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Building empathy to help support your loved one’s recovery.
May 30, 2017

Building Empathy: How to Connect With an Addicted Loved One

Building empathy to help support your loved one’s recovery.When a loved one has a drug or alcohol problem, it can be hard to empathize—or to know the difference between empathy that can help heal an addiction and enabling that will only perpetuate the disease. Find out the difference, along with other practical tips for connecting with an addicted loved one:

Drug addiction inevitably hurts human relationships. And according to Harvard Health Publications, over 9% of Americans have some form of chemical addiction—which adds up to a lot of struggling relationships.

For the sober party involved, it can be difficult to see past personal pain to the addict’s needs. No one wants to be on the receiving end of the behavioral signs of addiction:

  • Lying
  • Manipulative behavior
  • Stealing from friends and family
  • Blaming others for one’s poor behavior
  • Turning openly abusive

The instinctive response is to retreat immediately or counterattack in kind—which rarely helps. If you build empathy for your loved one and keep them aware you’re on their side, you’ll be better equipped to present a united front against the common enemy of substance abuse.

This article will provide insight on chemical dependence and offer hints on how to connect with an addicted loved one.


The word “addiction” is derived from the Latin addicere, which means “to agree, yield or sell.” A drug addict sells herself into slavery to the substance: as Alcoholics Anonymous puts it, addicts become powerless to manage their own lives and can be restored to sanity only with the assistance of a higher power. And a supernatural Higher Power is only part of the mix. Assistance on the human level is essential.

Unlike purely mental illnesses, addiction is a behavioral issue, obviously perpetuated by the person’s own actions. That can convince outside observers that stopping is a simple matter of saying “no” to drugs in the future. But it’s more complicated than that.

Most addiction begins as self-medication: chemicals offer an easy means of generating relief from pain, stress or anxiety. (The Stanford University article “Neuroscience of Need” explains how drugs manipulate the brain’s information processing.) Whether “using” turns into literal addiction depends on various factors: for instance, people who start in their teens are more likely to become addicted, and users are at higher risk if they have non-behavioral mental illnesses.

But in all cases, addiction is a literal brain disease. Dopamine transmitters that generate natural pleasure lose their effectiveness. Brain and body demand higher doses of the drug as neurotransmitter responsiveness becomes dulled. Learning and memory centers suffer lasting damage. Eventually, the pleasure effect disappears, leaving only a repeated choice between numbness (high) and misery (coming off a high).

Long before addiction reaches that stage, the user is in an “abusive relationship” with the drug: growing increasingly unhappy but unable to imagine life without, willing to try anything for improvement except quitting completely, developing an “any enemy of this drug is an enemy of mine” attitude. The brain has also been physically affected, so judgment and willpower are diminished even when the addict is “sober,” making quitting all the harder.

And, too often, family and friends not only fail to understand how hard it is: their lack of understanding makes it easier for addiction to continue.


If you’ve been enabling the addict in your life by protecting them from drug-abuse consequences—you’re pretty much typical. Nonetheless, you’re on the wrong track if you’re doing any of the following.

Signs of an enabler:

  • Cleaning up your loved one’s messes and taking over their responsibilities
  • Lying or making excuses to cover up their behavior
  • Being easily swayed by “one more chance” pleading
  • Desperately wanting to preserve the relationship at all cost
  • Telling yourself things will get better on their own

Empathy is not enablement. Empathy is concerned with actual needs as well as immediate feelings. Empathy does the right thing even when it hurts. Enablement is primarily concerned with appeasing its own comfort zone by keeping the other party happy.

The rest of this article presents tips for building and employing true empathy—the kind that allows you to connect with an addicted loved one so they’re genuinely encouraged to seek or stick to treatment.


  • Never accuse them of being “weak” or of not trying. That only encourages them to retreat further into drug abuse.
  • Eschew “you always” and “you never” talk.
  • Talk about rewarding elements of sober life—things the addict can relate to.
  • To best motivate them to seek treatment, talk to them when they’re in “I’ve hit bottom” moods—but stay sympathetic and attentive. “Maybe this will be a lesson to you” is a guaranteed ear-closer.
  • Remember that we all have bad habits and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Consider things about yourself you’ve struggled to change.
  • If your loved one is being truly ugly, stay objective and calm. Get completely clear if necessary. You may need professional counseling to discuss ways for managing the toughest situations.


  • Join your loved one for as many counseling sessions as you can. And listen when they talk!
  • Be prepared to discuss how you may have contributed to the problem and where you may have to change.
  • Encourage your loved one to plan new coping mechanisms that suit them. Don’t tell them what to do.
  • Plan to stay actively involved in recovery support for the long run. Be willing to inconvenience yourself for your loved one’s sake.
  • When considering your part in recovery, be prepared for “preference reversal syndrome”—the point where best-laid plans collide with instant gratification.
  • Ask the addict to hold you accountable for following through on your share of the recovery plan.


  • Help them avoid relapse by getting rid of anything that triggers thoughts of drugs or their paraphernalia—even pill bottles or metal spoons.
  • Help your loved one ease back into normal life. Avoid demanding they immediately resume all their old responsibilities.
  • Encourage them to rediscover old interests, especially shared ones. Spend regular quality time with them.
  • Volunteer to be a call-in-case-of-temptation support partner (only if you’re sure of being consistently available).
  • Stay active in your own support groups.
  • Focus on “one day at a time.” Dwelling on “never again” is stressful for both recovering addicts and their supporters.
  • Help your loved one with their relapse-prevention plan—but also know (privately) what you’ll do if relapse does happen.

Also, know the symptoms of “dry drunk syndrome,” a high-risk-for-relapse state:

  • Regularly acting surly or depressed
  • Lack of interest in challenging activities
  • Reminiscing about how good a drink or fix made them feel
  • Lack of humility: taking more than their share of the credit for recovery, insisting they “don’t need” to stay in touch with a support group and Higher Power

If your loved one seems to be drifting in that direction, encourage them to consider what’s going wrong and what to do about it. If they won’t listen, talk to your own counselor and support group.


  • Involve every available family member and friend.
  • Treat the addict like an intelligent human being who deserves personal responsibility.
  • Listen seriously to whatever they have to say.
  • Constantly let them know that, whatever happens, you love and believe in them.


Sources “How to Stop Enabling Someone Who Is Addicted.” July 25, 2014. Accessed April 20, 2017.

Baille, Rebecca. “How to Know if You’re Enabling an Addict to Death.”, February 24, 2015. Accessed April 20, 2017. and Harvard Health Publications. “Understanding Addiction: How Addiction Hijacks the Brain.” Accessed April 20, 2017.

Narconon. “The 5 Most Common Behavior Traits of an Addict.” Accessed April 20, 2017. “Understanding the Drug Addict.” June 23, 2008. Accessed April 20, 2017.