Helping or Enabling?

As noted before at this blog, the sheer number of hits on my pieces on the subject of toxic relationships is a sad testimony to how many people, Christians included, face these situations and look for answers.

I wanted to share some thoughts today that originated with some postings of a friend of mine on the subject of enablers. Enablers are the people within families who perpetually facilitate the destructive and toxic behavior of the one I call the Destroyer.

For years in Christian work, I participated in full-throated ridicule of psychology. We Christians didn’t need it. It was all based in humanism and should be rooted out of counseling for believers. After seeing so many Christian families, many who deny any validity to psychology, as messed up as the rest of the population, it made me wonder.

While the diagnosis of sin that lies at the root of behavior problems is not addressed in secular psychology, what I do find helpful is the observational part of psychology – the study and categorizing of specific aberrant behaviors. Understanding some of the ways that these sins manifest in dysfunctional families is helpful to those impacted.

For example, understanding sins like narcissism can help struggling spouses and adult children see what they are dealing with, and why the problems only worsen with time, despite endless hours of prayer and self-evaluation. There are unhealthy behavior patterns put in place in dealing with these people that, when identified, can be broken with God’s help.

Aiding the Destroyer

Without the assistance of enablers, toxic individuals within families are isolated. Toxic individuals grow worse when their egos are sustained and filled by those willing to serve as human air compressors. This may be a spouse, but it can also be adult children who are trained that the toxic family member’s ego is the most important thing within the home. Inflate the ego, or pay the price. The lesson is learned early and the twisted dance begins. Add a spiritual element  to the choreography and the dance gets even more macabre.

Enablers have much to answer for. Their refusal to see the sin of the individual they are supporting and servicing damages not only the toxic individual by strengthening them to continue, but damages those around them. What the enabler labels “submission” and “godly support” of the toxic spouse is not righteous in the least. At the root of enabler behavior is emotional neediness that trumps the well-being of everyone else in the home. The enabler can then attribute their conduct to just doing what God asks, when all along it is about them and their unmet needs. Few will ever admit this.

Children grow bewildered in these homes. As small children, if they witness verbal/emotional/physical abuse (or all of the above), their own internal sense of justice is offended. To never see this sinful behavior addressed, repentance lived out and forgiveness of sins demonstrated in a way that is clean and honest, they grow confused and embittered. When Christianity is mixed in with this, it is a witch’s brew served up.

My friend posted these definitions today about the differences between helping and enabling.

HELPING is doing something for someone that he is not capable of doing himself.

ENABLING is doing for someone what he could and should be doing for himself.

An enabler is a person who recognizes that a negative circumstance is occurring on a regular basis and yet continues to enable the person with the problem to persist in his detrimental behaviors.

We are called to help family members. We are not called to enable someone who does not want help and who continues to destroy his own family with his choices. The problem is, the behavior of enablers is usually established in the earliest stages of a relationship. If a couple dates and one of the individuals is prepared to stuff their true feelings in order to keep the peace, they’re off to a bad start immediately. This is the tragic reality in some marriages. Where one individual is handed all power to emotionally rule and reign without concern about consequences for sinful choices, he/she is granted a blank check for abuse. The old saying that absolute power corrupts absolutely is not just true in political or business circles. It is true in families.

The wake of destruction that is left by this arrangement can be generational. Family members who speak up, object to this arrangement and who sometimes have to walk away, are scapegoated* as being the source of the problem. In reality, those who, by God’s grace, see the damage and its causes, are the only ones who have real hope for healing and forging ahead in the freedom God intended.

It’s important to ask if our conduct is helping someone or enabling them. Not only our well-being, but the well-being of the other individual’s soul is at stake.

*Scapegoating is the common term used to describe treatment of the member(s) of a family who sees the messed up relationships and attempts change. They are vilified by both abuser and enabler(s) and blamed for being the cause of the problem instead of the sin of the toxic individual. 

Here’s an update to this post that I wrote some time ago.

The trial of child molester Jerry Sandusky gave the public a glimpse of how desperately evil enablers can be. Jerry’s wife, Dottie is Exhibit A. Despite cold, hard evidence of her husband’s brutal sexual abuse of children, some of which took place in her own home, Dottie stood by “Jer.” She stood by him even when it meant throwing their own son, Matt, under the bus. Matt had the temerity to testify about his own father’s abuse. This, to an enabler of a toxic spouse, is unacceptable. Truth telling children must be abandoned and demonized. “Jer” was more important to this pathetic excuse for a woman than the fact that her man had destroyed the lives of countless children to satisfy his depraved lust.

When a father or mother turns on adult children and behaves in reprehensible ways towards them, and the spouse and sometimes adult siblings hunker down in silence, refusing to stand by the victim, they are part of the team of destruction. For professing Christians to behave in this way beggars belief.

