An enabler is someone who promotes a specific type of behavior in another person. The term is most often associated with people who allow loved ones to behave in ways that are destructive, but can also be used in a positive sense, as in the case of empowerment. People act as negative enablers for many reasons, ranging from childhood dysfunction to fear, so there are many types of enabling. All of them generally have negative effects both on the enabler and on the person he or she is enabling. It is possible to overcome this type of situation, though counseling or professional help may be needed.
Types of Enabling
Enabling can take many forms, but most of them come down to protecting someone from the consequences of his or her poor choices. For instance, parents might bail a child out of jail repeatedly because they don't want the child to be locked up, or they might write notes asking a school to excuse a child's truancy or tardiness due to hangovers because they don't want his or her academic record to suffer. In the case of spouses, this might take the form of a husband calling in sick for his wife who is too ill from drug use to go to work, or lying to friends about why he and his alcoholic wife don't attend parties, when the real reason is that he's too afraid that his wife will get drunk and embarrass herself.
Another very common type of enabling is paying bills for people or repeatedly loaning them money, even if they don't ever pay it back. Some people also finish jobs for those they enable, as in the case of a mother finishing her son's book report because he refuses to do so and she doesn't want him to get a bad grade. Others get angry or try to embarrass or shame the person into changing. This obscures the real problem, since the person may feel like the enabler's oversensitivity or anger is actually forcing him to continue the bad behavior.
Reasons for Enabling
Many people who enable do so out of a genuine desire to help, but there is a difference between helping and enabling behavior. Helping someone entails doing something for that person that he can't do for himself, while enabling behavior involves doing something that he's completely capable of doing, but chooses not to. Others enable out of a desire not to be the "bad guy," to exert a sense of control over the person, or out of denial, since they find it too painful or frightening to admit that a problem exists. Enablers may also simply be afraid of what would happen to the person or to themselves if they changed their behavior. Other people enable because of learned behavior from childhood — those who had immature or addicted parents may not be aware or comfortable with other ways of relating to people.
Results of Enabling
Enabling generally has negative results for both the enabler and the enabled. The enabled person almost always continues the negative behavior, and may in fact worsen his behavior, since his needs are still being fulfilled. The fact that the enabler is fulfilling all his needs, however, makes the enabled person dependent on him or her, which often leads to resentment. For instance, a child whose parents do everything for her would likely feel rebellious and unhappy because their actions make it impossible for her to develop a sense of personhood and independence. On the other side, enablers typically feel ineffective and put upon, since it seems that the person doesn't appreciate the help or takes it for granted. They may experience physical symptoms like nausea and headaches, as well as stress, depression, hopelessness, and anger.
Stopping enabling generally involves the enabler setting healthy boundaries for himself and letting the enabled person face the consequences of his or her actions. This may involve physically leaving the person so that the former enabler can take care of his or her basic needs without caring for the enabled person as well. Other people choose to remain in a relationship, but undergo an intervention or family counseling to learn new ways of relating to each other. When choosing to remain in the relationship, it is important that the enabler not fight with the person or react emotionally to his behavior, since this allows that person to react to the behavior rather than the consequences of his actions. In some cases, the enabled person may react violently to any suggestion of a change in the dynamic of the relationship, so it is important that loved ones consult with a professional if there's any potential risk.
Not all forms of enabling are necessarily negative. A person can be a positive enabler in a child's life by behaving in certain ways. For example, a father who spends time with his children, listens to them, and lets them know how wonderful and important he thinks they are is likely to enable the children to be confident and happy children. This is often termed empowerment, and is considered an important part of childhood development.