Are you in an enabling relationship?
It was 11:42 pm on a Monday night and I was glued to my TV screen.
I watched slack jawed as a doting husband handed his 600 lb wife two large pepperoni pizzas to eat in bed. Horrified, an hour later I was still watching as a father cheerfully baked a tray of cinnamon buns for his 657 lb adult daughter.
I was tuned into My 600 lb Life - the TLC series I wasn't aware of until last week. The show which is now in its 5th season, episodically documents a year in the life of a 600 lb person as they undergo the life-saving, but traumatic experience of surgery, the ups and downs of struggling with addiction and dependence, and the inevitable impact this has on their personal relationships.
In one scene, the concerned father accompanies his daughter to her consultation for weight loss surgery and tells the doctor, "I know I'm enabling her, but there's a fine line between being an enabler and caring for the person you love."
The relationships on this show all have one thing in common: enabling. These children, parents and spouses have good intentions when it comes to caring for their overweight loved one, but in the process of trying to make them happy, they're literally helping them slowly kill themselves.
"When we enable, we allow the other person to continue to use or drink by buying them drugs, calling in sick for them or basically making it easy for them to use while we take care of everything around them. We may do their chores for them, make excuses for them, clean up after them, apologize for them. We basically make it possible for them to keep using," says Iona Monk, a Registered Clinical Counsellor and owner of Vancouver Couples Counselling.
Anyone with common sense can see that giving an alcoholic a six pack or handing an overeater a tray of donuts is not in their best interest. What exactly drives these kinds of relationships? It could be a case of codependence.
Codependency is the act of deriving one's sense of worth from caring for somebody else. As Monk says, "the term gained popularity when describing children who grew up in alcoholic families and ended up taking care of their drunk parents and deriving their sense of worth or 'specialness' by doing so. In order to be in a codependent relationship, one must be an enabler and enable such behaviours in their partner as drug use, verbal abuse, physical abuse, drinking etc, so he/she could derive his/her sense of worth by caring for the user."
But you don't have to be feeding your partner supersized pizzas or facilitating their drug addiction to be in an enabling relationship. Enabling can be much more subtle. As a teen and early twenty-something I suffered from what you call "broken bird syndrome." I sought out troubled people in the naive hope that I could save and fix them. By allowing these people in my life, I was enabling their dysfunctional behavior. It would be years before I learned that healthy relationships are a two-way street with mutual give and take.
On the other hand, enabling relationships can lead to a toxic dynamic, explains Monk. "Enabling allows the 'user' to undercompensate, to do very little in the relationship in the way of caregiving themselves. The enabler in fact, does not allow the other to 'grow up' or 'show up' because it is not in their best interest to have a partner who is responsible or mature. The enabler derives his/her sense of worth by care giving the other," says Monk. The relationship becomes toxic to the 'user' because it stunts their personal growth and disables them from being an equal partner in the relationship. It becomes toxic to the enabler by creating an environment where he/she will not get their needs met or have a partner of equal worth. In other words, it becomes a relationship that's anything but healthy.
So, what can someone do if they recognize a similar pattern of behavior in their own relationship? Monk says, "think about your family of origin dynamics and whether your current state of relationship mirrors those old dynamics in some way. Refuse to allow your partner to continue to 'use' while you derive your worth from caring for him/her. You are worth more than that. Realize that you deserve a partner who does for you too."
Lastly, whether you're the enabler or being enabled, it's important go to therapy to find a healthy sense of worth and get clean. Regardless of what side of the equation you're on, "show up in your relationship.
Expect more from yourselves and each other," says Monk.