Are You an Enabler?
By: Beth McHugh 2006
Do you have a friend who is hopeless at budgeting and you’re constantly lending her ten dollars here and twenty dollars there? Do you have a spouse with an alcohol problem and you phone his or her boss to call in sick instead of making them do it themselves? Do you constantly take on extra duties each time your older teen has an assignment due instead of allowing them to feel out of control themselves? If the answer is a resounding “Yes” then you could be an enabler.
So what is an enabler? An enabler is a person who recognizes that a negative circumstance is occurring on a regular basis and yet inadvertently assists the person with the problem to persist with their detrimental behaviors.
Let’s have a look at Clare’s life. Clare has a daughter who is in her second year at college and lives at home. Clare’s daughter Sian has always had a habit of leaving things to the last minute. This started when Sian was a child but Clare just thought it was a form of childish behavior and that she would grow out if it. But she didn’t and the reason was that Clare wouldn’t allow her too. Of course, Clare didn’t see it that way, nor did she imagine that she was “hurting” her daughter in any way.
But Sian always left her assignments to the last minute right through school and would call on Clare to “help her out” by looking up material for projects on the internet on the night that the assignment was due. Now that Sian is at college, the pressure is really on. Often Sian cries because she has too much work to complete in too little time, and it is now Clare’s job not only to console her daughter and settle her down, but to proof-read and type out her assignments in a desperate bid to get them in for the 9am deadline. Often Clare and Sian will be up together till 1am doing Sian’s assignments. At first, Clare felt a sense of “togetherness” and “mother–daughter” bonding. Now she just feels used and frustrated.
Andrew’s best friend has a drug habit that over the last twelve months has started spiraling out of control. Never good with managing money even when they were kids, Andrew often lent Justin money for candy or magazines. Now he’s lending him money for life essentials, such as milk and bread. Andrew knows that his friend is spending the bulk of his money on drugs and there’s little left for food and bills. Recently Justin asked Andrew for $60 as it was Justin’s mother’s birthday. Andrew has known Justin’s mother most of his life and felt he had no option but to hand over the cash. After all, he couldn’t deny Justin’s mother a present, could he?
Jillian’s husband James has been an alcoholic for over a decade. Embarrassed, she covers for him when he is hungover, telling people he has a virus. She also phones in to her husband’s work and lies that he is sick when he is really passed out in bed.
These people are all unwitting victims. They are trying to help their loved ones. Instead they are actually allowing their loved one to keep acting out their detrimental behaviors. They are taking responsibility for the bad behavior themselves, instead of handing the responsibility right back where it belongs: in the hands of Sian, Justin, and James, and thousands of others just like them. By allowing Sian to fail a subject, by refusing to get Justin out of a financial bind, by insisting that James calls in sick himself, they will begin to change the dynamics of their relationships with these people.
Those who find themselves in situations where alcohol is an issue would find Al-Anon meetings useful. Other “User-Enabler”-type situations benefit by the enabler refusing to meet the needs of the user. Be prepared for abuse, arguments, and unpleasantries of all forms.
When an enabler decides to stop “helping”, relationships
invariably become difficult as the enabler becomes a target for rage,
pleading, and emotional blackmail. This is the time to stand firm. It’s
not easy, but if you love your friend or family member, it is the best
gift you can give them. Making them take responsibility for their actions
is the only way that your friend or family member can begin to change
their lives. If your friend ultimately decides to move on because you
refuse to comply with their endless requests, they were never your friend
in the first place. They were only using you. They may stay in your
life, or they may go. Either way, you win.