Games People Play

There are Many Ways to Enable an Alcoholic

As the saying goes, you are not the cause of someone else’s drinking problem, you cannot cure it and you can’t control it.

But there are ways that you may be contributing to the problem.

Before placing the blame for all the problems in your family or your relationship on his (or her) drinking, it might be wise to examine how the other person’s drinking may have affected you, and how you have reacted to it. For example, does the following statement sound familiar?

I don’t have a problem with my drinking! The only problem is your attitude. If you would quit complaining about it, there wouldn’t be a problem!

Well, obviously that statement is not completely accurate; after all denial of the problem is one of the more frustrating parts of the problem. On the other hand the statement may not be completely false either.

  • How do you react to the alcoholic’s drinking?
  • Could your reaction be a part of the overall problem?
  • Have you fallen into "role playing" in the family?
  • Is there anything that you can do to improve the situation?

The following describes an incident that could be an example of alcoholic behavior, and some examples of reactions to the incident. Does any of these sound familiar?

The alcoholic comes home late and he is drunk, too drunk in fact to get the key into the front door lock. After several futile attempts, he decides that it is a lost cause. Since he does not want anyone in the house to know that he is too drunk to unlock his own door, he makes a brilliant decision that solves his problem. He goes to sleep in the front yard!

How would you react?

The Rescuer

The "rescuer" doesn’t let the incident become a "problem." Since she has been waiting up for him anyway, she goes out in the yard, gets the alcoholic up, cleans him up, and puts him into bed. That way the neighbors never see him passed out in the flower bed!

She never mentions the incident to him or anybody else. If anyone else mentions it, she denies there is a problem. She lies for him, covers up for his mistakes, and protects him from the world.

As the problems increase and his drinking gets worse, she takes on responsibilities that were once his. She may get a job or work extra hours to pay the bills. And if he gets in trouble with the law, she will move heaven and earth to come up with his bail.

The Provoker

The "provoker" reacts by punishing the drunk for his actions. She either waits for him to wake up the next morning and gives it to him with both barrels, or she goes out and turns the water sprinklers on!

She scolds, ridicules, and belittles. She nags. She screams insults at him loud enough for everyone to hear. She gets on the telephone and tells all her friends he’s a loser. She is angry and she makes sure that the alcoholic and everybody else knows it. Or she gives him the cold shoulder and doesn’t speak to him. She threatens to leave.

She doesn’t let it go, either. The anger and resentment continue to build as these incidents become more frequent. She never lets him forget his transgressions. She holds it against him and uses it as a weapon in future arguments — even months or years later.

The Martyr

The "martyr" is ashamed of the alcoholic’s behavior and she lets him know it by her actions or words. She cries and tells him, "You’ve embarrassed us again in front of the whole neighborhood!"

She sulks, pouts, and isolates. She gets on the telephone with her friends and tearfully describes the misery that he has caused her this time! Or she is so ashamed of it she avoids her friends and any mention of the incident.

Slowly she becomes more withdrawn and depressed. She may not say much about it to the alcoholic, but she lets him know with her actions that she is ashamed of him. Quietly she tries to make him feel guilty for his behavior.

Who is enabling?

Those examples may be somewhat of an exaggeration, but then again they may be very typical of what goes on in an alcoholic home. The "roles" the nonalcoholic spouse plays in the family may not be as well defined, as they are outlined here. Depending upon the circumstances, the spouse may fall into one of these roles, or may switch back and forth between them all.

So which of the spouses described — the Rescuer, the Martyr, or the Provoker — is an enabler? Which one is actually helping the alcoholic progress in his disease? Which one, although they are trying to make things better, are actually contributing to the problem?

All of them.

It’s easy to define the "rescuer" or "caretaker" as an enabler. She is enabling him simply by not allowing him to face the consequences of his own actions. He wakes up in the bed warm and toasty the next morning, not even remembering that he passed out in the front yard.

Why should he ever admit that he has a problem? With her rushing in to "put pillows under him" each time he falls, he never feels the pain of the fall. If his drinking never becomes painful, due to her heroic efforts to protect him, why should he ever decide to stop?

But the other two role models are also enabling. How? Because their reactions to the alcoholic’s behavior allows him to focus on their reaction rather than his own behavior.

If he wakes up the next morning in the yard and comes into the house to face the wrath of the provoker or the shame of the martyr or "victim," then his natural response is to react to that behavior, rather than his own.

Moreover, both the provoker’s and the martyr’s actions are designed to manipulate him with guilt, which believe it or not, he feels. But if he is truly an alcoholic, his reaction will not be to own up to his mistakes, but to try to escape them once again — in the bottle.

Games Alcoholics Play


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