Updated: Sep 4, 2020
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Karen and John had been married for twenty years. They had three beautiful children together and a house in the suburbs. John had a good job and Karen worked part-time from home. By all accounts and outside perspectives, Karen and John were the perfect couple. But Karen had a dark secret. Her husband was a serial cheater. He lied about where he was going and who he was seeing on a regular basis. In the beginning, Karen was angry and hurt by her husband’s deceptive behavior. But she continued to take him back time and again. She no longer asked any questions, for fear that she would find out more information that could cause more pain.
Marissa was a single parent to her 20-year-old son, Mark. Mark was a well-behaved child, but had started using drugs and alcohol in high school after the death of his father. At 20, he was always in between jobs and rehab centers. He stole and lied to his mother on a regular basis, but then apologized and cried when she caught him and confronted him. He could never stay sober for long, and Marissa kept telling herself that one of these days she was going to kick him out, but she never could. She was afraid what would happen to him if he was out on the street. She told herself that at least here, at the house, she could keep an eye on him. She was doing it for his own good, she told herself.
In both of these circumstances, fear is the common denominator in the equation that causes Karen and Marissa to continue enabling their loved ones. They both are afraid of laying down a set of rules because they are afraid, ultimately, of being alone. They tell themselves that they enable their spouse or son in order to protect them, or protect themselves, but really, they do it because of deep seeded insecurities and a gnawing fear of abandonment.
Every day, millions of well-meaning people mistakenly enable their spouses, sons, daughters, and friends. They don’t know how to stop, nor do they know any other way of dealing with the predicament they find themselves in. They may have started out as strong and confident individuals, but circumstances turned them into someone they could hardly recognize. Love is a complex emotion that can cause us to do things that we would never do under usual circumstances. And many times, the enabler enables because he or she gets something positive out of the situation. They may feel like the fixer, or the stable one, or the victim. It can be a way to feed one’s own ego, and it’s often done on a totally subconscious level. If you find yourself enabling a loved one, remember these three important truths.
1. Love sometimes requires consequences and boundaries. When we think of love, we think of doing anything for someone because we care about them. This isn’t exactly the best way to think of love. If you never put up boundaries in regards to unacceptable behavior, then you aren’t doing yourself or the other person any favors. Sometimes love means that you need to stop talking to someone until they respect you. Someone love means that you need to kick someone out of the house. Sometimes love requires you to turn in your son to the police. Giving someone everything that they want without conditions isn’t showing true love. It isn’t helping you or the other person. Telling someone that their behavior is unacceptable and showing that there are consequences to boundaries being crossed can motivate true change in another individual. It may be just the thing that they need to move towards a healthier path in life.
2. One cannot love unless they love and respect themselves. In order to avoid being an enabler or a caretaker, one must be certain that they respect and love oneself first. In a relationship, there should be a give and take, with mutual trust and admiration. It should not be one person saving another like a damsel in distress. Unfortunately, those who have insecurities or struggle with self-hate often find themselves in relationships where enabling is the norm. They may be fulfilling a part of themselves that is empty by taking care of someone else to the point of coddling. It makes someone feel good about themselves to be able to take care of another person. However, when it becomes a one-sided deal where one person is always the caretaker, then one must start looking inward as to why he or she picks these types of relationships. Counseling can provide an excellent way to work on developing a healthy self-esteem so one does not continue to enable.
3. Blood ties don’t negate personal responsibility. It is so hard to stop enabling your children, and every one of us does it to a certain degree. We want the best for our children, and we would do anything for them. A mother may be very firm and assertive in her personal relationship with a spouse, but be an enabler when it comes to her or child. We often look at our children as people who haven’t grown up yet, even though they may be in their thirties. Just because someone is your child doesn’t mean that you have to enable them or always be a doormat. If your adult child doesn’t respect you or crosses boundaries that cause you pain, it’s okay to lay down the line and say “no.” This doesn’t make you a bad parent or a bad person. In fact, it makes you a good parent because you are teaching your child how you deserve to be treated, and how they should be treating other people.
So many people struggle with enabling loved ones. Fortunately, there are many ways to get help if you suffer from this behavior. Setting firm boundaries, working on self-love and acceptance, while maintaining a mature and healthy relationship with those in your life are just some of the many ways you can stop this negative behavior. After all, you deserve to have relationships in your life that are based on mutual trust and respect.