Enabling is not about just one thing. It can be allowing anything from verbal abuse to laziness, addiction, risky behaviors, even lying.

Enabling is basically ignoring, or encouraging something you know is not healthy or good. Enabling is often associated with codependency. Codependency is when you worry so much about someone else that you can’t separate their needs from yours. Enabling often happens when you love someone almost too much. You want that someone, whether it’s a parent or a child or a spouse or friend to be happy, or safe, or just not yell at you. So you help them against your better judgement, or don’t try stop them.

There are lots of reasons for enabling

No one sets out to be an enabler of bad habits, unhealthy behaviors, abuse  or addiction. Enabling can be as simple as getting more food or beer for someone who’s already had enough. You want to make that person happy. Or that person may scream at you if you don’t do it. Both cases are examples of letting someone get away with pushing you around and opposite of helping.

With regard to addictions, you may love someone struggling with a dangerous substance use, and she’s in grave danger. So you do one thing after another to avert disaster. You’re always in a crisis, but you think, just this once, we bail her out of jail. Or he promised he’ll quit drinking. You want to believe him, but before you know it, you’re in a dangerous pattern of enabling. The person you care about expects you to handle everything, and you keep doing it.

When your compassion or caring becomes problematic, you’re enabling

In Codependent No More, Melody Beattie defines enabling:

Enabling is therapeutic jargon that means a destructive form of helping.”

Gateway types of enabling

Many spouses and parents start down the dark path of enabling by making excuses. “He’s sick,” we say. Or, “She’s got the flu.” We can’t, won’t, and certainly don’t want to tell family members and close friends about the problem. In the case of addictions, Dr. Claudia Black, an expert in co-dependency and addiction explains that when someone has a chemical dependency, three major rules that exist within the family: It is a kind of destructive conditioning that changes everyone.

  1. Don’t talk to anyone about the real problem.
  2. Don’t trust. Psychological and/or physical safety are often missing in addictive households which produces mistrust.
  3. Don’t feel. People living with addiction are often in such desperation that the only way to cope is by repressing (ignoring, restraining, or hiding) their feelings or just not feeling anything at all.

Some enablers graduate to doing things for the substance user that he, she, or they can do for themselves. You don’t have to be a substance user to have this kind of dynamic: Mom will do laundry for her adult son or balance her 30 year-old’s checkbook.  The goal here is often to keep peace. This may include “mind reading” by anticipating these wants and doing them ahead of time. Perhaps the house is kept sparking clean to keep someone calm. Another form of enabling develops in relationships with narcissists and other manipulative and controlling people. Enablers don’t stop the escalation of control or abuse.

Covert types of enabling

As controlling behavior or addiction progresses, so does the need to enable. In this phase, the enabler often ignores other negative behaviors. We see abusive behavior in those with substance use disorders (addiction), but as we’ve said, they can also occur in people character disorders. The impact on enablers is the same. The enabler has to overlook the negative behaviors or risk fights.

  • Abuse (physical, emotional, sexual)
  • Throwing things
  • Storming out of the home in anger
  • Driving with the children while drunk
  • Losing a job due to work consequences of the addiction (coming in late, being drugged on the job).

Other covert types of enabling include rescuing someone from consequences. Instead of giving time for someone to feel the consequences of mistakes or legal problems, parents will bail the children out. Instead of making a spouse use the bus to get to work, a husband will drive his wife to work.

Driven by fear of the addict’s behavior, codependents often take over as the family spokesperson. They also walk on eggshells, making sure a loved one’s food is on the table when she gets home. In other cases, they prevent catastrophes by driving him to the bar to get drunk. Defeated, they reason, “He’s going anyway.”‘

In extreme cases, a loved one might even help the addict stay in the addiction by buying the drug of choice for him.

Enabling hurts the enabler

Eventually, the enabler ends up doing almost everything for the family – working, raising the children, being involved with the kids’ activities. They do things that they don’t want to do and will say “yes” to anything that might keep peace in the family. And finally, the enabler does not take care of him or herself physically, emotionally, socially, intellectually, or spirituality. The focus is always about the addict and the addiction.

When children enable

Sometimes an older child will take on a parental role to help instead of being allowed to be a child (doing all the cooking, laundry, etc.). When children are given excuses for destructive behaviors, it makes it even more difficult to say “no” to their parent(s) or sibling(s). Children often believe they cause their parents problems and will defend their behavior.

How to quit enabling

Having an inability to set boundaries gets the enabler in trouble.  The enabler gives up his or her life to take care of someone else. In recovery, we learn not to cause or prevent a crisis. Little by little, learn how to get your life back by doing healthy behaviors. Put the focus back on you. Meet your physical needs first. Ultimately, to restore balance, the enabler must start denying whatever the other person wants. This is often uncomfortable and frequently challenging. Consider getting support from a family group like Al-Anon, Nar-anon, or Celebrate Recovery.

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Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson, D.Min., ACSW, LMSW, is a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience in the fields of mental health, addictions, and co-occurring disorders. Her other specialties include grief and trauma, women’s issues, chronic pain management, holistic healing, GLBTQ concerns, and spirituality and transpersonal psychology. Dr. Anderson has been educated and trained in the fields of education, social work, and spirituality, and she holds a Doctor of Ministry degree (non-denominational/interfaith) specializing in spirituality.

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