Are you an enabler in your relationship?
Honestly, it’s a tough question to ask. It’s an even tougher one to put your hand up and confess to. No-one wants to think they are a key player in another’s dysfunction.
But it’s a good one to think about — by yourself, with no-one around to cast judgment. Because enabling will not only not help them — it will set you up for misery in love.
Enabling: What does it mean?
“Nobody can hurt me without my permission.”— Mahatma Gandhi
The term enabling is usually used in the context of alcohol, drugs and addiction. The most common example is when an addict’s family members excuse, justify, gloss over, deny or ignore the problem. In doing so, they’re shielding the addict from the full consequences of their behaviour, which gives them a leave pass to keep going.
Enabling can also refer to patterns in close relationships where one person (often unintentionally) supports problematic behaviour, “enabling” — or even making it easier — to continue. As well as addiction, it commonly shows up in chronic physical/mental health issues or money problems.
Enablers can be parents, partners, exes, friends or adult children. It’s a difficult place to be: When you love someone who’s out of control in some way, you can find yourself taking more responsibility for their behaviour than they are taking themselves. And, even when you can’t stand what your loved one is doing, you’re even more scared of the consequences.
In intimate relationships, it tips the power balance, placing the enabler in a caregiving role, which leads to exhaustion, resentment, fear and guilt and will ultimately erode your own health and wellbeing.
Here are some examples from enabling partners:
- If I can just get him through (this crisis) maybe he’ll come to his senses.
- If I book all her medical and therapy appointments it’ll be easier for her to get help.
- I hate the 3am calls. But if I go pick him up at least I’ll know he’s safe.
- If I leave her I don’t know what will happen to her. I’m scared she’ll hurt herself.
What to do?
Just as a pattern of enabling takes a while to bed in, it can take a while to break. Beyond seeking professional help, which you BOTH may need, here’s a place to start.
1. Show yourself some compassion.
Have you begun to organise your life and choices around your partner? Do you find yourself in a constant state of anxiety about what they’ll do next? Do you rush to “fix” or “solve” problems and worry about what will happen if you don’t? Do you fear the next phone call or text? Or what they’ll be like when you walk in the door?
If you’re answering yes to any or all of the above, be compassionate with yourself. You may have slipped into a dysfunctional pattern — but it’s come from a place of love.
2. Be honest about your feelings.
Is it love? Or is it a combination of exhaustion, frustration, resentment, fear and guilt? And if so, can you go on that way?
Long-term enabling is not sustainable. You have to ask if what you’re doing is starting to hurt you, physically, mentally and/or emotionally. Because if you keep doing what you’re doing — well, you know where it’s going.
3. Look at the problem from a different angle.
I know you’re trying to help but…aiding someone to continue problematic behaviour isn’t helping them to take responsibility. It’s giving them an out clause. It’s also stripping them of power. Consider how you can play things better — for their sake as well as yours? Handing them responsibility for their behaviour and life is love too.
4. Listen — but don’t fix.
When there’s a problem, don’t rush to fix it or shower them with possible solutions. Allow them to come up with their own ideas. And, when they have a good one AND follow through on it, validate and praise them.
5. Set (little) boundaries.
All healthy relationships need boundaries. Partners need to know what is okay with you and what’s not — physically, sexually and emotionally. When you get into a a pattern of enabling, you let your boundaries go and they need to be re-established. It’s can be hard — and stressful — though, when you’re used to operating a particular way. So start small. Please don’t call/text me at work unless it’s an emergency. I’m only going to check my cellphone at 5pm for your messages. Here are some names of therapists for you to choose from and book an appointment. I won’t top up your bank account when you’ve overspent on non-essentials.
If you recognise yourself as an enabler, don’t go rushing down the self-blame route: That’s not productive. Instead, think this: Your partner’s behaviour has led you into enabling and you’re here because you love them and want to do the right thing. However you need to step aside and hand them back some power. And you also need to take back some power for yourself. You have a responsibility to yourself and the life YOU want to live. If you need a permission slip, here it is. Begin today.
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