Lifeskills Mental Health Blog

Learning to Detach with Love Instead of Enabling Your Loved One

Learning to Detach with Love Instead of Enabling Your Loved One

Where does the line between helping and enabling your loved one lie? It can be hard to tell when you have a parent, child, or friend trapped deep in the cycle of addiction. Watching them suffer at the hands of alcohol and substance abuse is an excruciating experience. No matter what you do it doesn’t seem to get their attention and snap them out of their spiral.

People often forget about the silent victims of substance abuse. The person using substances tends to be the focus. While there’s no denying their immense struggles, that doesn’t encompass the whole picture. Family, friends, and even colleagues are left to deal with the inevitable fallout that substance abuse causes.

If you have a loved one that struggles with substance abuse, you’ve likely put your mental health to the side at least a few times. You allow your well-being to take a backseat as you do everything in your power to pull them out from the depths of substance use disorder. But what you see as being helpful may actually be enabling.

You must learn to detach with love instead of enabling your loved one. However, there’s an important caveat that contributes to your enabling tendencies. Until you understand your own set of harmful behaviors, neither you nor your loved one can progress. What is enabling, how do you detach with love, and where can you begin the process?

What is Enabling?

There is nothing wrong with helping your loved one. Helping the people you care about is a natural human instinct. This is especially true when you first notice your loved one has problems with their substance use. But sometimes behaviors progress past being helpful and move into the territory of enabling.

Enabling someone is the exact opposite of helping them.

Put simply, enabling means allowing someone to behave a certain way or providing them with resources to do something. Enabling has a negative connotation because it usually involves permitting negative or harmful behaviors. In regard to substance abuse, some examples of enabling behavior include:

  • Prioritizing your loved one’s needs before your own
  • Setting weak boundaries that your loved one regularly oversteps
  • Making excuses for their behavior to help them avoid consequences
  • Letting them live with you despite their disregard or disrespect towards your home
  • Getting them into treatment centers repeatedly
  • Draining yourself financially to support them
  • Handling their problems to keep them from getting into trouble

It’s important to know when you’ve crossed the line into enabling. Once you become an enabler, you’re no longer being helpful. Now you’re also contributing to the problem. It’s not an easy fact to face but it’s true. Enabling your loved one keeps them from receiving the help they truly need.

The Reality of Enabling

There is one crucial element that enablers often do not realize. You may think you’re enabling your loved one to help them but you’re actually enabling your loved one to help yourself. It is a self-serving behavior. You’re not helping them to keep them from getting in trouble. You’re helping them to keep from facing overwhelming feelings of fear and uncertainty.

When you enable your loved one you hold them back from reaching out for help. They never “hit bottom” if you’re following them around and cleaning up their messes. Why would they ever need to stop? You’ve shown them that you will bail them out every time they get into a difficult situation.

Detaching with love is the antidote to enabling. It allows space for both you and your loved one to heal. What does detaching with love look like?

What is Detaching?

Detaching means removing yourself from the trouble and chaos that your loved one’s substance use creates. Many people hesitate at the thought. However, detaching does not mean leaving your loved one behind. It doesn’t mean you stop caring, it doesn’t mean that you no longer love them, and it doesn’t mean you have to cut contact.

Detaching with love means quite the opposite. When you detach yourself from your loved one’s harmful behavior, it leaves room for them to require help. Once they begin to experience consequences, they’re more likely to seek help for their substance use. Detaching with love instead of enabling is the most supportive thing you can do.

Some examples of behaviors that follow detaching with love include:

  • Caring for your needs
  • No longer reacting to or creating crises
  • Not taking the blame for their mistakes and poor choices
  • Learning to let situations and events play out without your involvement
  • Developing feelings and emotions independent of your loved one’s
  • Seeking avenues of help and support for yourself

Tough Love is NOT Detaching With Love

Sometimes people confuse tough love and detaching with love. Taking a tough love approach may feel tempting, especially when you’ve dealt with your loved one’s substance abuse for a long time. It’s a detached approach, yes, but it’s also cold and lacks empathy and understanding.

Additionally, tough love is simply another harmful reaction to your loved one much like you’re enabling. If you don’t take time to uncover and address why you enable your loved one, a tough love approach is only a defense mechanism. It doesn’t stem from love at all. It stems from frustration, exhaustion, and avoidance of your processes.

Tough love may work for some people, but if you struggle with enabling your loved one then it’s not an approach for you.

How to Detach with Love

It’s not easy to stop your enabling behaviors right away. You’ve likely relied on them for many years up to this point. Learning to detach with love takes time, patience, and practice, but it’s worth the effort. It creates room between yourself and your loved one so you both can heal your difficulties.

Sometimes you may not realize how intertwined your behaviors are with your loved ones. It might take them entering a treatment facility before you can recognize your dependence on the chaotic routine. After you clearly see the negative impact of your enabling behaviors, it becomes easier to begin the work.

Learning to detach with love starts by determining which behaviors you want to work on. Do you feel like you can’t communicate with your loved one? Do you wear yourself out chasing after them every day? Do you want to avoid contact while they’re under the influence?

Figure out which aspects of your relationship are most pressing and start there. But detaching with love means peeling back layers you’ve spent years putting in place. The best way to learn to detach with love also involves seeking outside help. Finding your therapist or counselor will provide more clarity on the situation and direction handling it.

Seeking Help at Lifeskills South Florida

Lifeskills South Florida is the premier mental health and dual diagnosis treatment program in the Fort Lauderdale area. We provide care and support to individuals battling mental illness and substance use disorders. Through our effective and customized treatment plans, we guide each person through the process of learning to recognize and manage their mental health symptoms.

Family therapy is another vital tool we use in our programs. It not only teaches you to but rebuilds your family system as a whole. As Dr. Daron Flory, our Director of Family Services here at Lifeskills explains, “Mental health problems are a systemic issue; meaning, they arise from the system in which they are constructed. This doesn’t mean the family is responsible, but the family contributes to the existence and perpetuation. Family therapy is intended to unravel the contributions and perpetuations, so the system can be reconfigured for a brighter, more adaptive system.”

If your loved one is struggling with a dual diagnosis or mental illness, please reach out. We’re here to help your entire family as you navigate this difficult time. Learning to detach with love while your loved one gets help is a challenge you shouldn’t have to handle on your own. Call us to speak with an admissions specialist who will help you understand your options and find the program that best suits your loved one today!


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