There are several important components to building a healthy relationship whether it is a love relationship, a parent-child relationship, or a relationship in a work setting. The four primary qualities that ensure a positive and constructive relationship are:
- Creating an atmosphere of mutual respect and acceptance.
- Honest and direct communication.
- Accepting responsibility for one’s actions.
- Staying intellectually and emotionally engaged with the other.
Enabling and codependency are interpersonal communication patterns that seriously undermine the creation of the conditions that allow for healthy relationships to develop and flourish. Enabling and codependent behaviors manifest in a variety of ways and in a variety of contexts:
- The manager who does not make an employee accountable for the very things the person is paid to do.
- A parent who does not demand of their child actions they are capable of performing in terms his or her academics or contributions to the household.
- A husband or wife making too many excuses and allowances for their partner’s repeated failure to hold up their end of having an honest and functional relationship.
These situations are characterized by underperformance, not only by the less-than-functional partner, but by both performers in the drama.
You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing, which you think you cannot do.
— Eleanor Roosevelt
In their heart-of-hearts the dysfunctional employee, underachieving student, and addicted spouse all know they are not rising to the occasion and doing what they are capable of doing. There can be a variety of reasons for this, especially given the satisfaction people naturally feel when they allow themselves to reap the rewards of working hard and doing well. In fact, we consider their behavior to be dysfunctional precisely because it stands in contrast to the innate tendency in people to seek to engage in healthy and enriching behaviors.
It is a paradox that the roots of enabling and codependency reside in altruism. A desire to do for another, to be compassionate, and to cut the other a break are all reasonable and prosocial qualities. A problem emerges only after two conditions are met. The first is the emergence of a pattern of behavior where in the “dysfunctional” person does not fulfill their end of the bargain. The second is when other person feels too great a discomfort to request, confront or demand that their employee, child or spouse come through. People are sometimes not aware of this discomfort or disturbance. Regardless, we can consider them to be engaging in enabling and codependent behavior when they match the other’s pattern of underperformance with a pattern of tolerance and acceptance which makes them complicit in the dysfunction.
We needn’t look to assign blame when there is a pattern of dysfunction and enabling behavior. Neither partner in the drama feels good about it. It is usually the case that they simply do not know how to extricate themselves from this pattern. However, it is frequently the case that as people develop greater insight into the irrational beliefs and assumptions that underlie their actions, they are able to make productive and healthy choices that previously did not seem available to them. Many people have found the suggestions in Strong Enough for Two helpful.