A number of times, I have seen pastors or Christian leaders go under for behavior like gambling, adultery, porn or other kinds of abuse, with their enabling spouses clinging to their arms. These women, nearly always, were aware that things were going on, but rather than stand boldly and firmly for truth and for the victims, clung to their “Jers” and watched innocent people go down instead.

The Scriptures record the story of Abigail. If you haven’t read that story, please do. There was a strong women who knew that obeying God’s Law was more important than a wicked husband. She was blessed for her stand. She was no cowardly enabler, waving the flag of submission when her evil spouse was in sin. That excuse is too often a cover for character weakness. Submission to a spouse ends when that spouse asks you to do something that violates God’s Word. If your spouse, for example, engages in abusive activity towards your own children, or tells you to cut them off (along with the grandchildren), the biblical response to that is, “No, I will not do that. You claim to be a Christian, and what you are demanding is in gross violation of God’s Word. You may stay here and harbor hatred and bitterness, I will love, as Christ commanded.”

That is the only right response of a spouse to a toxic person. Failure to do this is to become complicit with the Destroyer. It really is that simple. Evil triumphs when Christian spouses enable sin instead of taking a principled, godly stand. Standing for what is right is never easy, but if we really follow Jesus, we have no other choice.

22 thoughts on “Helping or Enabling?

  1. Ingrid Schlueter says:

    One of the things that happens with enablers is that they become afflicted with the same blindness as the toxic spouse. It’s dangerous to not stand up for truth. You become part of the lie. Psychologists use the term “Stockholm Syndrome” to describe those who begin to identify with the abusive individuals they are with. It is real.

    The blindness means that the capacity to identify evil gradually disappears. Some Christian enablers will take refuge in endless prayer marathons, never noticing that over decades, their prayers have done nothing to change the sinful situation. God will not do for us what he expects us to do. Those who are mistreating others are only stopped when the sunlight of truth shows them for what they are. Those who hide in the tall grass, waiting for God to miraculously fix everything are engaging in what psychologists call “magical thinking.” Something will happen that requires nothing of me as an individual. I won’t have to risk anything or stand in God’s strength. It will all get made magically better if I just keep praying. There’s a time to pray, and there’s a time to stand up to moral evil. But enablers do not and often cannot understand this. So they continue on, providing cover, aid and comfort to the one who casually inflicts injury upon others.

    Scripture says the righteous are “bold as a lion.” Proverbs 28:1. That’s because we have the Lion of Judah to go with us.

  2. carolyn says:

    Amen! Amen! AMEN!!!

    My favorite statement: “Biblical submission to a _______ ends when that _______ asks you to do something that violates God’s Word.”

    You filled in the blank with “spouse”, but honestly, the blank can be filled in with any human relationship. Submission to other people is CONDITIONAL. Submission to GOD ALONE is UNCONDITIONAL.

  3. Yaddy Slaney says:

    Thank you so much for this….I stood up to an abusive husband…..he was an alcoholic( his family was not impressed, nor were the people from my church) but when he told me in one of his sober moments, to please hide the knives and scissors, as he had heard voices telling him “to kill” I left…..
    This was more than 30 years ago, but still, people, especially church people, just do not understand… I also changed churches. :=)
    Bless you so much!

  4. Ingrid Schlueter says:

    Yaddy, I’m sorry you had to encounter professing Christians who didn’t understand your need to protect your own life. I had a high school friend named Tawana. I attended her baby shower in March of 1988 before her child was born. With her was her tall,nice looking husband. I knew something was wrong, it was in her face. In October, I found out what was wrong. Her photo was on the front page of the Milwaukee paper one Sunday, a photo of her in her bridal gown. Her husband had murdered her in cold blood with a handgun. He also murdered the baby, just weeks old by bashing its head against a dresser. Her then shot himself in the head at a McDonald’s in Pleasant Prairie, WI. I wonder if the “Christians” you encountered would understand THAT?

    I’m so glad you got out. This isn’t a theological issue, it’s common sense. There is so much needless confusion among Christians who tell women in these situations that they need to go back to an abuser and “save their marriage.” If your husband who pledged to love, honor and cherish you is abusing you, there is no marriage to save. The pastors who expect this of women and children should be required to visit a safe house where women share their horrendous stories. Churches should be a refuge for such women, but too often they are not because of this shameful advice and judgments of people who have never known a day of living with fear.

  5. Carol in Chicago says:

    Thank you for writing about family abuse, it’s a silent scourge. My father is a Destroyer. My mother, a genuine Christian, suffered terrible cruelty and abuse for many years. By the grace of God, she finally got the courage to separate and divorce him. But he has continued his cunning, vicious ways: Brainwashing, slandering, lying, bribing, degrading…destroying. What he does best, his whole life’s mission, to destroy the good in others so that he can feed off of their pain. It is wickedness.

