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.

Self-Deception – Creating a Virtual Reality

“It’s all gone,” said my toddler daughter as she held up her bowl at dinner.

Surprised that she was finished already, I looked in the bowl. She most certainly was not done. She had barely started. Her self-delusion was rooted in her desire for the cookie that might come at the end of her meal. In her mind, if she stated that all the food was gone, it must be so. She didn’t like the fact that she had food to finish, so she invented her own virtual reality where she was all done.

Self-delusion is a pervasive human trait, and all of us, at one time or another, have engaged in it. What delineates a normal person from a toxic person, however, is the ability to identify this in ourselves and root it out. When people lose all contact with truth and conscience, terminal self-delusion results.

Many of us know someone who suffers from such self-delusion. They wreak havoc in relationships, because they are not willing to hear from anyone around them regarding the reality of their shattered relationships. These people insist on wearing their warped glasses–glasses that create a reality that comports with their own prideful perceptions, but has nothing to do with what really is going on.

One of the hallmarks of such a person is isolation. While they may have many people in their lives, they are close to none. Anyone within close proximity is required to take on their own distorted version of reality or risk being rejected. Many simply steer clear of these people for anything other than utilitarian purposes.

So what are some clues that indicate someone is self-deceived?

In a multitude of counselors, Scripture says, there is safety. If you are ignoring what most of your caring family is telling you when they say there is a problem, you may be living in self-delusion. If you are alienated from most of those around you, insisting the whole time that everyone else is the problem, it’s time for some honest self-analysis.

There’s an apt (if well-worn) illustration of the farmer who complained to his wife repeatedly that the house smelled like the barnyard. He went from room to room looking for the source of the stench, railing at his wife about her shoddy housecleaning. His wife gently pointed out to him that perhaps it was the manure on his mustache that was causing the problem. A self-deluded man is one who would argue with the wife and continue to complain about the stench problem, even when the real source was pointed out, clearly and unmistakably. You can erect an alternate reality, but the stench in your life won’t be eradicated until you identify the source of the problem.

The life of self-delusion is a sad one. Telling yourself something over and over does not make it so. It is the mental equivalent of getting in your car and driving into a brick wall. Repeatedly. If in pride we resist the truth tellers God has put around us, eventually we are given over to a mind that can no longer even take in the truth. That is a frightening place none of us should ever want to be.

Healing and reconciliation can only take place in relationships when real humility causes the scales to drop from pride-filled eyes and the love of God warms hearts long-hardened into stone. It’s important to remember that we cannot change someone else’s self-delusion. But when we encounter someone like this, we can pray for something to break through their self-imposed blindness, and take careful note about the destructive consequences of pride.