Are you supporting your spouse on their recovery journey—or enabling them to depend wholly on you or even to make a big mistake? It can sometimes feel like there’s little difference between supporting and enabling someone, but those little differences lead to big consequences. Unfortunately, many people end up enabling when they really meant to support someone they care about. Supporting someone means doing things that help a person facilitate what needs to get done. This applies to just about anything from someone in recovery from alcohol abuse to helping a child with their homework. The key word in support is “help.”
On the other hand, enabling means stopping someone from having to deal with the consequences of their actions—or at least trying to stop them. This allows the person to keep on living their life without any risk or fear of repercussions. For example, if a parent lets a child skip school or not do their homework, this leads to enabling irresponsibility. The child isn’t learning anything at all and is, in fact, getting set up for a lifetime of disappointment when they just don’t show up to work because they don’t want to.
Obviously, there is a difference between a child and a spouse. Things also get tricky when addiction is involved. One example of enabling a spouse in recovery or who struggles with addiction is simply accepting that a hangover is actually a fluke “illness.” You might feel like you’re being supportive. After all, what can you do now that the drinking is already done? However, this is actually a sign of accepting the behavior and essentially encouraging it.
How to Be a Supporter
The biggest sign that you might be an enabler is that you want to solve the problem for your spouse. Being a problem-solver makes people feel good because they think they’re doing something positive for their spouse. In actuality, problem-solving and enabling is hurting your partner. This enabling needs to change in order to manifest a new dynamic in the relationship. When a spouse is in recovery and lives with an enabler, they can no longer live a healthy and independent life because they don’t have to take any responsibility for their actions. The enabler is taking on all those responsibilities. As you can imagine, this can quickly lead to resentment.
Still, it can be tough to tell if you’re currently a supporter or an enabler. You’re an enabler if you make excuses for your spouse. If you often put your needs second, you could be an enabler. Maybe you feel or know that your behavior isn’t healthy, but you feel stuck in a rut. A big red flag of enabling is that you’ve lied for your spouse—particularly more than once.
Stop Enabling and Start Supporting
Enablers have to stop, but that’s easier said than done. Enabling is actually inherent for many people, so it takes conscientious work to change how you approach your spouse’s recovery. Supporting begins when you start being honest with yourself and your spouse, and perhaps calling them out on their behavior. You can also support your spouse by becoming more involved in their recovery process. Working with a counselor or in a support group that can give you specific tips on how to help with your spouse’s recovery (without enabling) is a great approach.
Exactly how you can support your spouse will vary based on who they are and their unique recovery process. It might include things like not having alcohol in the home, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a happy hour by going out (post-COVID). This isn’t necessarily putting yourself second, but rather making an accommodation. Support might look like attending an online support group for family members of alcoholics.
When you’ve struck a balance in your marriage and adopted a strategy of support rather than enabling, you’ll feel like a weight has been lifted. You’re no longer trying to solve their problems but helping to encourage them to do so themselves. In the end, both parties are happier when the spouse is supportive rather than prone to enabling. However, do bear in mind that there might be some growing pains. If you’ve become used to a dependent relationship, it can be tough to change—but doable.