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Learn / The Difference Between Helping and Enabling in Relationships

The Difference Between Helping and Enabling in Relationships

Kayla Gill
 January 4th, 2024|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

Key Points

  • Differentiating between helping and enabling is crucial for healthy relationships.
  • Empowering others means supporting them through their problems, not fixing them.
  • Learning boundary setting and working with a therapist can set you up for success.

When we see someone we love struggling, it’s natural to want to help. In fact, humans are wired for exactly this kind of response. Helping and enabling both come from a good place. But learning to discern between the two is hugely important to your ability to have healthy relationships. 

This starts by identifying enabling behaviors and shifting them into empowering actions. By doing so, you not only support others in a healthier way, but reclaim your own happiness and peace of mind. 

Here’s how to tell when your “helping” may not be helpful, and how to offer healthy support instead.

Defining Helping and Enabling

Helping involves supporting your loved one to tackle their own problems. This can include holding space, listening, and validating their feelings. Constructive help encourages people to develop their internal resources so they can overcome challenges with confidence.

Enabling, on the other hand, is doing things for others that they can do for themselves. Enablement prevents people from facing and learning from the consequences of their actions, which stunts their personal growth. 

Enabling is defined1 as allowing or making it possible to “for someone to behave in a way that damages them.”

There’s a fine line between these two behaviors, and understanding the difference may take some time. But once you do, it becomes much easier to healthily navigate this dynamic.       

Characteristics of Healthy Helping

Rather than trying to prevent people’s problems, we can let them experience their own struggles and support them through the process. Here’s what healthy helping looks like:

You Focus on Building Skills and Resources

Instead of providing immediate solutions, you help your loved one find the tools they need to handle challenges on their own. This could include connecting them with relevant resources or offering words of encouragement.

You Encourage Self-Reflection and Problem-Solving

You prompt your loved one to think critically about their situation and identify solutions. You might ask open-ended questions, give feedback, or cheer on their progress.

You Respect Their Boundaries and Autonomy

You appreciate your partner’s personal choices and ownership over their process.

Characteristics of Enabling

When you fix someone’s problems for them, they may become reliant on you instead of developing the skills they need to move forward. Enabling might look like this:

  • Taking over their tasks and responsibilities
  • Ignoring or tolerating problematic behavior
  • Providing financial support without encouraging self-sufficiency
  • Making excuses for their actions
  • Discouraging self-reliance and independence

How Can I Tell if I’m Enabling? 

If you’re in a pattern of enabling, you might already know it on some level, because it doesn’t feel good. Enabling can make you feel unhappy, confused, angry, depressed, or tired. Tuning into your physical and emotional warning signals can help you tell the difference between healthy support and enablement:

  • Do you feel frustrated with your partner’s lack of progress? 
  • Are you losing your sense of peace as a result of helping them? 
  • Do you feel unhappy? 
  • When you think of the situation, does your body feel tense and contracted, or open and free?  
  • Are you helping your loved one for them, or for your own sense of identity? 
  • Are your expectations fair, or are you trying to impose your own timeline and way of doing things? 
  • Do you feel conflicted about the help you’re giving? 
  • Do you resent your partner because they don’t appreciate your help or haven’t used it to improve their situation? 
  • Do you worry that if you stop helping, they’ll resent you?
  • Did you play a role in creating the situation? 

Ask yourself honestly if you’re helping for any of these reasons:

  • You don’t like seeing them in pain 
  • They’ll be indebted to you 
  • It makes you feel important 
  • You’ll feel guilty if you don’t help 
  • You don’t want them to think you’re mean 
  • They’ll only love you if you help them 
  • You want to rescue them 
  • Helping others is part of your identity 
  • You don’t feel strong enough to help yourself (focusing on others is a distraction from your own challenges) 

If any of these are true, enabling is at play. 

Examples of Enabling Behaviors

  • Paying someone’s bills or rent when they’re capable of working
  • Doing their work or schoolwork for them 
  • Making excuses for their bad behavior 
  • Taking over household chores or responsibilities that they should be doing
  • Giving them money without discussing how they’ll use it 

From an outside perspective, the solution to others’ problems often seems obvious. Our desire to relieve others’ suffering is a normal part of being human. But paving someone’s path for them robs them of their journey—and their ability to figure life out for themselves.

Codependency and Enabling

If you’re helping because of a need to feel needed, you might be dealing with codependency.

Enabling behaviors are a very common aspect of codependent relationships. This pattern stems from a distorted sense of self-worth that causes one partner to seek validation through rescuing and caring for the other. 

Codependency blurs boundaries and distorts healthy support. The codependent partner may take over tasks, justify toxic behavior, or offer financial support to their own detriment. This perpetuates a cycle where the partner receiving support becomes increasingly reliant and irresponsible, while their dependence ensures they’ll stick around. It’s an unhappy scenario for all involved. 

