As caring, compassionate people we naturally and instinctively want to protect and help our loved ones. There is a universal drive of both animals and human beings that beckon us to stand between what we see as a potentially harmful situation and the ones we love, especially if we see those loved ones making poor choices or heading 90 miles an hour for a brick wall.

But, there is a fine line between participating as part of the solution- helping- or perpetuating what might be part of the problem - rescuing.

Rescuing can make us feel wanted and needed. It is a momentary adrenaline rush when for a brief instant we might be the center of someone else's world. Those we rescue thank us and are grateful for our intervention and since maybe someone else has said no to them, you are their hero du jour. Wow; what a boost to ones ego!

So what does helping look like versus rescuing?
As difficult as this may be to witness, events pertaining to our loved ones actions need to unfold as they are meant to, not how we want them to. If enabled or rescued, the alcoholic/addict is prevented from experiencing the repercussions due to their decisions or that are derived from irresponsible or out of control behavior.

A good, healthy example of helping and not rescuing is my client Sloane. Sloane was married to an alcoholic who bounced between living a clean and sober lifestyle and relapse. Soon after their marriage, Sloane's husband became quick to anger, was easily provoked and their relationship developed a very poor, eggshell-like walking communication.

Sloane never stopped loving her husband, but had come to the end of her rope in the relationship, as she could not live with his instability or impatience anymore. They had no children and were only married for a few years, so Sloane requested a separation. Her husband relapsed, and one day came to admit that he had hit his "bottom".

After a week clean and sober, he called Sloane and asked for a second chance as he wanted to try and salvage the relationship as well as save himself...from himself. He realized many of the things that had gone wrong during the marriage and his relapse opened his eyes to what he needed to do to put the pieces of his life back together.

He felt that if he could have a goal in trying to not only rebuild himself, but their relationship, he might be able to really commit to a clean and sober lifestyle. Sloane reiterated that she did not want to continue a relationship with him, his addiction and the responsibility that seemed to go along with it. She viewed this as helping the situation and not enabling it to his terms and would be open to seeing if what they once had could grow some new respectful and healthy roots.

There had been some emotional and financial wreckage that had accompanied this last relapse and it would have been easy for Sloane to write a check for the financial problems, provide transportation and even housing to support and encourage her husband toward sobriety, and not expect anything in return; yet she knew that would be rescuing and not helping.
Instead, she proposed her participation as more of a friend.

Listening empathetically, gently offering advice, encouraging his goals and dreams, and presenting personal, healthy objectives for the two of them to strive toward. Rebuilding their emotional relationship slowly as well as implementing new plans and objectives for payment plans and other specifics. Sloane felt confident she was helping in a confident, loving way grounded in stronger boundaries and guidelines.

It was understood that her husband was solely responsible for the wreckage incurred due to his relapse and that Sloane would remain part of his cheering section and not calling the shots from a play book on the field.
Sloane's husband appreciated her fortitude, was grateful for her help and in realty didn't want to be rescued, but preferred picking himself up by his own boot straps. He could prove to Sloane and himself the commitment he had to his recovery, and it would mean more in the long run and hopefully stave off the relapse itch knowing that he had worked so hard to rebuild his life his way.

Ask yourself...are you helping or rescuing? If you are coming up with all the answers, bailing out your loved one with cash, or shouldering some of their legal ramifications, then your crown of rescuing is polished to a blinding glow. If you are standing back and allowing incidents to play out as they may, yet presenting emotional and specific guidelines of support than the report card for help will be A+.

If I can be of service, please visit my website and I invite you to explore my new book Reclaim Your Life - You and the Alcoholic/Addict at

I am pleased to announce that I will soon be launching webinar sessions discussing topics from boundaries, communication, baiting and punishing, recovery contracts, the dry drunk and plenty of time for your questions. If you are interested in being notified when these will occur, please e-mail me at

About the Author

Carole Bennett M.A.

Carole Bennett, M.A., is a family substance abuse counselor, lecturer, columnist and author based at her Family Recovery Solutions Counseling Center in Santa Barbara, CA.

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