Enabling, like co-dependence, gets a bad rap, although, like co-dependence, when it is not distorted or misapplied, enabling is actually an important part of any healthy and balanced relationship. Not distorted or misplaced, it is the unconditional support that is reflected in the idea of the "good enough" relationship; a relationship that simultaneously provides us with the safety and comfort of a fall back position, while allowing us the complete freedom to figure it out for ourselves.

A little boy goes tearing across a playground and, inevitably tripping over his own feet, does a face plant in the dirt. He gets up, and keeps running. Another little boy does the same thing; inside of a breath and staying right where he is on the ground, he starts screaming bloody murder. Context is what differentiates these two scenarios.

Boy Number One has a "good enough" mother - she glances casually over at him, sees no blood or protruding bones and, continuing her conversation with her friends, lets him work it out. Boy Number Two has a "good" mother - she promptly gasps audibly, jumps up and runs over to him, all atwitter, contributing mightily to -- and possibly even provoking -- a tempest in a teacup.

Just as there is a "good" mother (hyper-intrusive), a "bad" mother (neglectful) and a "good enough" mother (balanced attention), there is a "good" relationship (enabling), a "bad" relationship (dismissive) and a "good enough" relationship" (allowing). Each of these containers of relationship suggests a different context of relationship, and each of those contexts has its own set of rules, both spoken and unspoken.

As we create these relational contexts, we give each other instructions. Those instructions become our templates of behavior within these various relationships. As a parent (parents are not just biological - "parent" here refers to any figure of social authority, as well, like a coach, a teacher, etc.), we can shape the ideas, assumptions and expectations of another human being for an entire lifetime with a single word, while, in the case of adult relationships, we can shape the trajectory of that relationship simply by what we bring to it, how that is received and how we receive what is given to us.

The healthy enabling found in "good enough" relationships has two parts. One is holding space, and the other is unconditional support. Holding space is a sort of passive mindfulness where we recognize and acknowledge certain aspects of a situation, then create a container of acceptance and allowing around it. Unconditional support is exactly what it sounds like; lending support to another person that is neither intrusive, nor fosters destructive behavior. This, in fact, is the essence of partnership.

Let's say your partner is a poor money manager. Healthy enabling would consist of openly acknowledging that fact, and working together to develop transparent strategies for correcting the situation that do not disempower or control the person, allowing them to work it out on their own, while simultaneously lending passive support.

The unhealthy enabling found in "good" relationships, on the other hand, is not about allowing, but about rescuing. It is an active response to negative circumstances that fosters the conditions for those circumstances to recur.

If your 22-year-old son gets tagged with his second DUI, do you hire a lawyer to get him off the hook by using his (alleged) post-Iraq PTSD as a foil, or do you let him confront the natural and logical consequences of his actions and walk through the process of his accepting responsibility for those actions with him? Unhealthy enabling would suggest the first option, while healthy enabling would suggest the second.

In either case the outcomes are vastly different; healthy enabling is constructive, and unhealthy enabling, is, at the very least, stagnating, if not destructive. Both approaches to relationship come clothed in love and support, yet one might be considered evolutionary, while the other more de-evolutionary because for one that love and support is about power and control and, for the other, that love and support reflects a balanced social interaction between self and other.

© 2010 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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