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As a positive term, enabling references patterns of interaction which allow individuals to develop and grow. These patterns may be on any scale, for example within the family, 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 is also used to describe dysfunctional behavior approaches that are intended to help resolve a specific problem but in fact may perpetuate or exacerbate the problem. A common theme of enabling in this latter sense is that third parties take responsibility, blame, or make accommodations for a person's harmful conduct (often with the best of intentions, or from fear or insecurity which inhibits action). The practical effect is that the person himself or herself does not have to do so, and is shielded from awareness of the harm it may do, and the need or pressure to change. Enabling in this sense is a major environmental cause of addiction.
A common example of enabling can be observed in the relationship between the alcoholic/addict and a codependent spouse. The spouse who attempts to shield the addict from the negative consequences of their behavior by calling in sick to work for them, making excuses that prevent others from holding them accountable, and generally cleaning up the mess that occurs in the wake of their impaired judgment. In reality, what the spouse is doing may be hurting, not helping. Enabling can tend to prevent psychological growth in the person being enabled, and can contribute to negative symptoms in the enabler.
One of the primary purposes of a formal Family Intervention with alcoholics/addicts is to help the family cease their enabling behaviors.