often there is one family member, especially in the parental generation who is saying, "I'm not going to keep doing this. I am not willing to bail him out any more. That's it!" and another who is saying, "Now Honey, wait a minute. What if ......". They trade places as the one in the foreground gets fed up and moves into the background and the one who has been in the background moves into the foreground to continue the enabling. When the one in the foreground feels used up again, they will typically trade places again.

If both parents put their heads together and decide to present a unified front, other enablers will typically step in to take over.  A grandparent may step in from the background to take their places as primary enabler. Any other family member could do the same.  If the whole family stops enabling, friends outside the family will often step in.  Usually the enabling of those from outside the family will be short lived, since friends typically get "fed up" a lot faster. 

Secrecy plays a major role in keeping these dynamics going.  Alcoholics/addicts are good at manipulating others to "help", and to keep secrets. Alcoholics and addicts often blame others for their own behavior and can be quite convincing on how they have been victimized by the “controlling behavior” or vengeful acts of family members. Temporary alliances spring up in alcoholic families, where the enabling of one family member is kept secret from other family members. This is very destructive to the family.  One of the common casualties of addiction in the family with an addicted "child" is the divorce of the parentsArticle Submission, who cannot agree on "what to do about" the addict. 

Tag team enabling can be stopped by increasing communication and practicing a concerted family effort to deal with the addiction in a proactive manner. 

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The resources available on my website, which include a number of articles on individual and family dynamics of addiction and recovery, a Recommended Readings page, an "Ask Peggy" column, a Links page with additional resources, and a newsletter, are available for your assistance. To purchase my ebooks, go to   My website is a work in progress. To visit my website or to sign up for my newsletter, go to http:   Peggy L. Ferguson, Ph.D., Licensed Alcohol/Drug Counselor, Licensed Marital/Family Therapist, Author, Trainer, Consultant, Private Practice Professional providing services in StillwaterOklahoma.

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