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In psychotherapy and mental health, enabling has a positive sense of empowering individuals, or a negative sense of encouraging dysfunctional behavior.[1]


As a positive term, "enabling" is similar to empowerment, and describes patterns of interaction which allow individuals to develop and grow. These patterns may be on any scale, for example within the family,[1] or in wider society as "enabling acts" designed to empower some group, or create a new authority for a (usually governmental) body.


In a negative sense, "enabling" can describe dysfunctional behavior approaches that are intended to help resolve a specific problem but, in fact, may perpetuate or exacerbate the problem.[1][2] A common theme of enabling in this latter sense is that third parties take responsibility or blame, or make accommodations for a person's ineffective or harmful conduct (often with the best of intentions, or from fear or insecurity which inhibits action). The practical effect is that the person themselves does not have to do so, and is shielded from awareness of the harm it may do, and the need or pressure to change.[3]


Codependency is a theory that attempts to explain imbalanced relationships in which one person enables another person's self-destructive behavior[4] such as addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement.[5]

Enabling may be observed in the relationship between a person with a substance use disorder and their partner, spouse or a parent. Enabling behaviors may include making excuses that prevent others from holding the person accountable, or cleaning up messes that occur in the wake of their impaired judgment. Enabling may prevent psychological growth in the person being enabled, and may contribute to negative symptoms in the enabler. Enabling may be driven by concern for retaliation, or fear of consequence to the person with the substance use disorder, such as job loss, injury or suicide.[6] A parent may allow an addicted adult child to live at home without contributing to the household such as by helping with chores, and be manipulated by the child's excuses, emotional attacks, and threats of self-harm.[7]


In the context of abuse, enablers are distinct from flying monkeys (proxy abusers). Enablers allow or cover for the abuser's own bad behavior while flying monkeys actually perpetrate bad behavior to a third party on their behalf.[8] Padilla et al. (2007), in analyzing destructive leadership, distinguished between conformers and colluders, in which the latter are those who actively participate in the destructive behavior.[9]

Emotional abuse is a brainwashing method that over time can turn someone into an enabler. While the abuser often plays the victim, it is quite common for the true victim to believe that he or she is responsible for the abuse and thus must adapt and adjust to it.[10]

Examples of enabling in an abusive context are as follows:[11][unreliable source?]

  • Making excuses for another's violent rages.
  • Cleaning up someone else's mess.
  • Hiding an abuser's dysfunctional actions from public view.
  • Absorbing the negative consequences of someone else's bad choices.
  • Paying off another person's debts.
  • Refusing to confront or protect oneself when exposed to physical, emotional or verbal assault.
  • Regurgitating the abuser's 'facts' / version of reality to a third party without seeking evidence.
  • Revictimising the abuser's other victims with behaviour such as gaslighting, denial, or scapegoating.
  • Triangulation (playing the part in an abuse triangle as either victim or protector, but never seeing themselves as perpetrator).
  • Keeping secrets for the abuser such as affairs, extramarital children, alcoholism, gambling, incest.
  • Projecting / passing on their own shame (the shame projected on to them by the abuser) to third parties.
  • Giving up/over knowledge of their finances to be taken care of by the abuser (oftentimes resulting in considerable debt).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c elinewberger.com Archived 2008-02-09 at the Wayback Machine From the page on 'enabling', by Eli H. Newberger, M.D., referenced by that web page to The Men They Will Become ch.18 "Enabling".
  2. ^ "The Role of Enabler: Are You Enabling Addiction In The One You Love?". Archived from the original on 2013-07-18. Retrieved 2013-07-05.
  3. ^ Robert L. DuPont (2000-02-17), The selfish brain, p. 15, ISBN 978-1-56838-363-7
  4. ^ McGrath, Michael; Oakley, Barbara (2012). Oakley, Barbara; Knafo, Ariel; Madhavan, Guruprasad; Wilson, David Sloan (eds.). Codependency and Pathological Altruism. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 49. ISBN 9780199876341.
  5. ^ Johnson, R. Skip (13 July 2014). "Codependency and Codependent Relationships". BPDFamily.com. Retrieved 9 September 2014.
  6. ^ "Are You an Enabler? - Psych Central". 17 May 2016.
  7. ^ "Loved Ones of Addicts May Also Need Help Saying No". 29 March 2015.
  8. ^ Ziehl N Coping with narcissistic personality disorder in the White House Quartz 06 Dec 2016
  9. ^ Padilla, A, Hogan, R & Kaiser, RB 2007, The toxic triangle: Destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments, in The Leadership Quarterly, vol. 18, pp. 176–194
  10. ^ Joan Lachkar, How to Talk to a Narcissist (2008). ISBN 978-0415958554
  11. ^ Enabling Out of the FOG