Enablers: Don’t Let Them In Your Life
Jerry had a hectic week, so hectic that he didn’t have time to study for Friday’s social studies test. Basketball practice on Monday and Tuesday, a game on Wednesday, and his girlfriend’s birthday on Thursday. But he didn’t waste time worrying. He was sure his mom would be willing to help him out.
“Ma,” he said, “please call me in sick. If I don’t get some extra time to study I’m going to flunk.”
So Mom called him in sick on Friday, and he got a C when he took the test on Monday. Jerry gave her a big hug and called her his chief helper. Another description would also fit: his chief enabler. If that sounds like a compliment, it’s not.
Jerry’s mom enabled him to postpone taking the test and get a passing grade on it. But she also enabled him to avoid his responsibilities. She enabled him to think he could lie and get away with it. And she enabled him to depend on other people to rescue him from a difficult situation.
Enabling is a term that’s been used for a long time as it relates to alcoholism. The term refers to family and friends who smooth the way for alcoholics so that they never have to face the consequences of their behavior. The term enabler has been broadened to include anyone who enables a person to continue with destructive behavior.
In the family of an alcoholic, a spouse, a parent, or even a child can enable the alcoholic to continue drinking. That’s one reason alcoholism is often called a family disease. Enablers hardly ever realize that they are doing harm. They are just trying to help.
Let’s say the father is an alcoholic and the mother is an enabler. She may see her husband as the culprit and herself as a martyr, acting selflessly to save the family.
When her husband has had too much to drink the night before and can’t get up for work, she calls into the office to say he is sick. When he’s sprawled out on the sofa in a drunken haze, she tells the children that he’s tired from a hard day at work. When he’s too drunk to attend a family birthday party, she tells the relative he’s unfortunately loaded down with work.
She enables him to deny his drinking problem and postpone the day when he must face up to the consequences of his behavior.
The Great Pretenders
The children is an alcoholic family may act as enablers by pretending the drinking isn’t happening.
“My dad is an alcoholic,” says 13-year-old Jenny. “One night he got so drunk he punched my brother and would have socked my mother, too, but he tripped and fell on the floor and passed out. No one in the family paid attention. They acted as though it weren’t happening.”
Enabling doesn’t happen only in families of alcoholics. It happens when one family member does things for other members that those members could do for themselves. It happened in Hannah’s family, and her parents don’t drink at all.
Hannah was an eighth grader who cared a lot about the way she looked. Her clothes were always perfectly coordinated–just the right color socks and shoes to go with her outfit, and earrings to match.
But much as she loved clothes, she never wanted to go shopping with her friends. What they didn’t know was that Hannah never made her own decisions about her clothes. Hannah’s mother bought all her daughter’s clothes and laid out a proper outfit each night. Hannah had no confidence in her ability to make some choices about her own clothes–and make many of her own decisions–like her friends often did.
What’s in all this for the enabler? For one thing, it ensures that the other person will stay emotionally dependent on the enabler. But a strange thing can happen. The enabler can become dependent, too. It can work like this: Janey enabled her boyfriend Frank to take unfair advantage of his asthma. Whenever he was upset, he’d start wheezing, so Janey felt she could never disagree with him. If he wanted to go to the movies, that’s where they went, even if Janey had seen the film already. If Frank wanted pizza, then pizza it was, no matter how Janey’s mouth watered for a burger.
Janey also tried to keep others from upsetting Frank. When they were with friends, she worried that someone would say something that could send Frank into an asthma attack. She felt she had to control the conversation and the entertainment so he’d stay happy and healthy. She felt personally responsible for his well-being, and took pride in every day that passed without a wheeze.
Her self-esteem was dependent on how Frank felt. If he felt good, so did she. If he was unhappy, so was she. He depended on her to enable him to control others with his asthma.
But Janey was equally dependent on Frank. She had become what psychologists call a co-dependent, a person who focuses on another person rather than on himself or herself. Janey’s enabling let her sidestep unpleasant feelings about Frank’s behavior. Such feelings can be a normal part of facing problems, making mistakes, and growing up.
Some of the nicest people are enablers. In fact, the problem is that they are too nice: They do too much, too soon, too often. When it comes to helping other people, sometimes less is more.