When it comes to our relationships, we tend to engage in all sorts of patterns. We often hear references to empowering and enabling behaviors, and we find ourselves wondering which of these groups we belong to. Although they are frequently used interchangeably, they mean very different things, and which path we go down can lead to various outcomes. First and foremost, it's essential to understand their differences. After that, we can begin to improve our interpersonal dynamics and involve ourselves in healthy, stable relationships.
"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," said marriage and family therapist Erica Basso. According to her teachings, empowering someone in a relationship means you are the one to help them be the best version of themselves. She explained, "[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."
On the other end of the spectrum, we have enabling behaviors. This is when you ignore the other person's agency and work to fix them on your own. "One partner attempts to protect the other from facing challenges, consequences, or difficult emotions head-on," she explained. While it seems you are helping to fix the issue, it's merely a short-term solution that ignores the underlying problem and undermines the other's self-esteem. Although there is a thin line between these two practices, it ultimately comes down to 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."
If you've read this information and realized that you are an enabler, do not fret! Erica Basso explains that there are ways to transition over to more empowering behaviors in relationships. Check-in with yourself and look internally if there is an enabling issue. Next, understand how these behaviors have in the past led to adverse outcomes, and recognize your responsibility in this. Clarify what is helpful for a partner and what isn't, and work on allowing yourself to let go of the control. Lastly, remember that being a partner is more about support and encouragement than taking over. Good luck!