In a healthy relationship, partners support one another but are perfectly capable of leading their own lives. In a codependent relationship, an enabler constantly comes to the rescue of his or her partner and consequently encourages negative or unhealthy behavior.
No one tends to see themselves as the enabler in a relationship. Most would rather see themselves as a natural-born caretaker or simply a supportive spouse. But recognizing that you’re an enabler is the best way to change the toxic dynamic.
Below, marriage therapists share six signs you’re the enabler in a relationship ― and how to put an end to unhealthy behavioral patterns.
1. You consistently put your partner’s needs before your own.
In a codependent relationship, the enabler focuses on the feelings and needs of the other partner, usually at the expense of their own, said Andrea Wachter, a marriage and family therapist in Northern California. While it may make them feel good about themselves ― saintly, even ― it’s not healthy.
“In solid relationships, each person factors in their own truth and their own needs,” she said. “But people can only do this if they feel worthy of having needs.”
To change this dynamic, Wachter recommends enablers get in the habit of saying “no” ― or at least waiting to make a decision.
“Practice pausing before you say ‘yes’ to the next request someone makes of you. Consider telling someone you have to think about their request and get back to them,” she said. “Your needs matter, too.”
2. You apologize too much.
Enablers hate conflict, which is why they often find themselves over-apologizing, said Amanda Deverich, a marriage and family therapist in Virginia.
“They’ll do anything to maintain that connection and that includes soothing the other person by apologizing, even for stuff that is not their fault,” she said.
To break this bad habit, enablers should get comfortable with a little discord in relationships. Not every argument needs to be resolved that very moment, Deverich said.
“When you can’t let a problem remain unresolved, it leads to concessions you wouldn’t otherwise make,” she said. “A more productive step would be to channel all that energy into self-care and boundary setting.”
3. You think no one can handle issues better than you.
Enablers often assume that if they don’t get things done, no one will. That thought is not only a little egotistical, it’s unhealthy, said Linda Lipshutz, a marriage and family therapist in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.
“Ultimately, the belief that no one else can handle the situations as well as we can is misguided,” she said.
If this is a problem for you, Lipshutz recommends ceding some control and not allowing your “ego and identity get so tied up in other’s successes or failures.”
4. The relationship never seems to get better.
No matter what enablers do, problems continue to crop up and reoccur in their relationships. That’s usually because the other spouse is putting in little to no effort of their own, Deverich said.
“The privileged partner is allowing the enabler to absorb the difficulties in the relationship,” she said. “No amount of accommodating, soothing or solving can change anything if your partner is not changing.”
Remember: You can’t do it all. To make inroads in changing this pattern, Deverich said to give your partner an opportunity to fix problems as they come.
5. Your life revolves around your partner.
You share a life together but you should have passions and interests outside of your marriage. Enablers often put their own hobbies and personal goals on the back burner, Wachter said.
“Your life shouldn’t orbit around the people closest to you,” she said. “Start asking yourself what you truly love to do. Aside from the family and friends you care about, what other interests do you have?”
Dig deep to uncover new and old passions, Wachter said, and make a real effort to explore those interests on your own.
6. To some extent, you see your spouse as helpless.
Enablers look at their partner and see someone who needs help: Help getting ahead in work, help getting their personal finances in order, help just getting by day-to-day. But in all likelihood, the person was capable of handling things before the enabler came along, and they’ll be just as capable if their partner backs away a bit, Lipshutz said.
“It may be important to continually ask ourselves: ‘Is the other person truly capable of handling these matters on their own?’” she said.
Sometimes, partners may truly need help and support, but other times, it’s more effective to let them do it and learn on their own, Lipshutz said.
“At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that not all helpful gestures are truly helpful.”