Let’s say you have a friend who cut her patient/lover’s LVAD wire to get him moved up on the heart transplant list. Let’s also say you both are surgical interns. Instead of giving her tough love, you decide to concoct a plan with the other interns that keeps her from facing consequences… like, say, getting fired.
Okay, yes, this is the plot of an early episode of Grey’s Anatomy, but it’s also a pretty good example of enabling.
It can be uncomfortable to talk about patterns we’re engaging in within our relationships, particularly empowering and enabling behaviors. These two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but they have vastly different meanings.
Understanding the difference between them is crucial to maintaining a healthy and balanced relationship. Erica Basso, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, is the perfect guide to explain, explore, and help improve these complex interpersonal dynamics.
“The distinction is this: To empower someone is to teach or guide another in developing skills to handle life on their own, whereas enabling would be simply taking over responsibilities that belong to someone else,” Basso says. She believes the act of empowering in a relationship means being a catalyst that helps your partner become their best self. “[You] show your love and support by helping provide tools, resources, knowledge, or affirmation, so they can learn to overcome challenges on their own or develop the confidence to take control over their own life.”
Conversely, enabling behavior ignores a loved one’s agency and jumps into fix-it mode. “One partner attempts to protect the other from facing challenges, consequences, or difficult emotions head-on,” she shares. Though the immediate problem may be solved, enabling creates a bigger issue and can diminish self-esteem. “Seemingly good deeds are detrimental to their partner developing the skills to cope with and overcome their fears.”
Basso cautions that there’s “a fine line between empowering and enabling behaviors because the intentions behind them are often very similar. The key difference between the two behaviors is boundaries. “[When empowering,] your partner may step in to help some of the time, but they also know when to draw the line and set limits of how much is reasonable for them to do based on the situation and with respect for their own needs,” she explains.
How to Transition from Being an Enabler to an Empowerer
Below, Basso shares her best tips for shifting unhealthy enabling to empowering behavior in a relationship.
1. Get radically honest with yourself. We first need to recognize that there is a problem.
2. Bring awareness to all the negative consequences that enabling others has brought to the relationship or to your life.
3. Separate what is your responsibility versus what is your partner’s.
4. Set reasonable boundaries around what is helpful and what you are willing to do and not do.
5. Work through any fears or guilt that may come up from this lack of control.
6. Step back into your role as a partner. Identify reasonable things a supportive partner can do in your situation. These may be words of encouragement, reminding them of their strengths, and pointing them in the right direction but not doing it for them.
Erica Basso is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist practicing state wide in California (Los Angeles, Orange County, San Francisco). She works with women to overcome anxiety, perfectionism, and relationship challenges.
Shop our relationships collection:
Up next, be the first to know our weekly content and sign up for our Poosh newsletter.