Breaking out of this cycle is critical. Because of the deep attachments that are formed in the process, doing so may require the help of a therapist. One technique they might use is interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT), which focuses on improving interpersonal functioning. With professional support, you can address underlying issues and learn healthier ways of relating. 

Healthy Boundaries

Boundaries are invisible lines that define our personal space and establish what we are—and aren’t—okay with. Relationships need them in order to thrive.

Clear boundaries are the key to promoting empowering behaviors and avoiding enabling ones. They allow us to say no without feeling guilty, protect our time and energy, maintain healthy self-esteem, and communicate openly. They’re not about pushing others away. In fact, they set the stage for a healthy relationship.

A boundary is an expectation or parameter2 that you set with yourself or with another person. Boundaries can be physical, verbal, and they can be actions,” explains Nedra Glover Tawwab, author of Set Boundaries, Find Peace. To practice setting boundaries, try the following: 

  • Be clear and direct. Use “I” statements to express your needs.
  • Be kind. Respect your partner’s feelings while firmly stating your boundaries.
  • Keep it simple. Don’t bring up everything at once—stick to one topic at a time.
  • Be consistent. Boundaries often need to be restated when others don’t respect them. 
  • Seek support. If you struggle to set or maintain boundaries, consider seeking professional help.

Setting boundaries is almost always somewhat uncomfortable.3 Much of the work is gaining tolerance for that discomfort. Remember: while it may not always feel like it, sometimes saying “no” can be the most loving gesture of all. 

Effective Communication

Good communication is especially important to discern between helping and enabling. Effective communication allows us to express our concerns and needs clearly, actively listen to the other person’s perspective, and build trust. You can improve your communication by practicing active listening and nonjudgment. 

Active listening4 involves focusing fully on the other person’s words and feelings instead of waiting to interrupt with your own response. This shows care and respect and helps your partner feel understood. 

Non-judgmental communication5 facilitates open dialogue by avoiding blame, criticism, or negativity. Try stating your own feelings without accusing your partner.

Everyone enters relationships with expectations, but they’re rarely verbally expressed. Talking through these with your partner allows them to clearly understand your needs. This can reduce resentment due to your needs being unmet.

Encouraging Personal Responsibility

Growth-minded couples take accountability for their actions, decisions, and consequences. Here are some ways to encourage personal responsibility in your relationships:

  • Provide support and guidance without taking over
  • Set clear boundaries and expectations
  • Offer constructive feedback
  • Celebrate successes
  • Hold your partner accountable

This isn’t about punishing or criticizing. It’s about empowering others to learn, grow, and become the best versions of themselves. 

Intervention Strategies

Sometimes, despite our best intentions, our efforts to help can inadvertently become enabling. Here are some strategies for intervening when you realize enabling is at play:

  • Express concerns firmly and compassionately  
  • Set clear boundaries
  • Encourage self-reliance
  • Seek professional help
  • Be patient and consistent
  • Prioritize your well-being

Because this is a sensitive dynamic, it’s important to address your concerns with empathy and understanding. 

More extreme codependent dynamics can severely impact partners’ lives. If your situation is particularly sensitive, you may want to consider a professional intervention to approach your partner in the most effective way. 

Real-Life Scenarios

Understanding the nuances between helping and enabling can be challenging, especially in the context of real-life relationships. Let’s explore 2 scenarios to illustrate the difference in action:

Scenario 1: Supporting a Friend’s Job Search

Enabling: Your friend loses their job and asks you to cover their rent while they search for a new one. You agree, but they spend their days playing video games instead of actively looking for work. (You remove the natural consequences of joblessness, hindering their motivation to find a new job.)

Helping: You offer your friend emotional support and encouragement during their job search. You help them practice their interview skills, provide feedback on their resume, and connect them with potential job leads. (You empower your friend to take ownership of their situation and develop the skills they need to find employment.)

Scenario 2: A Family Member Struggling with Addiction

Enabling: Your family member struggles with addiction, and you constantly bail them out of financial trouble or give them access to drugs or alcohol. (This protects them from facing the negative consequences of their addiction and reinforces their dependence.)

Helping: You encourage them to seek professional help via an addiction treatment program. You offer emotional support throughout their recovery process and set clear boundaries, refusing to enable their addiction. (You empower them to play an active role in their own healing and recovery.)

Professional Support for Healthy Dynamics

Your desire to help others is a good thing. Learning how to do so without enabling means developing a wiser relationship with your compassion. Because when we love someone we should want what’s in their highest interest—and that includes their self-growth.

Codependent relationships can easily become draining and all-consuming. If you feel your relationship is headed in this direction and you need professional support, search our list of codependency treatment programs and reach out to a center today.  

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