“Enabling”, a term much used regarding relationships today, usually refers to a negative trait. The term, probably coined in the Twelve Step addiction recovery movement, is now commonly used throughout the therapeutic community and beyond. Given the sense in which that community uses the word, you do not want to be an enabler. Still, most of us are.
The recovery movement’s “enabler” is an unwitting partner in the destructive behaviors of a full-fledged addict or a person moving in that dangerous direction. Instead of holding another responsible for his/her behavior, the enabler makes excuses for the behavior and/or attempts to minimize the negative consequences on the one misbehaving. Thus, they enable those behaviors to continue and even worsen.
Enablers typically do what they do, imagining they are helping. For instance, enabling parents of a teenager arrested for shoplifting, drug possession, or driving under the influence, will rush to the jail and post bail, engage a lawyer to get Junior off, and even pay all the bills. They are sure a good lecture will suffice. For good measure, some enablers lace their lecture with some potent threats and shaming statements.
The Bible says, “A hot-tempered man must pay the penalty, if you rescue him, you will have to do it again” (Proverbs 19:19 New International Version). This principle applies not merely to the “hot-tempered man”, but to manifestations of many character defects. When we rescue people from the consequences of their character defects, we interfere with a necessary process of character change.
Regrettably, some of us don’t learn lessons except via the hard way. Rescuers effectively block our only avenue of learning. Instead of learning to face our need for character transformation, we learn to expect our rescuers to rescue on cue. Accomplished enablers can be motivated to play their part in this symbiotic relationship for a long time.
The motivation for enabling is seldom singular. Rarely does enable come from pure concern for the enabled; usually, a fair amount comes from self-interests. Getting my child out of juvenile hall can certainly reflect concern for the kid, but it can also be about my unwillingness to endure sleepless nights at home while he/she is there. A wife may call her husband’s employer and lie about him being sick when she knows he came home drunk at night. If he loses his job, she and her children will suffer, too. So, she rescues him. And she will probably have to do it again.
Enablers are often blind to their partnership in the dysfunction they abhor. Mercy-gifted people, when imbalanced themselves, often enable others. They tend to extend mercy to others, not because mercy is always warranted, but because it’s always the easier thing to give. Some have an abnormally low threshold of pain, so low that they cannot stand to see someone else suffer, even when suffering is necessary to learning. And, unfortunately, they often see this behavior as virtuous rather than emanating from their own character weaknesses.
You don’t have to be in an alcoholic or otherwise severely dysfunctional home to fall into the enabling trap. It’s a common parenting challenge. It’s easier to lecture or threaten action than to hold my child responsible and take action. At times, in order to discipline a child, we have to be willing to suffer loss or inconvenience, too. Unfortunately, when we are caught in the enabling trap, we encourage irresponsible behavior and maintain immaturity.
Again, it’s amazing how blind we are to our own participation in relational dynamics we bemoan. Ask God to open your eyes to see your enabling ways. Then, look intently. Let Him lead you into relationships that are beneficial. Being in relationships with others in these situations is of great value. Even in social settings where people share our general blindness (such as a co-dependent support group), we can be helped. This is because we often see easily in others that which we cannot see in ourselves.
Jesus affirmed this truth. He once asked people this rhetorical question: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3-5 New International Version). In wholesome therapeutic environments (like a support group or a competent counselor’s office), we have the opportunity to identify the specks and planks in our eyes. These therapeutic environments should be sought out when we are tempted to enable someone else’s bad behavior. Adding our own poor behavior to that of another’s – even with great intentions – never makes things better in the long run.