    There are some painful estrangements within my family due to all the manipulation. Oh, the senseless, wasted years of lost opportunities to share and love. He is delighted with that, it gratifies and empowers him. But what I’ve told everyone is this: There is nothing wrong with any of us, and there are no problems except – Dad.

    However, people live in denial (like you said, the “Stockholm Syndrome”). They want something and will do what the abuser wants them to do for whatever it is they want (favor, money, family possessions, security, recognition, the illusion of being “loved” and importantly- relief/being spared from having abuse directed at them).

    I’m a Christian, and my mother and I have a wonderful relationship in the Lord. I pray for my family, but sometimes I take a break because I get discouraged that the madness continues unabated. At least it seems that way to me, but I know that the Lord is Sovereign and He saves people, or calls them to account, in His own time.

    I just want to add that you are not alone Ingrid. Your testimony is comforting to those of us who have also experienced similar trials. Thank you for that.

  6. Linda says:

    It’s not unloving to hold someone accountable. It’s often the most loving thing you and I can do because it could lead to repentance. Any person or Church that does not hold an abusive person accountable is aiding and embedding the abuse.

    We still need to forgive the abuser- but forgiveness doesn’t eradicate responsibility on the abuser’s part. God is more than willing to teach us how to surrender every hurt and rejection to him so that it produces wholeness and doesn’t keep us prisoners in our hearts with that person hurting us and so that it doesn’t keep us separated in our fellowship with the Lord.

    Carol in Chicago, I can identify with you to a degree. I was abused by my Father and after I gained enough courage to put a stop to it, I never told my mother. My mom was a very loving Christian woman and I wanted to protect her by NOT telling her about the abuse. I felt very ashamed because although I knew He was in the wrong I had experienced at a very young age things you’re not supposed to know about and I felt very guilty and wicked about it. It was clearly his fault but I was so confused.

    After I was saved, I still didn’t say anything about the abuse because I didn’t want to dishonor my father in Church or shock my mom. I was forgiven and all that hurt and pain, guilt and shame was taken away by the cleansing blood of Christ… The Lord has restored to me over the years the locusts had eaten and I’m whole in Christ

  7. Mike says:

    What is also not mentioned when talking about enablers is what I learned several years ago when I worked for a noted Christian social services agency. That is, that everyone was so concerned about being nice, respecting authority, and projecting a successful Christian image that nasty, manipulative people went on with their nastiness without the slightest challenge. The whole idea of patient Christian love gets morphed into a passivity and acceptance of dysfunction that in the end does no good. Nobody does anything to stop someone and counsels others to show love and tolerance, but no account is given for how much damage a destructive person does to those around them. There are times when it is necessary to look the sin and dysfunction in the face and name it for what it is.

  8. Katie G says:

    WOW! You just totally summed up my mom! She allowed my dad to physically, mentally and emotionally abuse us kids growing up. Many times, we should have received medical care, but that would have raised a red flag. She started working nights so she didn’t have to deal with it. She also, has witnessed it happen to her own grandchildren and she still sits idyll by, saying how they “had” it coming. I left home when I was 16 because of the abuse. Some how, I have been sucked back in. I’ve been supposedly the crazy one, according to them.

    My mom even knew that 3 out of her 4 daughters were being molested by an uncle, (her sisters husband). She had so little regard for us, that my aunt and her child molester husband would receive sole custody of us 5 kids if anything would have happened to my parents!

    We sold our house and moved closer to my husbands job this spring, to get some much needed distance. Unfortunately, 40 mins is still way too close!

  9. Heather F. says:

    The definition was helpful. We have an adult son who is making choices in his life that cause him continual financial crises, and it is so hard to know how much to “help.” Especially as we are believers, which he well knows, and he is not.

  10. Tom says:

    Thank you. I don’t have much respect for Christians (in large part because of the enabling you describe) but I have more now after reading this blog piece.

  11. Ethel Grimes says:

    Thank you so much for your article! It’s been a refreshing eye-opener. I cut off relations with a very toxic sibling and in-law after years of putting up with their b.s. that was only getting worse. (My parents are deceased.) Their own son and his family are not speaking to them either, especially after some cruel insults toward my grand-nephew (that’s what really ended it for me). Sad to say, another relative, who just joined a church, is preaching at us and guilt-tripping us and trying to make us spend time with those two again, even though we have TOLD her what’s going on and why. It isn’t that there will never be forgiveness of the offending couple and it doesn’t mean that there’s no love there; but forgiveness and moving on will come a lot easier when you get out of the environment that made it necessary in the first place.

