Keep Exploring

Ask A Therapist: Do You Think I'm Enabling? If So, What Do I Do?

Depression, Relationships, Boundaries, Ask a Therapist
5 min read

Dear Therapist: My boyfriend lost his job about 2 years ago and it seems like he’s become less and less motivated to get his career back on track. I’ve noticed that he's become pretty depressed and he’s really developed this self-loathing and low self-esteem that’s hard to be around.

I’ve been trying to support him emotionally and financially but it’s been draining in both departments, not to mention it’s taken a toll on our relationship. His depression has even started to affect his relationships with his friends and family because he’s more irritable and flakey on plans. I feel like I’ve become his mother and I’m constantly trying to give him pep talks and inspire him to apply to new jobs. I’m struggling to figure out how much to keep trying to prop him up and come up with new career ideas when he just keeps shutting all my ideas down. I don’t want him to get more depressed or more down on himself but I feel like I can’t keep being his cheerleader and caretaker. I can’t tell if I’m enabling him to keep stalling in his career or if I’m being helpful. Do you think I’m enabling and if so, what should I do?

Frame Therapist Sage Grazer weighs in:
First off, you’re not alone; this is not an uncommon dynamic that comes up in relationships (with a partner, child, parent, friend) and especially since the pandemic, we’ve been seeing more people try to cope with dramatic life changes like loss of employment. Differentiating between enabling and supporting can be very challenging, especially when you are wrapped up in the relationship yourself. 

Enabling often happens when one partner is in a self-destructive pattern and the other person (the enabler) is directly or indirectly supporting the continuation of the harmful behavior. For example, it sounds like your boyfriend is struggling with many of the classic signs of depression which are impacting his overall motivation or willingness to see alternative perspectives, which in turn is keeping him stuck in his depressive state. 

Try thinking about your financial support and accommodating behavior in the relationship as enabling the perpetuation of your boyfriend’s spiraling self-destructive behavior. As you make that reframe in your mind, you can realize that going above and beyond to problem solve for your boyfriend, especially when he’s not willing to collaborate or participate in that process, is not benefiting either of you. It’s likely creating more tension in the relationship, draining your resources (emotional and financial), and causing feelings of resentment and frustration like you described.

You may think that all you’ve done is be helpful so how could that be perpetuating the problem, but, sometimes bending over backwards accommodating and cleaning up after other’s mistakes can actually prevent them from feeling the real consequences or discomfort that comes with destructive choices they’re making and thus doesn’t give them the drive for change. It can be so incredibly hard to watch someone you love suffer or struggle and it’s natural to have a fear that things might get worse – they might have to get worse before they can get better.

One thing to look out for when identifying enabling is to ask yourself, is my behavior (stepping in to help or pick up the slack) preventing the person from experiencing the consequences of their behavior. At the end of the day, change is hard, it requires effort and we don’t make change for no reason. Think about any time you’ve made a change in your life, there was some kind of drive, either an aspiration for something positive or an avoidance/aversion of discomfort/pain. As hard and painful as it may feel to stop enabling a loved one, people will often not engage in meaningful change until they experience the consequences of their behavior (negative or positive). 

Once you’ve reflected on your role in the dynamic and how you want to move forward with setting new boundaries and making behavioral changes of your own, you can open up a dialog with your boyfriend. Start by having an honest conversation, in a kind and compassionate way, sharing where you’re at with your own feelings (it sounds like his emotional functioning has been the focus in your relationship) and how you can support him and what you can no longer do.

---

About the Therapist: Sage Grazer is an LCSW & the Chief Clinical Officer at Frame. She is based in Los Angeles where she runs her private practice, seeing mostly teens & young adults. 


Welcome to our weekly content series "Ask a Therapist" featuring real user-submitted questions, and the follow-up answers from Frame Therapists. We believe that everyone can benefit from hearing how people, just like them, get through their struggles, grow and change.

Have a question you'd like to "Ask a Therapist"? Submit Your Question Here

** This blog series is not suited for people who are in immediate crisis. If you are in crisis, please call National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or contact Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.