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·451 words·3 mins

Something I see a lot in my professional travels are people who want to be supportive to a partner who’s struggling but don’t want to be “an enabler.” This is a tricky distinction for a lot of people, and our cultural false dichotomy that you are either enabling them with support OR vilifiying them and throwing them to the wolves doesn’t help matters (the intervention as paradigm has socially modeled this, especially in regard to substance abuse treatment).

I’ve struggled with this a lot personally, having been on both sides of the equation as struggler and helper and having navigated both roles poorly and well depending on the circumstances, trying to suss out the happy middle.

The definitional haze surrounding exactly what constitutes enabling is a major culprit.

Enabling is behavior that prevents another person (typically a loved one) from recognizing or experiencing the adverse consequences of a personal problem. This in turn contributes to the affected person’s lack of awareness of the need for treatment or refusal to accept such treatment, counseling, or care.

What Enabling is NOT:

  1. being kind and validating to a person who is struggling through rough things
  2. aiding the person in seeking resources that will offer them appropriate help
  3. being a person in their life to whom they can be accountable

How this actually plays out is a great deal more nuanced than this post will tackle, and of course, if the person you’re trying to support pushes against your boundaries and tries to coax you into the enabling behaviors through a pattern of creeping concessions, gaslighting, or other forms of emotional manipulation, and you feel unsafe, then you have every right to withdraw support.

Furthermore, no one (and I mean, NO ONE) is entitled to your support, with perhaps the exception of your minor child — and believe me, people mess up on that obligation, too, and live to tell the tale (although usually carrying a lot of guilt/shame and stigma).

But if you want to give support, and you’re comfortable with it and it’s not something that’s allowing the behavior to continue (e.g., if you want to give financial support, directly pay for the resource instead of giving them money to pay for it themselves, pay their therapist, doctor, or treatment facility directly instead of handing them cash, etc), then don’t think that makes you weak or an enabler. And reinforce the hell out of any steps in a positive direction. Positive reinforcement works a hell of a lot better than punishment (withdrawing support is a form of negative punishment) in correcting behaviors, and a healthy support system is a key differentiator between those who come back from the bottom and those who don’t.


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