  12. Janice McKenzie says:

    Let’s talk about enablers as in Doug Phillips’ wife, Beale. There had to have been a point in their home years ago where her female intuition voice whispered that Lourdes and her husband were on intimate terms. Goodness, that picture at the airport with Doug’s arm draped over a swooning-faced Lourdes speaks volumes. Beale is smart academically, but checked her brain out when she fell under her charismatic narsasistic husband’s spell. Further, she should have been protecting that girl living under her roof from her lecherous husband.

    A woman I highly respect is Jenny Sanford, ex-wife of former Gov. of South Carolina, who had no problem throwing her bum of a husband out when she found out about his affair. She kept her self-respect and illustrated to her sons what a confident intelligent woman looks like. I’d love to think that behind closed doors, Beale is deciding to not stand by her man, gets an attorney and throws Doug’s stuff on the front lawn. I’d be asking him for more details of exactly when she was supposed to die. But, no, I think she is Enabler of the First Rank and the Phillip children will detest both of their parents in the end.

  13. Ingrid Schlueter says:

    Janice, you have hit on a very important subject. No abuser of any kind, emotional/sexual/spiritual, none of them, can do what they do without help. If you as a spouse and you choose to play the role of a Dottie Sandusky, that is your choice, but enabling, running PR for the man and remaining silent while evil goes on makes you just as guilty as the perpetrator. True love protects the innocent. And if you no longer can see the innocent for what they are, including your own family, your moral compass has been destroyed. These women do know. They can have a myriad of reasons, all of them wrong, for remaining silent. They fear harming a Great Work of God, they fear having to be an individual, they have a perverse “love” (a twisted form of the real thing called trauma bonding) for the one that has mistreated them and others all their lives, they are cowardly, easily manipulated etc. Whatever reason they have, as a believer in Christ, you may not participate in the works of darkness. When innocent people are being harmed, families blown up, and people are telling you the truth all around you, you have no business hunkering down to wait it out. That is complicity.

    Dottie Sandusky’s husband was convicted on 45 counts of child molestation and is in prison. When interviewed, her comments to the media were to say how much Jerry the Pervert missed his grandchildren. (He had molested his own son and Dottie threw him under the bus in court, calling him a liar, because he was a threat to her man.)

    This evil blindness that defends the indefensible may be understandable in those who don’t even claim to love God, but for those who claim the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as Christians, there really is no excuse, is there?

    Doug Phillips is Exhibit A of malignant narcissism. He believed he could come back by destroying the reputation of his nanny/sex interest, and pick up where he left off, teaching America about the importance of FAMILY. The joke’s on you, Doug, you shriveled little, garden-variety predator.

  14. Mike says:

    The wives,etc. will claim that they knew nothing but you, Ingrid,, seem so sure that they did. I wonder if you could explain what makes you so certain on this point. Thanks.

  15. Ingrid Schlueter says:

    Mike,this might help with your question, at least in the Phillips case.

    Final Complaint Paragraph 54:
    “On October 3, 2013, Ms. Torres received an e-mail from Beall Phillips threatening her if she did not keep silent about what happened to her, i.e., her abuse
    [the Complaint quotes from Beall’s email to Lourdes]:
    ‘During the last ten weeks, and ultimately for the last nine months, you have been lighting bombs all across the country. Right now, you may have a perception of peace, but what you don’t know is that these bombs are about to explode in a manner that will change all of our lives forever. It will affect your life, your marriage prospects . . . your parents . . . and thousands of other people. It is far worse than you imagine. The VFM board has encouraged me to let you know about these and to work with you to give you an opportunity to stop impending destruction.’ ”

    My opinion: The Vision Forum Board is corrupt. And that’s an understatement.

    Oh, and just a little thing called a lifetime of experience witnessing this crap in countless ministry situations. In some circles, looking the other way when husband does bad things that hurts innocent people is actually worth a gold star in the plus column. “Suffering for Jesus” they call it. Except they really aren’t suffering for Jesus at all.

    On a related note, one ministry employee told a reporter that if you get badly injured by a Christian leader, you just keep silent and suffer and that’s what Christianity is. The reporter asked for my response and I said, “What you just heard is the number one reason that the list of victims gets bigger all the time. That is the exact mentality that leads to the kind of abuse and corruption God is now making public. No true Christian would behave in a manner that defrauds and destroys another, and to allow it to go on in the name of Jesus Christ, is a sin in itself. Those kind of people who say true Christians stay silent are called participants in abuse.”

    I’m sorry for Doug’s wife and children, whatever they knew. Because betrayal by your own husband/father is as bad as it gets and can destroy your faith. I pray it doesn’t.

  16. Tim Cunningham says:

    There is a name for the kind of spiritual abuse documented above. As Ken Blue shows in “Healing Spiritual Abuse,” an extended analysis of Christ’s words in Matt. 23 this kind of spiritual abuse is nothing less than Pariseeism.

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