What is that fine line between love and enabling? Love is however you define it. More than likely some part of that definition includes unconditional acceptance. The notion that you are loved exactly the way you are.
Enabling grows out of and is driven by love. Enabling is loving someone to the extent that you excuse and then assume their responsibilities. The more you take over their responsibilities, the more they depend on you. The cycle continues, around and around it goes.
With addiction, the addict might be in excruciating pain and the only thing that will help is another fix. Out of love, they are given a few dollars for that one fix. The mind rationalizes the behavior in a number of ways, including that if they are given the money they’ll see that they are loved, or that it’s better to get the money from a loved one than to do something harmful or even criminal.
With children, enabling might be in the form of eating. Your little one takes two bites of dinner, says they are full, and then comes back an hour later complaining of starvation. As a parent you don’t want your child to go hungry; at the same time, you don’t want to set the example that it’s okay to avoid dinner and finagle your way into a delicious dessert (preferably something with peanut butter).
With teenagers, it could be allowing your teen to stay up late and then they don’t want to go to school because they feel tired. You think to yourself they do look really tired so maybe this one time. Even something this minor could be the start of a major case of enabling.
Seemingly healthy relationships aren’t immune to enabling. One person works a stressful job and then doesn’t take care of their responsibilities at home. The other compensates and takes over all of their responsibilities. You can see how this might become problematic over time.
Enabling happens with emotions as well. If you withhold your feelings because your partner doesn’t handle emotional conversations well, then you may be enabling their inability to connect and empathize with you and your needs. Resentment, confusion, and loneliness can grow and suddenly a relationship is in trouble.
You might be thinking sometimes you have to pick up the slack. People have bad days, weeks, even months. That’s absolutely correct. Sometimes it’s not enabling. It’s being there for the other person when they need extra support. A sign of enabling is if you find yourself taking over the other person’s responsibilities, things that have been discussed many times in the past. There are certain behaviors that a child/teen/adult should be able to do.
The other component, and a discussion for another time, is what is happening that you allow yourself to be the enabler. Is it that you are an amazingly compassionate person, or maybe it’s difficult to advocate for yourself and express troubling feelings to someone you love? Enabling is a two-person process. Both have a responsibility.
Identifying enabling behavior can be difficult, because the motivation is grounded in love. However, if you regularly ask yourself why someone continues to behave a certain way (especially if the behavior is harmful), it is worthwhile to look at each person’s responsibility in the behavior. Sometimes love is confronting the other on their issues or shortcomings, as long as the approach is fueled with compassion and sensitivity.
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