Regardless of whether they’re romantic, platonic or family, relationship dynamics are complicated. When you care for someone, you want to make them happy and support them. That’s where the lines start to blur.
So, when does loving someone morph into enabling them? In the most basic terms, enabling someone is recognizing that they have a problem, but continuing to treat them as if nothing is wrong. Usually, that involves encouraging (or doing nothing to curtail) the problem behavior.
“I’m not enabling. They’ve fallen on hard times and I want to be supportive.”
Weeks ago, I spoke with a woman who, early in her marriage, had her in-laws move in with her,her husband and their young child after her father-in-law lost his job. The in-laws both had severe drinking problems and some underlying mental illnesses that were never diagnosed or treated, which resulted in a lot of tension, fighting and yelling. Having lived with this for his entire live, the woman’s husband didn’t think his parents’ behavior was anything out of the ordinary. To him, this was normal. “It’s just how they are.”
As the months dragged on and her father-in-law refused to go out and look for work, the living arrangement became so toxic that the woman offered her husband two choices: Counseling, or she would leave the home with their daughter. Within a few minutes of the first therapy session, the doctor had a conclusion.
“I don’t think you two are the problem, and I don’t think I need to see you here again.” He then turned to the woman’s husband and said, “I do think that your parents should consider counseling, though, for your sake at the very least. This is the kind of thing that ends marriages, I’ve seen it a hundred times. Don’t let it end yours.”
Hearing it from a neutral third party (a professional, no less) was what it took for him to realize that it was true: He had been making excuses for their behavior since the day they moved in. While he firmly believed he was supporting his mother and father by giving them a place to stay for an indeterminate amount of time, he didn’t understand how the very same thing was causing his own marriage, and family, to suffer.
“I’m not enabling. I’m helping.”
This is a common belief, but thankfully it’s pretty easy to separate the two. Helping someone is doing something for them that they are unable to do for themselves. Enabling someone is doing something for them that they could, and should be doing on their own.
For example, if someone gets into legal trouble time and again and you offer to bail them out or pay their legal fees. Or perhaps they struggle with mental illness but refuse to recognize it or seek professional help. Instead of encouraging them to seek help, you continue to feed into the unhealthy behaviors by being at their beck and call (An extreme example: A loved one threatens to harm themselves unless you stop what you’re doing and come to them). It’s easy to believe that you are helping when things continue as they’ve always been. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
When you begin to notice your own life and other relationships unravelling because so much of your time and energy goes into taking care of one person, it may be time to reevaluate priorities. Being supportive of loved ones is a beautiful and necessary thing, but it’s critical to be sure that your support doesn’t drain you of your own health and happiness.