Enlightened Living

Meaning and mindfulness in everyday life

People Do What They're Gonna Do

Agency and enabling in codependent relationships

In every relationship there’s some give and take. When that give and take is out of balance, the relationship is typically more codependent than interdependent. Informing this is the all-too-familiar element of enabling, and the less talked about—but in some ways considerably more dysfunctional—element of agency.

Enabling comes in two flavors—healthy and unhealthy. Healthy enabling is a natural part of a balanced, cooperative relationship. Unhealthy enabling is a distortion of cooperation that leads to consciously or unconsciously supporting behavior in another person that can be variously unproductive, self-defeating or just baldly self-destructive.

In either case, enabling is an active process—we are doing something tangible to promote and support the context of a relationship, for good or ill. The difference between enabling and agency is that agency is intangible—it’s all in your head.

Enabling is a behavior or set of behaviors built into a social contract as a matter of course. Also built into that social contract are the aspects of social intelligence that include sensitivity and basic human kindness. When that social sensitivity gets distorted it can lead to this rather delusional way of thinking that we call agency, where we come to believe that the way we interact with another person impacts—and maybe in some measure even controls—that person’s behavior.

So, just as healthy enabling can tip into unhealthy enabling, social sensitivity can show up as agency. It might be a belief that by drinking wine at dinner you are going to prompt your sober, alcoholic mother to go home and pick up. It could be the notion that by being a constant presence in someone’s life, you will deflect some compulsive or self-destructive behavior, like bulimia or gambling. It might also be the idea that by avoiding certain topics of conversation, a person won’t be compelled to react in a particular or make certain choices.

The difference between social sensitivity and agency is that social sensitivity is a response to a set of real conditions—grief, addiction, depression, etc. Agency, and the false premise that it rests upon, has no real basis in reality. It is the offspring of the misguided notion that we can manage the emotions of another person and, by association, the behavior those emotions may potentially precipitate.

The consequence of this misguided notion is that, in trying to effect change in another person by attempting to manage their thoughts, feelings and actions, we end up distorting ourselves. We are no longer engaged in an authentic interaction informed by an understanding and appreciation of the circumstances surrounding a relationship. We are instead acting out a scenario that will never bear fruit because, no matter how diligently we attempt to impose our will on another person, we cannot directly affect their thinking or their behavior.

© 2012 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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Michael J. Formica, M.S., M.A., Ed.M., is a psychotherapist, teacher and writer. He is an Initiate in the Shankya Yoga lineage of H.H. Sri Swami Rama and the Himalayan Masters.

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