Enabling behavior, simply put, keeps a person from dealing with the negative consequences of their actions. While it is natural to care for and help someone you love, be mindful of the fine line between being supportive of a loved one and enabling their behaviors. Differently from supporting and helping, enabling means allowing the enabled person to behave irresponsibly.
Originally, enabling refers to a pattern within the families of drug and alcohol addicts. In these families, the addict’s family members often excuse, ignore or deny the addiction, which allows the addicted person to continue with the addiction without facing the consequences.
However, the concept has been widely accepted over the past couple of decades to describe a pattern of behavior towards any person who is exhibiting poor life choices and decisions.
An example of enabling behavior is a parent who bails the addict out of trouble, by paying his/her debts, hiring lawyers, etc. Or a spouse who makes excuses with friends, family members or an employer for their partner’s gambling addiction (“He does it just for fun”). These behaviors are enabling addiction and worsening the problem.
So, enabling is any behavior towards the enabler that releases him or her from having to take responsibility for their actions. Enabling means that someone will always fix or solve the enabled person’s problems.
Who Are Enablers and Enabled?
An enabler can be anyone emotionally involved with someone who is out of control: parents, romantic partners, ex-partners, siblings, adult children or friends. The one thing that enablers have in common is love for the enabled person and taking responsibility for that person.
On the other hand, an enabled person is one who is refusing to take age-appropriate responsibilities for their actions. Not having to deal with the consequences gives the impression that their behavior is acceptable.
What are the Consequences of Enabling?
Protecting the enabled from the natural consequences of their behavior only deepens the damage. As much as you want to support and care for a loved one who is out of control, acting as an enabler you are causing the problematic behavior to worsen.
For example, solving the problems for a family member you are trying to help or lying to cover for them, you are actually enabling the behavior that needs to change. This creates a negative dynamic in your relationship, making the enabled dependent on you. At the same time, you are taking on responsibilities that are not really yours. This can ultimately lead to anxiety, depression, and resentment and impair the relationship.
Are you an Enabler?
If you routinely make excuses for someone else, lie for them, put their needs first or have a feeling (or know) that behavior you are witnessing is unhealthy you may be enabling behaviors that are damaging.
How to Stop Enabling?
To break the pattern of enabling, responsibility needs to be turned to the person it belongs to. This means setting firm boundaries between yourself and the enabled person. Becoming aware that your loved one’s choices are their choices, not yours and that the consequences belong to them alone will help stop the enabling pattern in your relationship. Breaking the pattern of enabling doesn’t mean you stopped loving the person. It means allowing the enabled to learn how to solve his/her problems themselves and to grow as an individual.