Understanding the Enabler

photo_18851_20100918 The term “enabler” is used to describe an individual who consistently acts in a way that protects another individual from the consequences of engaging in maladaptive behaviors OR actually encourages and supports that individual in their maladaptive behaviors. While the term is used heavily in understanding and treating families affected by addiction, it is a relevant concept in thinking about family systems that have a member struggling with an eating disorder, borderline personality disorder or other mental health issue.  For our purposes we’ll stick with addictions, understanding that much of what we talk about can be applied to other issues.

Some examples of enabling behaviors include:

-Parents who continue to provide their teen with a cash allowance despite knowing that their teen uses substances.

-A husband who calls his wife’s employer to inform them that she will not be at work that day because of a stomach bug when in reality, the wife is unable to attend work as a result of a drinking binge the night before.

-A wife frustrated with her husbands lack of motivation and lack of “production” in the household, takes over his responsibilities to avoid an argument and to just “get it done”

There is a strong tendency for folks who enable to equate their emotional well being with that of the individual struggling with an addiction.  Because of the hyper-vigilance typically created in families as a result of the addiction; one or more members may feel a need to anticipate or predict emotions and behaviors. This kind of relationship leads to rigidly entrenched patterns involving triggers, use and rescuing behaviors.  As a result of the rescuing behaviors, the individual struggling with addiction relies on the relationship as a means of maintaining the addiction.

Enablers possess certain traits that leave them vulnerable to taking on the role.  They tend to derive their sense of self worth from the opinions of the people they are in relationships with. As a result, they look to “over perform” in these relationships to receive validation and to satiate an exaggerated fear of abandonment. Within the relationship itself, enablers tend to modulate positional intensity poorly going from one extreme (passivity) to another (aggression).

Despite the substantial challenges, enablers can also possess and demonstrate many strengths.

They tend to present with a great deal of resiliency and while their actions have contributed to the problem they’ve also worked to protect the family. These behaviors can be viewed as survival skills that, from the enabler’s perspective, have strong short term benefits.  This up front benefit may be based in reality but the actions also carry higher long term costs.  This is not to say that what they do is always good or great, enablers have been complicit in some pretty bad horror stories.

They also tend to be highly resourceful and flexible in situations that demand quick action.  Enablers are often put into seemingly urgent situations where quick decisions feel necessary.  Granted, they are put in this position because they have accepted this role in the past but given their circumstances, they may feel their decisions were the lesser of many evils. When people feel obligated to make quick decisions on substantive issues or problems on a frequent basis, the likelihood of collateral damage to the rest of the system is high. photo_19387_20110127

The enabler is not the only person who enables – they just tend to do it more often and don’t quit.  Folks who struggle with addictions tend to have a revolving door of folks who, in some way, have enabled their behaviors. In some families, the larger family system may encourage the enabler to continue with their way of handling problems because not doing so may be viewed as disloyal. These are also the same people, by the way, who throw their hands up in the air and blame the enabler for everything that goes wrong.

Folks who struggle with addiction are probably not where they are because of the enabler.  The absence of a proximate enabler only makes the behaviors more difficult to perform which changes the cost benefit ratio of the behavior. While this may increase motivation for change, it is not a guarantee.  I’ve had more than a few clients tell me that they would adapt to any consequence their family may impose in order to maintain access to their drug of choice and actually followed through with it.

One of the biggest challenges in treatment is to help enablers redefine their role within the family as they may continue to use survival strategies that can unintentionally trigger urge inducing thoughts or emotions for the person in recovery. Enablers usually grow up in households where addiction was an organizing principle and so they are desensitized to many behaviors that would cause others to set hard boundaries up front or leave the situation altogether.  Because of this programming, they usually have to learn what healthy relationships look like before making any significant changes on the ground.

photo_27338_20130821 Enablers probably have tried to stop the other person from using but have been unsuccessful in their attempts. A priority in family work is to help the enabler stop many of the use controlling behaviors they exhibited during a persons active use because they are risk factors for sustained recovery.

One thing to keep in mind when working with family systems in early recovery is that the shame and guilt associated with addiction doesn’t stop with the individual who has the addiction. Enablers have morals and try to keep with their virtues like the rest of us. Many times what they feel they need to do to protect the system presents as a contradiction to their moral framework.  This tends to be the basis for the guilt and shame many enablers tend to carry when they enter treatment.

It’s also important to recognize their strengths and to view their actions within the context of their reality.  Dismissing the behaviors as simply pathological while demanding radical change oversimplifies the problem, hurts the therapeutic relationship and creates barriers to progress. People live according to equations that pertain to their histories and current realities – not a textbook.  Clients who struggle with addiction step in and out of different phases of recovery. Families have to assess whether they can trust the treatment process and the changes they may be seeing enough to let go of the strategies they believed have helped them survive not just their current relationships but the households they grew up in.

Clinicians can help family members develop a different understanding of love and loyalty; that how they are demonstrating love and loyalty in the current context is only making the problem worse.  This acknowledges, when appropriate, that the actions the family took came from a noble source they just weren’t grounded in the right skill set or logic.

Lastly, enablers need to get comfortable with self interest and identity formation.  I usually begin by describing how self interest is something that helps systems maintain accountability to and relevance for other family members. For the enabler, acting out of self-interest is a selfless act.

One thought on “Understanding the Enabler

  1. Thanks. There are many helpful ideas here that I will further expanding per my current circumstances. I’m was doing a search on “enabler” when I came to this site; I’m working to come to grips with the effects of my mother, who clearly enabled my father to maintain a severe drinking habit. But I now realize that she also enabled ME to live in certain ways at different times in my life by rescuing me (thanks for that new way of seeing it). Now I’m trying to get my feet on more solid ground and develop the habits of mind that I would have had to develop to see my way through those situations had I not been rescued!

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