Am I an Enabler in My Relationship?

An enabler is defined as a person who, through his or her actions allows someone else to achieve something. In most instances the term enabler is associated with people who allow a loved one to behave in ways that are destructive.

As a psychologist, I’ve seen enablers who contribute to the negative behaviors of their toddler all the way to the range of those who enable a spouse to continue to engage in substance and physical abuse. In many cases, the enabler does not recognize what they are doing, or that their own actions are harmful to their loved one.

Not only do enablers fail to recognize that they are contributing to the negative behavior, but they often find it difficult to accept that, with change in their own behavior, they may help the one they are enabling change. In my practice, one of the main reasons people drop out of therapy is because they do not see the need for this type change. The is an old quote, attributed to Albert Einstein that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Another favorite saying of mine is “don’t trip over the elephant in the living room”. People go to great lengths to not see the core of a problem, even accepting that they are the reason a spouse drinks or abuses them.

Fear of abandonment, or that they will no longer be loved, is, in my opinion, two of the strongest reasons the enabler is resistant to change. Those who are dealing with an alcohol or drug addict may fear that if they put pressure on their loved one to quit, they will leave them. And, in reality, this does occur because the addiction can be stronger than the love they have for the enabler. I try to convey to individuals with these fears that boundaries must be set, and that to do nothing can be greater than taking a stand for change.

Parents often bring children in when they are faced with behavior problems they cannot handle. It may be the school who requests help for the child, or the parents may have reached the point of no return due to oppositional or criminal behavior. It is difficult for them to take this step, but it becomes even more difficult when, in family therapy, they learn that changes in their own behavior is needed before the child’s behavior will improved.

Just this morning, I heard a mother complain that it was her fault that her seventeen year old son couldn’t mow the lawn. She reasoned that it was because she had not purchased gas for the mower. She didn’t take into consideration that the son had his own car and money in his pocket to buy gas for the car. She continues to allow him to be irresponsible, finding excuses for his behavior rather than making him accountable.

I’ve seen women who come into the office with bruises and blood shot, blackened eyes due to the abuse of a significant other. They come in talking about what they did to cause this behavior. Excuse me! No one deserves to be punched and kicked like a punching bag. Failure to place the blame where it lies only leads to more abuse. It gives the abuser a license to continue.

Fortunately, there are those who exhaust all means of trying on their own who do come into therapy with an open mind. It is these enablers who learn to set boundaries, to learn to take care of their own needs, and to place responsibility for negative behavior back onto the one who does it. When this happens, the chances of improvement for the loved one also increases.

There are many trained therapist available to help enablers. For those involved with a substance abuser, there are places like Al Anon where they can receive free help and support. If you think that you may be enabling someone to continue negative behaviors, I encourage you to seek help.