Enabling and codependency often go hand in hand in relationships. But you can overcome both with professional support.
If you love someone who’s experiencing substance use disorder (SUD) or living with achallenging condition, you know that it can be difficult to watch them go through it. You want to help them, which is only natural.
But when does offering help become enabling their behavior? And how do you know whether you’re experiencing a codependent relationship with your loved one?
If you find yourself constantly making excuses for your partner’s behavior or giving all of your energy to a child, you may be enabling them. You may also be in a relationship characterized bycodependency.
Codependency and enabling are closely related and often pop up in unbalanced relationships. There are some differencesbetween the two unhealthy behavior patterns.
One thing they have in common? There’s hope for overcoming them.
Here are some important things to know about enabling and codependency, as well as advice for replacing them with actions that will help you and your relationship thrive.
Enabling is a behavior, while codependency is a way of behaving in a relationship. Enabling is often part of the behavior pattern in a codependent relationship.
What is enabling?
Enabling is when a person offers assistance to a loved one that, rather than helping, actually reinforces an issue or unhealthy behavior.
Enabling might look like:
- ignoring or defending a loved one’s toxic behavior
- helping someone avoid consequences for their actions
- giving someone experiencing SUD money that’s ultimately used to support their addiction
Enabling is often a common sign of codependency and can lead to:
- continued or amplified unhealthy behaviors
- a pattern of codependency
What is codependency?
Codependency is a pattern of behaving in relationships where one partner compulsively strives to meet the needs of the other, even if it means compromising their own health, independence, or values.
Codependency occurs frequently within a relationship where one person may need a higher level of support than the other. For example, a parent with bipolar disorder, a child, or a partner experiencing SUD might not take on half of the household responsibilities, leaving the other person to pick up the slack.
This dynamic may prompt someone to begin giving more energy and time to meeting the other’s needs. One partner is commonly driven by wanting to help — or control — their partner or the situation. The relationship can turn codependent when the partner develops a pattern of sacrificing their time, needs, and sense of self for the other person.
If their offers for help are turned down, it can cause distress and resentment. Sometimes, the person receiving extra support starts demanding even more from the codependent person.
Codependency and enabling share similarities, such as unhealthy boundaries. This can be especially evident when one partner in a relationship is dealing with SUD.
In a codependent relationship, one partner compulsively tries to meet their partner’s needs, often giving up things that keep themselves happy and healthy. Common signs of codependency include:
- putting the other person’s needs above your own
- dropping everything to help the other person
- only having joint friends and hobbies with them
- protecting your loved one from the consequences of their problematic behavior
- lacking healthy boundaries and open communication
- reasoning away or ignoring your loved one’s unhealthy or destructive actions
- getting angry when your offers of help are turned down
- feeling a sense of loyalty even when the relationship becomes unsafe
Enabling often starts out with good intentions because a partner wishes to help their loved one deal with the challenge of something like alcohol use disorder (AUD), gaming disorder, or a mental health condition. However, offering assistance can turn into enabling, which encourages the behavior.
Enabling can lead to codependency when the person enabling leans into the unbalance of the relationship in other ways, eventually becoming codependent.
People in codependent relationships often have a pattern of codependency and may seek out people to “fix” or enable.
If you’re concerned that you’re experiencing codependency in a relationship, know that there are ways to unlearn codependent behaviors.
Seeing codependent behaviors for what they are may be difficult to do without external guidance and feedback. A therapist can help you identify patterns and work on the root cause of codependent tendencies.
Your therapist might use a method called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Seeking help from a couple’s therapist can also support the transition from unhealthy to healthy behaviors in your current relationship.
12-step group program
A structured program with ample group support might help you recognize codependent behaviors and learn how to become more independent. There are also groups that may help if one or both people in the relationship live with SUD.
You can find more information and guidance at:
Prioritizing your needs and reasserting independence is important, in conjunction with therapy. Consider:
- speaking honestly with your loved one about codependency in your relationship
- setting healthy boundaries with your partner
- spending time alone exploring individual hobbies or reconnecting with friends
Enabling isn’t helpful for you or the partner, child, or friend you’re enabling. If you suspect your help has become enabling for your loved one, it’s important to stop — even in tough situations.
Consider these ways to quit enabling:
- seeking counseling or therapy to gain support and insight
- recruiting friends and family to talk with your loved one about their behavior
- avoiding giving unearned money to your loved one
- setting boundaries and accepting that you’ll need to say “no” sometimes
- communicating zero tolerance for emotional and physical abuse
- cutting off contact while they’re using substances
- not making excuses for their harmful behavior, like using substances, engaging in outbursts, or missing work
The path out of enabling prioritizes your health and needs. While there may be tough moments where you feel like you’re abandoning your loved one, not enabling is better for them — and you.
Even though enabling can be damaging, it’s understandable to want to continue helping your loved one. If you care about someone experiencing SUD, there are healthy ways to support them, including:
- giving your loved one grace
- remembering that SUD and AUD can be complicated
- not giving your loved one ultimatums, such as threatening to leave them if they don’t stop their substance use
- avoiding lectures or stigmatizing language, like “addict”
- not blaming them or shaming them — instead, blaming the disease
- knowing that recovering from SUD may take a long time
- understanding that self-care is essential, so you should prioritize your health, too
- recognizing and discussing behavior instead of ignoring it
- helping them find professional support with a therapist or 12-step support group
Codependency and enabling are often intertwined. Codependency can signal an unhealthy relationship between two people, and it can often seem like one or both partners are “addicted” to the relationship.
Wanting to help our loved ones is understandable. By being conscious of the signs of enabling and codependency, you can avoid crossing over into that unhealthy territory or be better positioned to break unhelpful patterns.
Putting a stop to codependency and enabling isn’t an easy or quick process. But take heart that it’s possible to overcome both.
If you or your loved one are living with a substance use disorder or a mental health condition and need more guidance on next steps, consider calling the SAMHSA National Helpline 24/7 at 800-662-HELP (4357).
During this long and worthwhile process, seek out support from friends or trusted counselors. Reach out to a therapist or family support group for help, especially if you’re codependent on or enabling someone with SUD.