July 02, 2009


Enabling:  to provide somebody with the resources, authority, or opportunity to do something.
-Encarta Dictionary

Enabling is a term used to describe behaviors that allow other behaviors to continue.  It’s often used in the addiction world to describe the endless ways a non-addict partner enables or assists the addict’s addiction.  Enabling behaviors can include: putting the addict to bed after s/he passes out on the floor, calling in sick for the addict because s/he is too hung-over to go to work or paying the court costs for an alcoholic’s DUI. 

In essence, enabling softens the blow of the natural consequences of behaviors.  Subsequently, the person behaving badly doesn’t feel the sting of his/her mistakes.  Without the sting, the behavior continues undaunted and often escalates.

Enabling occurs everywhere, not just in the world of addictions.  Parents, teachers, politicians, churches, bosses and friends have all been known to enable unhealthy behaviors.  Some examples include:

•    Catholic churches around the country enabled the sexual molestation of countless children each time they quietly moved one molester onto the next parish.  The molester did not have to feel the consequences of his behaviors.  The move wiped the slate clean parish after parish after parish.  This practice didn’t stop until the world stopped enabling the Catholic Church and instead held the institution accountable. 
•    Johnny’s parents were called into the school after he beat up a fellow student.  The parents said they would sue the school if Johnny was suspended.  They further stated they would pull their financial support out of the school if any action was taken.  The principal caved.  Apparently the parents donated a little too much money for the principal to risk it.  The school continued to enable Johnny’s bullying. His bullying escalated. 
•    Sally likes things her way.  She runs her business, as well as her home, like a tyrant.  She’s in charge and if anyone questions her, she becomes angry, reactive and threatening.  People have learned to stop questioning.  After 15 years of enabling his wife’s tantrums, Steve is miserable…as are their children.

Enabling occurs all the time for all sorts of reasons.  We may enable out of fear, a desire to be liked, or even because we think it’s the right thing to do.  Unfortunately, even with the best of intentions, enabling is seldom the right or best thing to do.  In the long run, it leads to a lot of hurt and extensive collateral damage.

Mistakes are often life’s best teachers.  They are only effective, however, if we feel their consequences.  The greater the negative consequence, the greater the lesson learned.  In our attempt to not have our children, spouse, church, etc., feel the natural sting that results from poor choices, we rob them of much needed lessons.  Consequently, we fuel the fire of toxic behaviors and the world pays the price.

Stop enabling poor behaviors—your partner’s, child’s, boss’s, etc.  Don’t fold under the pressures of fear, threats, wanting to be liked or (fill in the blank).  Do the right thing and allow people to feel the natural sting of their toxic behaviors.  Don’t throw them a lifeline by rescuing them from the consequences of their actions.  You can support them while they are held accountable.  Don’t, however, protect them from accountability -- that’s being irresponsible on your part.

CHALLENGE:  Scan your life for any enabling behaviors.  Are you enabling your partner’s rage, drinking, disrespect, ongoing unemployment or the like?  If so, stop it.  Allowing it to continue does not help you or the other person.  Stop enabling your children, partner, boss, friend or anyone else in your life.  Step up and allow the person to feel the consequences of his/her behaviors.  When you protect them from the consequences, you block an amazing opportunity for them to learn a much needed life lesson.  You also often increase the misery in your own life.


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This is really awesome and a much needed piece of writing for my think right now. Thanks Lisa. I shall return.

Great post! This is right on the money. Enabling someone to justify a toxic behavior with the expense of others is definately irresponsible even if the intention is good. People who abuse their rights to demean someone should be allowed to face consequence with all cost for their action. Otherwise, the toxic behavior will continue without remorse and in turn everyone pays the price.

I relate to this blog very much. Recently I discovered, for the sake of keeping a relationship, I was enabling another's "victimhood". I was also, as a consequence repressing some unmet needs that were not being met. Speaking up WAS scary, risky and new territory. But without speaking up, I new that resentment would build. Further, that enabling of the behaviour really wasn't serving my partner. Whether the sting is enough for change is really up to the other to see, feel and discover. But our part is to love ourselves enough to stop it for our own sake, that of the partner, and that of the relationship.

Nice bomb you dropped in the last sentence.

Lisa, nice concise discussion of enabling. I'll refer some clients to this post for sure.

I agree 100% with this article- Do not allow anyone to put Blame BACK on you for their behavior, because you spoke up, said enough is enough. Do NOT ACCEPT their behavior by allowing them to continue to make YOU their footstool. NOT only will it destroy them, IT WILL destroy YOU. More parents, adults, even teens should speak up and say NO more. They also have to know that you will not- cannot-- allow them to drag you into their world and live peacefully ever after. It is either deal with it now or later, but if you deal with it later, it is MUCH MUCH bigger. I wish MORE people were not so afraid to face the problems and allow bad behaviors or destructive behaviors to control the power they have to stop it. All because of their fear; it might offend the one that is doing the very thing that will destroy BOTH of them or someone else.

Lisa, as always, I love your blog posts!!! :)

Thanks Chris!

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