How to Recognize (and Correct) Enabling Behavior

Here's how to take note of enabling and correct it with empathy and boundaries.

Posted Jul 14, 2020

When I was younger, a story about my favorite cousin, a beautiful young woman who had married a man with an alcohol and gambling problem, worked its way through the family grapevine. He took her hard-earned money and gambled it away. He often stumbled home in a drunken stupor. My cousin sacrificed her own future for him--she paid off his debts, nursed his health issues, and tried every which way to help him overcome his addictions.  

Her situation is not unusual. Many people try to help a loved one make major life changes, and fail. I’ve met people who've done things like trying to help a spouse quit smoking by dunking their cigarettes in water or trying to get their roommate out of an abusive relationship by secretly sabotaging their dates.

Their sympathy overflows, and they want so much to help their loved one. They say, “If I don’t try to help, what will become of them?”

But what my cousin--and those like her--was doing was not helping. She was just enabling.

And she’s not alone. A study on people with alcohol dependence and their partners found that the majority of partners engaged in enabling behaviors, such as lying and covering for them or threatening to leave but not following through.

My cousin’s husband never did quit drinking or gambling. At some point, she left him and is now doing well. But I can’t help but be curious about how things would have gone if they’d both known the difference between enabling and helping when they first met.  

What is enabling, and why is it unhelpful?

You can enable someone’s bad behavior in many ways, but it all boils down to the things you do to keep them in the status quo. Usually, enabling happens accidentally. You were trying to help, but after months or years of trying, one day you look up and realize that your college-aged son is still being irresponsible with money or your friend is black-out drinking...still.

Do any of these enabling behaviors, often disguised as helpful behaviors, strike a chord? 

1. Cleaning up after them

I don’t just mean literally cleaning up their messes (though I’m sure plenty of people do this as a means to “help"). 

Cleaning up includes any form of shielding the person from the natural negative consequences of their own behavior.

  • A parent calls their daughter’s college professor to argue about her failing exam grade
  • A partner lies to his in-laws about her wife’s drug problem to protect her from embarrassment
  • A sibling pays his brother’s rent whenever his funds fall short because he regularly puts all his money into online gambling

Some of these “helping” behaviors might be okay if they happened only once and came with other, more concrete forms of support. But if these “rescues” happen repeatedly, all you’re doing is preventing your loved one from learning the cause-and-effect pattern of their behaviors. They don’t get the opportunity to grow from their mistakes, and gain confidence in their own ability to handle tough situations.

2. Giving them non-specific help (like money) that doesn’t support a well-defined goal

Our loved ones often come to us in a moment of crisis. They’re about to lose their job. They need to pay someone back. They’ve been caught cheating and need a couch to crash on. 

In these moments, it can be hard not to feel compelled to do something. We sometimes reflexively feel like we have to give money or some other non-specific form of “bail.” But after a time or two, you simply become the ATM (or the dog house, or life raft). The root of their problem doesn’t change; they simply gain a false sense of security that there’s always more bail if they screw up again. There's no accountability.

3. Not sticking to your word about boundaries and limits

Accidental enablers can use boundaries to stop the cycle. It’s not letting those boundaries slip when the going gets tough for your loved one that’s the hard part. 

If you put your foot down on not loaning money to your brother until three agreed upon monthly payments on previous loans, don’t waffle after two months. 

Sticking to your boundaries isn’t only for your own sanity--the person you’re trying to help will ultimately feel more secure if they can count on you keeping your word, even if they initially fight back. You're also being a good role model for consistent behavior.

4. Flip-flopping between shaming them and making excuses for them

We’re all human, and when someone we care about keeps sabotaging themselves, it’s easy to get frustrated. This frustration can make us do things like guilt-tripping them.

A friend of mine told me that she and her sister used to smoke cigarettes in front of their father to guilt-trip him into quitting. The logic was that he would have to be a hypocrite to keep smoking if he didn’t let his daughters do it. Of course, this didn’t work. Shaming smokers tends to backfire.

When this didn’t work, they started making excuses for him, explaining that his smoking was a coping strategy after a tough day. Needless to say, this didn’t help him quit, either. Neither shaming nor excusing helps a person change their behavior, and going back and forth between the two is even worse.

Shutterstock/Africa Studio
Source: Shutterstock/Africa Studio

How to productively help someone make a life change

Before you start to help someone, it’s important to acknowledge that you can't control another person's behavior, and it's not your job to do so.

Gently drop the idea that you should be able to turn someone around. 

Now that you've relinquished control, turn your attention to the person you’re trying to help. Start, as always, with empathy:

1. Provide a non-judgmental space for them to share

You can’t help someone if they’re afraid or ashamed to be honest with you. Let go of judgments and radically accept this person. That doesn’t mean you condone their unhealthy behaviors; it simply means you acknowledge their intrinsic validity as a person.

Give them ample space to talk through their thoughts and feelings. Don’t interject with your own opinions and advice just yet. You can disagree with their behaviors later, but there's no reason to disagree with their feelings--people feel how they feel, and you can respect that by trying to emotionally put yourself in their shoes.

2. Hold them accountable without shaming or guilt-tripping

When the person is ready to change--to get off drugs, leave a toxic relationship, make a monthly budget--you can be ready to keep them accountable if they ask for help.

But, you shouldn’t decide for them how you will hold them accountable. This will only set you up as opponents, with you trying to keep goals while they try to get around you. Instead, collaborate on a plan. Let them lead, but offer concrete ideas like advice for starting a budgeting spreadsheet or a link to the local AA chapter. Encourage them to set goals and ask what they need from you to hold them accountable. 

The road to recovery and change is almost never a spotless one, so it’s important not to guilt trip or shame them if and when they slip. When there's a setback, start again at step one (provide a nonjudgmental space to talk) and offer to help again. 

3. Celebrate successes with them

If you help a loved one set realistic, incremental milestones right from the start, there will hopefully be many opportunities to celebrate. It’s your job to remind them how hard change is, and how proud they should be of every win.

Not only does this positively reinforce good behaviors but also strengthens the trust between you. It gives them permission to feel good about themselves, which is probably not easy for them if they’ve been struggling with unhealthy behaviors for a while.

4. Provide reasonable logistical support and attention

I started out by listing unhelpful enabling behaviors, such as repeatedly lending money without accountability, with the caveat that sometimes a concrete piece of support could be appropriate. In fact, sometimes it could even be crucial.

Just imagine that someone has a huge amount of credit card debt due to poor decisions made years ago. They work minimum wage to pay the interest, but can’t get a better job without further training, and they get further in debt without better job prospects. A loan to pay off a portion of this debt could free them up to take supervisor training, so they can get a raise, and eventually climb out of their financial hole.

If you're able and willing to provide this loan, you certainly can! Your support may make all the difference between them spiraling further and starting to climb out. The difference between this helpful behavior and enabling behaviors comes down to:

  • Is the person willing to put in the work to change their unhealthy behaviors? 
  • Is there a well-defined purpose for the loan or other form of help?
  • Is there a reasonable plan (or are they willing to make one) for what they will do after they use your support to get past this immediate crisis?

Asking these questions and encouraging thoughtfulness around them is not being stingy with your support. It is a very concrete way for you to help without judgment. Your compassion plus your boundaries will make the perfect balance for delivering your help, and you just might be planting that first seed towards their recovery.

An original version of this piece titled How to Stop Enabling and Start Helping was published on Quick and Dirty Tips.