09/11/2013 05:13 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

When Does 'Helping' a Troubled Loved One Hurt?


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Many families have them. The relative with substance abuse problems, violence issues, or frequently in trouble with the law.

The shame is overwhelming. You hope no one judges you by association.

The guilt is there, warranted or not.

You pray that once you help them through the latest incident that everything will be okay, but it rarely is. You live for the periods of calm between the chaos.

Later this week, Jared Remy, son of Red Sox legend Jerry Remy, is scheduled to appear Waltham, MA District Court for a probable cause hearing on charges he allegedly stabbed his girlfriend Jennifer Martel to death in late August.

According to an August 16 article in The Boston Globe:

Patty Martel (the victim's mother) said her daughter did not press to renew the restraining order at the request of the Remy family. Jennifer had spoken to Remy's mother, who begged her not to file any kind of complaint because it would ruin Remy's life; she also told Jennifer they would protect her, Patty Martel said.

"Every time Jennifer had problems she would call them," she said.

Although rarely discussed, many families have fielded calls from intimate partners, spouses, and exes about a loved one's substance abuse or violent behavior.

The family pressure to "keep it quiet" is intense. You so badly want to believe the pleading promises of the offender and their enablers. The spouse who called threatening divorce papers one day, might call back the next telling you they've worked it out, they just needed to vent; and for you to stay out of it. If both parties have substance abuse or mental health issues it is even trickier. Sometimes, the situation changes so quickly you get whiplash.

When emotions are at full tilt and you are in the fog of the crisis, it is hard to gauge if your well-intentioned "help" might have crossed the line into enabling. There are other times when the right action looks clear as a bell. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't.

Many times family and friends don't even realize they are enabling, they think they are being loyal, or keeping the offender (and partner) out of an even worse situation.

Enabler's reasons range from noble to self serving: love for a troubled child, "it's family", keeping up appearances, financial incentives, and in some cases -- the offender's behavior makes a dysfunctional or substance abusing enabler look good in comparison.

In my experience, "it takes a village" of enablers to provide the offender with financial or emotional support, keep secrets, "help" when they are in trouble, and most importantly, protect them from the consequences of their actions.

Here's what I learned about dealing with a person with a history of violence and substance abuse, and their enablers:

1. Stop "Hoping for Change": Humans have a great capacity for change. But, if someone shows you multiple times they are unwilling or unable to take those steps to make positive change, take a hint.
2. Just Stop Believing: If someone lies to you frequently, stop taking what they say at face value.
3. You Cannot Change FOR Them: They have to want to get help and work toward changing for themselves.
4. Save Yourself: Beware of becoming so focused on them; they drag you down into their pit of chaos. It can drain you and disrupt your life, if you let it.
5. No Empty Threats: Threat-making and trash-talking ratchets up drama and can create danger. With the help of a mental health professional, make a safe plan and follow through.
6. When the Jig is Up: The offender won't like it when you stop enabling. But, be prepared for a few of their enablers not liking it either. Some thrive on the dysfunction too.
7.Get a One-Way Ticket Out of Fantasyland: Just because a person is not violent toward you, or abusing drugs and alcohol in front of you, does not mean they are not doing it. They may be conning you while simultaneously harming others and/or abusing substances.
8. Just the Facts: If someone is arrested for assault, and they tell you it was someone else's fault; they were the one arrested, take it seriously.
9. Actions Not Words: Unless words are consistently followed up with corresponding actions, they are empty promises.
10.Protect Yourself and Be Prepared to Cut Off Contact: Both physically and emotionally. Offenders can become upset and vindictive towards those who stop enabling. If you have to cut of contact with someone because they are creating chaos in your life, it is OK. Get professional help, and develop a safe plan. You are not helping anyone, unless you are safe and sane.

My heartbreaks for the Martels, Remys and others families suffering though similar experiences sans headlines.

Everyday, around the country, there are 12 step meetings, support groups and therapists' offices filled with families of substance abusers and violent offenders grappling with these issues. Many more have yet to seek help.

If you are struggling with how to "help" a troubled loved one, know you are not alone, and visit, as a starting place, or seek professional help to guide you through this treacherous terrain.