The term ‘enabler’ generally describes someone whose behavior allows a loved one to continue self-destructive patterns of behavior.
This term can be stigmatizing since there’s often negative judgment attached to it. However, many people who enable others don’t do so intentionally. They may not even realize what they are doing.
Enabling usually refers to patterns that appear in the context of drug or alcohol misuse and addiction. But according to the American Psychological Association, it can refer to patterns within close relationships that support any harmful or problematic behavior and make it easier for that behavior to continue.
Enabling does not mean you support your loved one’s addiction or other behavior. You might believe if you don’t help, the outcome for everyone involved will be far worse. Maybe you excuse troubling behavior, lend money, or assist in other ways.
But it’s important to realize enabling doesn’t really help. Over time it can have a damaging effect on your loved one and others around them. It’s difficult for someone to get help if they don’t fully see the consequences of their actions.
Below are seven ways to recognize an enabler;
Signs or characteristics of an enabler
The following signs can help you recognize when a pattern of enabling behavior may have developed.
Ignoring or tolerating problematic behavior
Even if you personally disagree with a loved one’s behavior, you might ignore it for any number of reasons.
If you believe your loved one is looking for attention, you might hope ignoring the behavior will remove their incentive to continue.
You might avoid talking about it because you’re afraid of acknowledging the problem. You or your loved one may not have accepted there’s a problem. You might even be afraid of what your loved one will say or do if you challenge the behavior.
Providing financial assistance
There’s often no harm in helping out a loved one financially from time to time if your personal finances allow for it. But if they tend to use money recklessly, impulsively, or on things that could cause harm, regularly giving them money can enable this behavior.
Financially enabling a loved one can have particularly damaging consequences if they struggle with addiction or alcohol misuse.
Covering for them or making excuses
When worried about the consequences of a loved one’s actions, it’s only natural to want to help them out by protecting them from those consequences.
It’s tempting to make excuses for your loved one to other family members or friends when you worry other people will judge them harshly or negatively. But this won’t help your loved one change.
Taking on more than your share of responsibilities
You might be enabling a loved one if you find yourself frequently picking up their slack: doing household chores, looking after their children, or taking care of essential daily activities they leave undone.
There’s a difference between supporting someone and enabling them. Someone struggling with depression may have a hard time getting out of bed each day. Temporary support can help them make it through a difficult time and empower them to seek help. You can’t enable depression since it’s not a behavior.
But if your help allows your loved one to have an easier time continuing a problematic pattern of behavior, you may be enabling them.
Avoiding the issue
Whether your loved one continues to drink to the point of blacking out or regularly takes money out of your wallet, your first instinct might be to confront them. You want the behavior to stop.
But after thinking about it, you may begin to worry about their reaction. You might decide it’s better just to ignore the behavior or hide your money.
It’s often frightening to think about bringing up serious issues like addiction once you’ve realized there’s a problem. This can be particularly challenging if you already tend to find arguments or conflict difficult.
But avoiding discussion prevents you from bringing attention to the problem and helping your loved one address it in a healthy, positive way.
It isolates you both, for one. It also makes it harder for your loved one to ask for help, even if they know they need help to change.
Sacrificing or struggling to recognize your own needs
Missing out on things you want or need for yourself because you’re so involved with taking care of a loved one can also be a sign you’re enabling that person.
Do you struggle financially after giving your loved one money? Do you lack time for your work, self-care, or other relationships since you are doing more at home?
Sometimes we want to make sacrifices for the people we care about. This does not always mean you’re enabling someone. The reason you’re letting your needs go unmet matters.
It’s certainly important to take care of yourself first, especially when taking care of a sick loved one, but you may not mind missing out on some of your typical activities for several days or a few weeks.
But if you are consistently struggling to get things done or feel worn down by your attempts to take care of a loved one, it may help to consider your reasons for helping and the effect they are having on your loved one. Does your sacrifice allow their behavior to continue?
When a pattern of enabling characterizes a relationship, it’s fairly common for resentment, or feelings of anger and disappointment, to develop.
Your resentment may be directed more toward your loved one, toward the situation, both, or even yourself. You might feel hurt and angry about spending so much time trying to help someone who doesn’t seem to appreciate you. You may feel obligated to continue helping even when you don’t want to.
Resentment can damage your emotional well-being, but it can also help you realize the situation may not be healthy.