Enabling behavior and codependency are often difficult concepts to separate.
Used in a healthy way, enabling means empowering, that is, helping someone to develop themselves so they can take care of their own needs. One component of the behaviors called codependence is solving problems for other people that they could take care of themselves. One partner usually makes excuses for the other person and goes along behind them cleaning up their mess. Distinguishing between enabling behavior and codependency is described well in the old parable: it is better to teach someone how to fish rather than give them fish. Actually, teaching someone to fish who is not interested in learning is not healthy but is very codependent, whereas helping someone learn to fish who is interested in learning and where both parties are willing to participate, enables the fishing student to learn to fish without harming the fishing teacher. This parable demonstrates the positive aspect of enabling behavior and codependency.
In the modern age of rampant addiction, enabling has more often taken on the negative meaning of doing for others what they could do for themselves as well as covering for them allowing their addiction to continue with no consequences. Negative enabling hurts everybody. It prevents growth in the person who is enabled and creates resentment in the enabler. Enabling often prolongs recovery and in some cases, can actually contribute to the addict’s death.
To distinguish enabling behavior and codependency is to understand that co-dependence is a whole spectrum of behaviors of persons who have usually, but not always, suffered from growing up in the family disease of addiction. There are major areas of dysfunction that describe co-dependence and they are listed here: denial, low self-esteem patterns, compliance patterns, control patterns and avoidance patterns. While it is likely that anyone who is negatively enabling an addict is codependent and anyone who is codependent is probably an enabler, the two terms, enabling behavior and codependency are not interchangeable. It is more accurate to think of enabling as a behavior that is part of co-dependence.
The main reason to distinguish the difference between enabling behavior and codependency is to stress that co-dependence is much more than enabling a person. It is virtually impossible for a family member to stop enabling the addict without more recovery from their core disease, co-dependence. For that reason, codependents are encouraged to stop enabling right away but to handle their confusion about this new behavior, they are strongly encouraged to get into their own recovery.
Rescuing someone or solving someone’s problem for them seems like a caring, supportive thing to do, but it in fact hinders growth and development. People who have a codependent relationship where there is a lot of enabling going on often think they have a great love for the person they enable. Actually, it is a limited love that is often based on their own codependent needs to control and enmesh. Enabling behavior and codependency lead not to intimate loving relationships but to pain and estrangement.