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What Is an Enabler?

An enabler is someone who—despite knowing that a behavior is destructive or harmful—allows a loved one to continue to do it. It is frequently used in the context of addiction. For example, an alcoholic may have an enabler friend who still encourages him to go to a bar, ‘just for one round.’ Or a chronic gambler may have an enabler parent who lends him money in order to pay off a debt.

Most enablers feel that they are actually helping or supporting the addict. They think that they’re protecting him, or ‘understanding’ him, or just ‘helping the person have a little fun.

In this fashion, though the enabler may be acting out of love and trying to help or protect a person, he or she is actually making a chronic problem like an addiction worse. By continuing to lend money to the gambler, for example, the gambler doesn’t have to face the consequences of his actions. Someone is there to bail him out of trouble and continue to enable his behavior.

The term enabler is also part of the larger definition of codependency. Codependency at first arose as a definition of adaptive behaviors a person might make if he or she lives with someone with substance abuse or severe emotional problems. A codependent tends to remain so, because he or she adapts to or ignores the behaviors of the ill person. In fact, the codependent often becomes an enabler because it allows one to be involved in fewer conflicts.

For example, one spouse is an alcoholic, while the other is not. Perhaps the spouse who doesn’t have a problem with drinking has stated that she/he will no longer allow alcohol to be consumed in the house. Then the fights ensue. The alcoholic spouse violates the rules again and again.

Eventually, the non-drinking spouse may simply decide that the fights are worse than the person being drunk. He or she caves in on this issue, perhaps even purchasing alcohol for the spouse. In this way, the spouse is the enabler of the alcoholic, and is codependent, acting in unusual ways that continue to allow the spouse to behave in a destructive manner.

Enabler can be a more broad-based term for other forms of abusive and destructive behavior. The wife who refuses to fill out police reports after being abused by her husband enables his continuing to beat her. Thus the enabler often suffers almost as much as the mentally unbalanced or addicted person.

Not all forms of enabling are necessarily negative. A person can be a positive enabler in a child’s life by behaving in certain ways. For example, a father who spends time with his children, listens to them, and lets them know how wonderful and important he thinks they are is likely to enable the children to be confident and happy children. This is an enabler in the best sense of the word.

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