What is an Enabler?

An enabler, also known as a codependent, is a person who by their actions, make it easier for an addict to continue their self-destructive behavior by criticizing or rescuing. The term codependency refers to a relationship where one or both parties enable the other to act in certain maladaptive ways.

Many times, the act of the enabler satisfies a need for the codependent person because his or her actions foster a need from the other person or persons in the relationship. In many ways the enabler who feels they have to rescue and take care of an addict is just as dependent on the addict as addict is on the particular drug or alcohol.

To enable the individual with the addiction, the mutually dependent person makes excuses and lies for the addict, which enables the addiction to continue. Codependency is reinforced by a person's need to be needed. The enabler thinks unreasonably by believing he can maintain healthy relationships through manipulation and control. He believes he can do this by avoiding conflict and nurturing dependency. Is it normal for someone to think that he can maintain a healthy relationship when he does not address problems and he lies to protect others from their responsibilities? The way a codependent person can continue to foster this dependency from others is by controlling situations and the people around them. The ongoing manner of a codependent home is to avoid conflicts and problems and to make excuses for destructive or hurtful behavior. The codependent does not consciously attempt to increase the addicts dependence, but because they view the addict as out of control they increase the dependence by taking over.

Why does enabling cause so much hurt in a relationship? The power afforded to the mutually dependent person in a relationship support his need for control, even if he uses inappropriate means to fulfill his need to be in control. A second and overlooked reason centers on the contradictory messages and unclear expectations presented to the addict by someone who is codependent. These characteristics tend to cause these relationships to be chaotic and become filled with irrational thoughts and behavior. give to a relationship filled with irrational thoughts and behavior. This kind of relationship has no clear rules for right and wrong behavior. The person(s) unhealthy patterns you enable may be increasing one or more of these behaviors:

  • Drinking too much
  • Spending too much
  • Overdrawing their bank account/bouncing checks
  • Gambling too much
  • In trouble with loan sharks/check cashing agencies
  • Working too much/not enough
  • Maxing out the credit cards
  • Abusing drugs (prescription or street drugs)
  • Getting arrested (especially when you bail him/her out)
  • Any of a number of other unhealthy behaviors/patterns of addiction.

Any time you assist or allow another person to continue in their unproductive/unhealthy and addictive behavior, whether actively or passively, you are enabling. Even when you say nothing you are enabling the behavior to continue as long as you stay in the relationship. Sometimes you say nothing out of fear, fear of reprisal, fear of the other person hurting, hating, not liking you; or fear of butting in where you don’t think you belong. Perhaps you even fear being hit or worse.

Sometimes enabling takes the form of doing something for another that they can and should do for themselves. It also takes the form of making excuses for someone else’s behavior. Example: There are situations where the spouse of an alcoholic will call in to the boss to say that person is "sick," when they are really too hung over so they can’t make it to work.

It is quite likely that you enable due to your own low self-esteem. Enablers or codependents haven't gained the ability to say no, without fear of losing the love or caring of that other person. People who learn tough love have to learn that their former behaviors have been enabling and that to continue in them would represent allowing the other person's pattern of behavior to continue and to worsen.

It is difficult to stop enabling. And it's not easy until you know you deserve to stop. Until you know that you are endearing regardless of what the person you've previously enabled says to the contrary and until you raise your own self-esteem enough to be that strong you will still act in codependent ways. You may think it's the other person who needs all of the help, in truth, you both do.

Darlene Albury, LMSW

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