Behaving Poorly In a Relationship

Colleen Sheehy Orme

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I was a marketer, freelance journalist, and former business columnist before I became a relationship columnist. My marital experiences led me to a decade of counseling and research on the topic of relationships, marriage, and divorce. I've spent years examining my own contributions and mistakes.

In counseling, I was told I was an enabler.

The Healthline article, What Is an Enabler? 11 Ways to Recognize One gives the following definition of enabling.

"The term “enabler” generally describes someone whose behavior allows a loved one to continue self-destructive patterns of behavior."
"This term can be stigmatizing since there’s often negative judgment attached to it. However, many people who enable others don’t do so intentionally. They may not even realize what they’re doing."

I certainly didn't know I was doing it.

I thought I was being kind, caring, and loyal. Isn't that how we hope to treat our spouse? I had confused these things with enabling. My counselor explained that kindness is tolerating unacceptable behavior once or twice. Enabling is tolerating it over and over again.

Every single individual deserves to be treated well. When you understand the definition of enabling you finally ask yourself an obvious but overlooked question.

Why would someone we love expect us to repeatedly tolerate their poor actions?

The Healthline article describes situations that typically involve enabling below:

"Enabling usually refers to patterns that appear in the context of drug or alcohol misuse and addiction. But according to the American Psychological Association, it can refer to patterns within close relationships that support any harmful or problematic behavior and make it easier for that behavior to continue."
"Enabling doesn’t mean you support your loved one’s addiction or other behavior. You might believe if you don’t help, the outcome for everyone involved will be far worse. Maybe you excuse troubling behavior, lend money, or assist in other ways."

I didn't support my spouse's actions. But I cared too much to leave him. So we began the cycle of the enabler and the enabled. He would behave badly and I would either beg, cry, or yell to get his attention. When he eventually added a layer of drinking to his behavior, I deemed it a mid-life crisis. Again, making excuses for him.

Even though I continued in counseling alone, it was extremely difficult to stop my own ingrained patterns of behavior. I understood I needed boundaries and self-protective mechanisms. I even understood I should probably leave. But I had been this person my whole life.

Even with a desire to grow and an education, I repeated my mistakes.

The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines enabling as follows:

1. a process whereby someone (i.e., the enabler) contributes to continued maladaptive or pathological behavior (e.g., child abuse, substance abuse) in another person. The enabler is typically an intimate partner or good friend who passively permits or unwittingly encourages this behavior in the other person; often, the enabler is aware of the destructiveness of the person’s behavior but feels powerless to prevent it.

Enabling is often spoken about in terms of enabling chemical addiction. But it can apply to other areas as well, such as gambling, other forms of addiction, and emotional abusers like narcissists. Any type of repeatedly bad and unacceptable behavior which disrupts the safety, health, and predictability of the relationship and home. And forces one spouse to be overly responsible for the poor behavior of their partner.

I made excuses and hid my husband's behavior. Especially in the early years of my marriage because I didn't want my family and friends to hate him.

The article What Is an Enabler? 11 Ways to Recognize One cites the warning signs of enabling as follows:

1. Ignoring or tolerating problematic behavior. 2. Providing financial assistance. 3. Covering for them or making excuses. 4. Taking on more than your share of responsibilities. 5. Avoiding the issue. 6. Brushing things off. 7. Denying the problem. 8. Sacrificing or struggling to recognize your own needs. 9. Not following through on consequences. 10. Not maintaining your stated boundaries. 11. Feeling resentment. Amazingly and not surprisingly, nine out of the eleven apply to me. I could answer yes to that many of the warning signs the Healthline article describes.

Amazingly, I can answer yes to nine out of these eleven enabling clues. Hence, why my marriage counselor once told me I wasn't just an enabler. I was a major, major enabler. An overly caring person who puts up with consistently bad behavior because they lack boundaries. Just another way to state the two aforementioned definitions of enabling.

How does an enabler stop the cycle of repeatedly tolerating bad behavior?

The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation offers the advice of Al-Anon below:

"A core principle of Al-Anon is that alcoholics cannot learn from their mistakes if they are overprotected. Detachment with love means caring enough about others to allow them to learn from their mistakes. It also means being responsible for our own recovery and making decisions without ulterior motives or the desire to control others".
"Ultimately, we are powerless to control others anyway, and we cannot force them into recovery. Most family members have been trying to change their loved one for a long time, and it hasn't worked. We are involved with other people, but we do not control them. We realistically cannot stop people from drinking alcohol or using drugs."

Of course, this speaks specifically to chemical addiction but the advice can be applied to all forms of enabling. For me personally, my counselor's description of the distinction between kindness and enabling crystallized things for me.

Kindness doesn't mandate we repeatedly tolerate bad behavior.

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Colleen Sheehy Orme is a National Relationship Columnist, freelance journalist, and former business columnist. She writes about love, relationships, and self-restoration. She has spent more than a decade in research and counseling on the topics of divorce, relationships, and Narcissistic personality disorder.

Reston, VA
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