Enabling Versus Helping Your Spouse What’s the difference between one who helps versus one who enables? Here are some quick tips on how you can put an end to your spouse’s bad behavior by helping, not enabling. BY DR. NOELLE NELSON
There's a fine line between enabling and helping someone struggling with a bad habit or addiction.
“ Enabling is helping a person in a way that feeds the dysfunction. Helping is being there for someone in a way that does not support the dysfunction.”
Sometimes the goodness in our hearts is what gets us into trouble. Have you ever had to make an excuse for your spouse’s bad behavior? Cover up things like substance abuse, bad tempers or constant over-spending on frivolous things?
It’s not like we want our spouse’s bad behavior to spill over and ruin the whole relationship, so we begin to make excuses for their short comings. Sometimes we want so badly for our spouse’s bad behavior to not spoil our lives in the eyes of others that we cover up the results of their addictions, temper, spending sprees or gambling problems.
Unfortunately, when you make excuses or cover up for your spouse's inappropriate behavior, you are enabling or making it easy for your spouse to continue being any one of these things. Your spouse doesn't have to face the "consequences" of the inappropriate behavior and therefore doesn't have any reason to behave differently.
So what's the answer?
Where we get confused is thinking enabling is the same as helping.
There is a vast difference between enabling and helping. Enabling is helping a person in a way that feeds the dysfunction. Helping is being there for someone in a way that does not support the dysfunction. Enabling is making excuses for bad behavior, like calling your mate’s boss and saying, "Oh, he’s down with a cold. He’ll be in tomorrow" when your beloved is sleeping off a three day binge. Helping is accompanying your spouse to his first AA meeting.
Of course, figuring out what is helping and what is enabling often is much more complex than "making excuses versus accompanying them to an AA meeting" and requires careful evaluation. This is why many people give up and just stop helping in general.
Let's say your spouse can't go to the AA meeting because he is so hung over. Yes, driving them there does allow them to drink and still go to AA meetings. In that respect, you are enabling. However, you have faith that if your spouse attends meetings that eventually he will receive the support he needs to heal himself. Driving him to the meeting is helpful.
How to resolve this dilemma? Tell your spouse what you are doing. Give him consequences and hold to them, "I have faith in you and in the support you get at AA to heal yourself. However, I will not continue to help you get there when you're hung over. Being hung over is your responsibility and you get to deal with it. I will drive you there today. I will not drive you there again under the same circumstances." And stick to your guns. Your spouse will undoubtedly test your resolve. If you refuse, reaffirm your faith in him and suggest alternatives saying, "I have faith in you and your ability to heal yourself, and I'm so glad AA is a good place for you. However, I won't drive you there since the reason you want me to is that you're too hung over to drive there yourself. I will help you think of ways to get there on your own. I love you."
Here, you are truly helping, not enabling. You are giving them an opportunity and the loving support to take charge of their own healing. Helping is wonderful and valuable. Enabling is not. Be truly "there" for your spouse by helping and not enabling.