Are You An Enabler

by | Jun 16, 2015

From Love to Control: Are You an Enabler?

Are You An Enabler Nancy'S Counseling Corner

Young Couple With Relationship Difficulties

You start out helping your spouse or your child or your partner out of love. You want to help. Your instincts are good. After all, if you didn’t call in sick for your husband while he’s on a bender, he’d lose his job. If you didn’t take in your friend after she had a fight with her boyfriend, he might really hurt her; yet she still won’t leave him. If you kicked your brother out of your apartment, he’d be homeless; he gambles his money away.

If you just help your loved one through this current crisis, maybe you can mitigate the damage. Maybe you can buy some time to catch your breath. Maybe he can change.

The Problem

But here’s the problem: You take responsibility for someone else’s bad behavior. And that person doesn’t have to pay the consequences. You do. You lock yourself into a lose-lose position because the emergency situations recur and get worse. But you can’t stop enabling because you will feel very guilty if your loved one is seriously damaged by their behavior.

You are, after all, trying to help. You are trying to find a solution out of love. But you are in a dysfunctional situation. The person you are ‘helping’ does not associate his bad behavior with negative results because you step in to disconnect the train of events.

Your loved one is grateful for your actions, which you have to repeat when the next crisis occurs. And the person you are enabling keeps depending on you to save them. They are often so desperate to keep this pattern going that they will practice emotional blackmail. They will manipulate you to keep your help coming.

And you are desperate, too. You want to avert a crisis. You are in a perpetual state of high stress, which is bad for your health. You may even feel resentful and put upon, and rightfully so. But by now the pattern is so ingrained that it’s hard to see how to break it.

The person you’re enabling has no motivation to change because his problems are always solved for him. He is stuck in the loser role, and always dependent on you. His self-esteem erodes, possibly to a place where he is too demoralized to find a solution. By helping him repeatedly, you are actually postponing the time when he will have to find the strength to make a change in his behavior. You cannot change it for him. You can only change your own.

The Solution

You need to take a long, hard look at this situation and realize that your love for this person must find a new way to manifest itself. You need to change your behavior by no longer taking responsibility for your loved one’s actions. You need to make it clear that his actions and the consequences of his actions belong to him and him alone. You must give up your need to control what happens to him as a result of his bad choices. Only then will he be motivated to make a change.

And you need to stick to your guns. The person you enable will likely want to continue the dysfunctional pattern. After all, he’s had a free ride. But you must love him enough to stand firm. You may find an organization, or rehabilitation program or a therapist who can help him, but only he can change his own behavior.

You may need help too. You are giving up control of your loved one. You are watching him struggle, and you will be tempted to step in like you always have. It is painful to witness and you may suffer anxiety. A therapist may be a good idea for you, too.

The good news is, you have made a courageous change. You have stopped a toxic chain of events. But you have not stopped loving that person. You have found a new, healthy way to love him. You can encourage him; let him know you support him. And love him.

Nancy Travers is an Orange County Counseling professional. If you need safe, effective counseling services, please get in touch. You can reach her here:


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