SOURCE: Mark Merrill
Does your spouse want or need to change something in their life? If so, it’s critical to know the difference between helping and enabling them through that change.
The change they want or need could be something serious like an addiction to prescription drugs, alcohol, food, or pornography. Or it could be something simpler like eating healthier, exercising more, or changing an annoying habit. They may talk about it, they may whine about it, they may pretend it doesn’t exist, but being their spouse, you see it better than most anyone.
In general, helping your spouse is doing something right and healthy for them that they cannot do for themselves. Enabling is doing for them what they can and need to do for themselves, allowing them to live an irresponsible life.
A recent reality show my friend was watching about a severely obese person illustrates both helping and enabling. A woman needed to lose hundreds of pounds or she would die. Her relatives had been going to the store for her every day (since she couldn’t go herself), but they bought only the unhealthy food that was killing her. That was not helping; that was enabling her obesity. Later, the relatives saw the reality of what they were doing, moved in with her, and helped her change her eating and cooking habits by cooking only healthy foods for her for several months. That was helping. She learned to choose healthier options, and successfully lived alone again, with a radically different lifestyle and weight loss that gave her hope.
Here’s what enabling looks like:
- You do for your spouse the things they can and should do for themselves.
- You cover up for your spouse when their issues create problems for them and others.
- You make excuses for their behavior with others.
- You lie to them, to yourself, and to others about the extent and eventual consequences of their issue.
- You protect your spouse from the normal consequences of their problem.
- You ignore your spouse or their issue altogether. Ignoring is enabling.
- You blame others or indulge your spouse blaming others, for their issue.
- You make empty threats related to the consequences of their choices and don’t follow through.
- You avoid being around your spouse. Sometimes, this is necessary for a dangerous situation but usually, it only allows the spouse to wallow in the problem.
- You repeatedly get your spouse out of the trouble their issue creates, usually at a high cost to yourself.
Here’s what helping looks like:
- You do for your spouse the things that they cannot do for themselves.
- You are honest with them about the consequences of inaction.
- You don’t lie for them, and you don’t lie to them.
- You don’t create excuses to others to cover up for their problems or issues.
- You don’t clean up the messes their struggles or issues create.
- You love them unconditionally, just as they are, yet you also love them enough to hope they choose to change.
- You help them focus on the goal, without dwelling on any missteps or failures along the way.
- You cheer them on and celebrate even small steps towards their goals.
- You accept that you cannot change them, that they will not change unless they want to change. This may feel like giving up, but accepting this truth gives them freedom to own the change.
- You refuse to take responsibility for their bad choices.
These are just some of the ways you can check yourself to see if you are truly helping them or enabling their destructive choices. But these are not exhaustive checklists. Don’t delay to seek out professional counsel for yourself if you have a serious situation. Don’t give up hope, but don’t give in to the temptation to indulge them in keeping the peace. And remember, your spouse can only experience true change when they want true change.