Are You Helping or Enabling Your Spouse?

difference between helping and enabling

Does your spouse want or need to change something in his or her life? If so, it’s critical to know the difference between helping and enabling your husband or wife through change. The change your spouse wants or needs could be 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. He or she may talk about it, or whine about it, or pretend it doesn’t exist, but being his or her spouse, you see it better than most anyone. But if you’re going to help your spouse through this, here’s the one thing you shouldn’t do.

Enable Him or Her

You don’t want to enable him or her. In general, helping others is doing something right and healthy for them that they cannot do for themselves. But enabling is doing for others what they can and need to do for themselves, allowing them to live an irresponsible life.

A reality show a friend of mine watched 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 he or she can and should do for him or herself.
  • You cover up for your spouse when your spouse’s issues create problems.
  • You make excuses for your spouse’s behavior with others.
  • You lie to your spouse, to yourself, and to others about the extent and eventual consequences of your spouse’s issue.
  • You protect your spouse from the normal consequences of his or her problem.
  • You ignore your spouse or his or her issues altogether. Ignoring is enabling.
  • You blame others or indulge your spouse’s blaming others for his or her issue.
  • You make empty threats related to the consequences of his or her 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 his or her issue creates, usually at a high cost to you.

Here’s what helping looks like:

  • You do for your spouse the things he or she cannot do for him or herself.
  • You are honest with your spouse about the consequences of inaction.
  • You don’t lie to or for your spouse.
  • You don’t give excuses to others to cover up for your spouse’s problems.
  • You don’t clean up the messes your spouse’s struggles or issues create.
  • You love your spouse unconditionally, just as he or she is, yet you also love your spouse enough to hope he or she chooses to change.
  • You help your spouse focus on the goal, without dwelling on any missteps or failures along the way.
  • You cheer your spouse on and celebrate even small steps toward his or her goals.
  • You accept that you cannot change your spouse and that your spouse will not change unless he or she wants to change. This may feel like giving up, but accepting this truth gives him or her freedom to own the change.
  • You refuse to take responsibility for your spouse’s bad choices.

These are just some of the ways you can check yourself to see if you are truly helping your spouse or enabling his or her 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 your spouse in keeping the peace. And remember: Your spouse can only experience true change when he or she wants true change.

What does helping or enabling look like to you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.