Finding a Balance Between Unconditional Love and Enabling

At the best of times it is never easy living with an addict, but if you are the spouse or parent of a person with an alcohol or chemical dependency, it is almost an impossible situation. Your love for that person can often get in the way of his or her recovery because what you are doing in the name of love can have the extreme opposite results from what you had intended. It is in those moments that what you consider to be unconditional love is really just another way of enabling the addict to continue living in that addiction.

Defining Unconditional Love

The best way to understand the real meaning of unconditional love is to consider a mother’s love for her child. No matter what shortcomings or problems a child has, the mother will always love her child. The child could be mentally challenged, born with any number of birth defects, loud, obnoxious or rude and that mother will still love that child. In fact, the more the child needs his or her mother, it seems as though the fiercer a mother’s love will be. Unconditional love is simply the act of loving without restrictions or conditions. “I love you just the way you are and simply because you are.”

Enabling in the Name of Love

Unfortunately, it is this very act of loving unconditionally with our whole hearts and souls that we often cross over the line to enabling. Our love is so strong that we can’t watch our children or loved ones ‘suffer.’ There is something in them that tells us they are hurting and our natural instinct is to give them what they need to alleviate their pain. They ask for a few dollars, and we gladly give it over. Of course, they don’t tell us it’s for drugs or alcohol and they always have some logical reason for needing the money but deep down inside we know.

Those Telltale Behavioral Signs We Ignore

The same goes for making excuses for their behavior. Whether it is missing school or work because they were up all night and now need to sleep all day, or their inability to care for themselves appropriately, somehow our love and need to care for them overshadows the truth that they need a different kind of help. It becomes a vicious cycle. The more they are unable to care for themselves, the more we step in to compensate. Somehow we take it upon ourselves, almost as if ‘we’ are to blame for ‘their’ problems. Unfortunately, at this point there is probably some truth in that!

Where to Draw the Line

If you find that you are doing almost everything for the other person from their laundry to continually reminding them of responsibilities they have, and then stepping in to cover for them when they are not meeting those responsibilities, it’s time to draw the line. We all know what ‘normal’ adult behavior is and what we ‘should’ be doing if we are acting responsibly. From going to work/school to cleaning up after ourselves, there are certain routines that healthy functional people are able to carry out. When you find that you have taken on the other person’s responsibilities, you have crossed over from unconditional love to enabling. It’s time to get help.

The Tough Love Controversy

In 1968, Bill Milliken author of the book “Tough Love” coined the phrase to mean that sometimes we need to act harshly in order to act lovingly. Over the years there has been a lot of controversy over this philosophy because advocate groups feel tough love crosses over to abuse. Perhaps it does when used inappropriately. However, tough love in its truest sense means that sometimes we need to force the addict to ‘own’ their problems. We need to let them ‘hit bottom’ so that they recognize there is nowhere to go but up. They will try every manipulation in the book to put the blame on you for their behaviors and inability to cope, but the bottom line is, the choice is theirs.

Where to Turn for Help

Depending on the depth of the problem, there are a number of resources available to those in need. Sometimes a support group like Al-Anon or Nar-Anon can be beneficial for enablers (codependents as they are often referred to). Just as there are support groups for addicts, there are support groups for families and friends of addicts. Al-Anon is the support group for codependents of alcohol addiction whereas Nar-Anon is the support group for codependents of those suffering from drug abuse. However, these are just support groups run by laypersons like yourself and may not be sufficient to help with more serious problems that call for professional intervention. Every community has a mental health/substance abuse program that is operated by psychiatric and medical professionals who can assist both the addict (if he or she is willing to get that help) and the families of those living with substance abuse.

Beware of Well Meaning Advice

One of the things which should be cautioned against is well meaning advice. Please understand that although some people in these support groups have a genuine desire to help you differentiate between unconditional love and enabling, they are by no means experts in the field. They can share their personal experiences with you and can support you in your darkest hours, but quite often the type of help you need can only be provided by a substance abuse counselor with a degree in the field. By all means join Al-Anon and/or Nar-Anon for the spiritual, emotional and psychological support they provide, but don’t rule out speaking with a trained professional who can ‘diagnose’ the problems and recommend safe treatments for both the addict and his/her loved ones.

Unconditional love does not mean that you need to foster their addiction. It does mean that you will love them in spite of their addictions and will do everything in your power to help them recover if that’s what they truly desire. But, sometimes you need to step back and allow them to suffer in order to feel enough pain to recognize their need to recover. That’s unconditional love in its truest sense – being willing to suffer with them so that they can become whole again. Unconditional love hurts, but enduring that pain for the wellbeing of another is what it’s all about in the end.

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