Partner Behaving Badly? How to Quit Being an Enabler

Enabling comes in many different forms, and it reaches far beyond the confines of substance abuse. The truth is, romantic relationships can be a breeding ground for enabling bad behavior. Say your partner is on a path of self-destruction in any area of his or her life — career, weight, or general indifference. If you’re encouraging it, rather than urging them to seek help and change their ways, you’re hardly doing any favors.

It’s true old habits die hard, and the first step in helping your partner quit theirs is by acknowledging the bad habit of your own — enabling your partner’s iffy behavior. If this is the case, it’s time to call it quits. But first, let’s see if your behavior aligns with that of an enabler.

Signs you’re an enabler

young couple not speaking after an argument

You may not even know you’re an enabler. | iStock.com

Regardless of who’s doing the enabling, one partner encouraging bad behavior in the other makes for a toxic relationship. There are several telltale signs that you are indeed an enabler. The Huffington Post points out a few dead giveaways.

For instance, constantly putting your partner’s needs before your own, thinking you can handle your partner’s problems better than he or she can, and seeing your partner as helpless are all enabling habits. This type of behavior is not doing your partner, your relationship, or you any favors.

What a relationship with an enabler looks like

young heterosexual couple sulking

Enabling relationships come in many forms. | iStock.com

A relationship with an enabler is a form of codependency. Given this, it’s important to understand what exactly this kind of relationship looks like. “I prefer to think of codependent relationships as a specific type of dysfunctional helping relationship,” Shawn M. Burn, Ph.D. says in Psychology Today. “Broadly speaking, in dysfunctional helping relationships, one person’s help supports (enables) the other’s underachievement, irresponsibility, immaturity, addition, procrastination, or poor mental or physical health.” So, beware of the slippery slope that is codependency.

Signs of a codependent relationship

bored sad woman in front of computer

An enabler puts their own happiness second. | iStock.com/anyaberkut

As mentioned, codependent relationships come in many forms. And if you’re the enabler in one, the first step in admitting the reality of the situation is recognizing some key signs.

According to WebMD, there are certain questions you should ask yourself, such as “Do you recognize unhealthy behaviors in your partner but stay with him or her in spite of them?” and “Are you giving support to your partner at the cost of your own mental, emotional, and physical health?” Give some serious thought to these, as you may be surprised by your answers once you really start reflecting on them.

Recognizing why, and how, you enable your partner

Fat guy sleeping on the couch

Supporting your partner’s couch potato tendancies is doing him or her a disservice. | iStock.com/txking

You need to realize that your partner’s problems are not your own. They’re an adult, so it’s time you stop taking responsibility for their behavior. But perhaps you fear your partner will do something bad if you quit your enabling.

For instance, consider this: Your partner threatens to leave you if you don’t keep a perfectly clean home. Well, last time we checked, household chores are typically a shared responsibility, so it should go without saying your partner is using this threat of leaving as a scare tactic. In reality, you’re just encouraging their laziness every time you scrub the house from top to bottom. In fact, allowing them to be a couch potato rather than a helping hand is only putting their health at greater risk down the road. So, that’s something to mull over.

The justification behind your enabling

Sad girl is holding heart symbol

You may be afraid your partner will leave you if you stop enabling. | iStock.com/andrej_k

Is it possible you’re addicted to being an enabler? This is a question Carole Bennett, set out to answer in a Psychology Today article. The answer is, of course, yes, there are definite reasons you choose to enable your partner. It turns out, a person’s justification spans a wide spectrum. So, where exactly do you fall?

Maybe you don’t want to hurt their feelings, or you’re afraid they might retaliate if you don’t grant their requests. Well, all of these results serve as nothing more than threats — empty or not. Either way, it’s time you stop falling victim to your partner’s bad behavior. Right now is the perfect time to change your enabling ways, so now it’s time to learn how to stop.

1. Recognize the difference between enabling and empowering

young woman is lying on the grass and thinking

You need to give some serious thought to your role as an enabler. | iStock.com/LittleBee80

While both terms refer to helping someone who needs it, there’s a big difference in not only the approach, but also the outcome. As Karen Khaleghi, Ph.D. explains in Psychology Today, the help offered by an enabler perpetuates, rather than solves, the problem.

Empowering your partner, on the other hand, gives him or her the ability to help themselves. “By stepping in to ‘solve’ the addict’s problems, the enabler takes away any motivation for the addict to take responsibility for his or her own actions,” Khaleghi writes. Making this distinction, and understanding your role in it all, is crucial to the healing and recovery process for both you and your partner.

2. Acknowledge your self-esteem comes from being an enabler, and find other outlets

happy man lying in park

Focus on the things that make you happy. | iStock.com

Because your self-esteem relies on the ability to help your partner, it’s important to seek out other outlets in which to gain your own self-worth. “This ‘help’ allows the enabler to feel in control of an unmanageable situation,” Khaleghi says. “The reality, though, is that enabling not only doesn’t help, but it actively causes harm and makes the situation worse.” Therefore, it’s high time you do a little soul-searching to find out what makes you tick, and forget about trying to save your partner.

3. Set personal boundaries

woman lying in bed listening to music

It’s important to take time away from your partner for yourself. | iStock.com

Boundaries will play a huge role in your quest to quit your enabling behavior once and for all. Heidi Seals writes in The Journal-Standard, “Take some time to identify the specific ways you make it easier for that person to continue their unhealthy behavior and create a new set of rules for yourself to live by in regards to your personal boundaries and limits.” Finding your own happiness will ultimately depend on how well you’re able to set, and stick to, these boundaries.

4. Switch from doing what you think you should to what is actually helpful

Young couple looking at bank statement

Taking care of your partner’s finances for them isn’t actually helping. | Source: iStock

Enablers clearly aren’t doing their partners any favors. What they think they should do is in fact a disservice. Seals explains it’s important to challenge the bad habits of your previously held beliefs — the behavior you thought was right. Now, you need to focus on what is best, both for you and your partner.

5. Don’t play into their fears of the unknown

young couple figures out their budget together

It’s important to support your partner, rather than doubt them. | iStock.com

On the flip side of what we discussed earlier — your partner’s scare tactics to entice your enabling behavior  — this point refers to ways you’ve been instilling fear in them. Simply put, your actions make them too scared to help themselves.

In Bustle’s example, your partner mentions he or she is going back to school. Rather than supporting their decision, you make comments about how much time it will take. This only fills them with doubt, all the while keeping you in the driver’s seat of controlling their life. In turn, they’ll continue binge-watching Netflix rather than working for that second degree.

But now that you’re an expert, you’ll motivate your partner with actual support rather than false security. Also, we’re just kidding about the whole expert thing. Enabling a partner has become a part of your everyday life, so turning the tables will take time. Just stay focused, and remember to put yourself first when needed.