When Acceptance Becomes Enabling

Man passed out with alcohol with woman watchingIn couples and sex therapy, one of the common themes that come up is that of acceptance. I strongly encourage people to accept their partner, and accept each other. I believe that acceptance is at the core of a successful intimate relationship. I discourage long lists of expectations and/or changes that people often bring into their relationships, which may be ideals of who their partner should or should not be, perhaps based on how a previous partner may have been or how the perfect partner should be. These ‘ideals’ or ‘shoulds’ can be quite detrimental not just to the relationship as a whole, but affect other areas of the relationship along the way, such as a couple’s sex life. Ideals and ‘shoulds’ can sound like judgments and criticisms, and there is just no room for hostility in the bedroom (well, in most cases). So limiting our lists to two very specific items is something I recommend; simply accept the rest. Acceptance conveys the message that we love our partner just the way he/she is, and that quite possibly we even admire them, look up to them, and still love and/or are in love with the same person when we met, and who we fell in love with. If we find we cannot accept our partner much of the time, and that we get angry too much, then taking a look at ourselves is the next step.

But there is another side of acceptance I want to talk about. There is a detrimental aspect of acceptance, and that is when it allows for things like abuse, manipulation, and control to take over the relationship. Being too accepting of all things, especially when they risk harming someone, is where learning to draw the line becomes important. Having boundaries is key, and knowing what one’s boundaries are is a good place to start. Some examples of behaviors that should be at least questioned and looked at include drug and alcohol use and abuse, violence of any kind (this includes physical abuse), sexual abuse towards anyone, including spouse, pets, and children in particular. Yes, there are some things we should not blindly accept. Accepting these often become like shoving things under the rug — a giant pink elephant in the room that everyone knows is there, but no one acknowledges or talks about. This is also sometimes known as denial (a concept that Sigmund Freud suggested was one of our coping mechanisms). Denying that there is a problem may often lead to trying to cover up the problem or fix the problem by accepting our partners behavior. I call this covering-up behavior enabling.

Enabling is simply trying to smooth things over, to keep things in peace and harmony, to keep the relationship together and intact, and while enablers definitely have their personal roots and reasons, enabling may have severe and detrimental costs. In the case of violence, physical abuse, and drug or alcohol abuse, the worst case scenario is death, but along the way there are many other costs. The enabling individual (or, enabler) may have to work harder and harder to make up for the addict or abuser’s behaviors to keep the relationship and family running smoothly. There may be financial hardships. There may be accidents or legal battles, and there may be a lot of physical or emotional suffering. Establishing boundaries for what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior is absolutely key. No, we cannot accept everything, for we risk becoming an enabler. The person who accepts too much must also take a look at him/herself.

Below is a link to some questions from TellingItLikeItIs.Net for you to ask yourself, to help you determine if you might be enabling some sort of otherwise unacceptable behavior. If you answer yes, I strongly suggest making some changes, determining and developing your boundaries and seeking out the help of a mental health professional.

Identifying Early Warning Signs of Enabling Behavior

Related Articles:

How Co-Dependents Come Into Therapy
The Quest for Wisdom
Saying No to the “Disease”

© Copyright 2011 by Mou Wilson. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Tommie Anne

    October 19th, 2011 at 12:46 PM

    You know, I read this and it really got me thinking. We are always being told that we have to love and honor our partner for better or for worse, but there are those who take this to the extreme. Like in abuse cases. And these are men and women who continue to take and take all of the abuse and hurt that the other will throw at them and yet they only get hurt in return. There is only so much that someone should have to take in the nanme of love.

  • Hillie

    October 20th, 2011 at 4:10 AM

    Time for some to get a backbone

  • PHIL

    October 20th, 2011 at 8:24 PM

    Life itself is a balance of so many things. And relationships are no different. Accept too little and it will not let the relationship grow, accept too much and it will create problems. There needs to be a judicious balance of things if the relationship is to sustain and thrive.

  • Moushumi Ghose

    November 5th, 2011 at 8:35 AM

    Thanks for reading :-)

  • netty gagnon

    June 27th, 2012 at 10:04 PM

    In street term: Dont put up with peoples shit and dont be a dumbass

  • Jenna B.

    April 2nd, 2018 at 9:30 PM

    My delima goes a step further… I have the drug user / abuser who is being enabled by his mother who is living with us who is reassuring him he’s not doing any wrong and he needs to do these things to get bills paid Eva found a cover-up job for him to sell and abuse his drugs… like I said I have a dilemma maybe I should have said giant dilemma we just started a family and this is our first place.

  • Peace Is Here

    November 13th, 2019 at 6:13 PM

    Bah all this talk of physical violence, sexual abuse and drug abuse… those are obvious bad behaviours and traits. Obvious abuses. What’s less obvious is the psychological abuse (nagging from women to men, typically) that grinds people down. Men put up with a lot in exchange for sex and companionship, basically. Take away the sex, though and it can often look like a really poor deal. So the man resents this deal especially if he’s not to blame for the sex going away.
    The woman nearly always plays the victim due to society’s primal prejudices towards protecting females and that being the path of least resistance through this world (I live in London, England, and whilst cultures vary, human evolutionary traits don’t tend to).
    A man is expected to find his woman sexy throughout her menopause and until death. Or is expected to ride on memories of when she was younger and hotter (assuming the relationship started then). Or is expected to just have no sex if she becomes uninterested due to low-libido due to low hormonal load post-menopause for example. Or is depressed for no fault of the man’s (see: ‘playing the victim’, above). If she allows herself to get fat out of convenience and not placing her physical condition as an absolute must, on a par with feeding her children or earning money to keep a roof over her head – then she is saying “I do not care about my man’s sexual needs”. The flip-side to that is it breaks the social contract of paying for him to protect, perhaps feed, clothes pay-for, (at least in part), her and her kids’ material needs. Whilst they’re (mostly, but perhaps only 62% of the time according to some surveys) HIS kids to pay for too… She is protected by both the law, AND society’s unwritten biases (people will help a female stranger with no obligation for her to pay in sex or money whilst males are not at all this privileged). He is not.
    So, ‘abuse’ comes in many forms, and can be ‘abuse of contract’ or, specifically ‘treating men like an object for material gain’, or ‘treating men like a resource or appliance that if he should refuse to work hard for her, he must be discarded’.
    THIS is the underlying unspoken reality, not subjective or a projection of my personal psychological issues.
    Now, such a contract might be worth it to some men – but ask yourself, where is the freedom that men – and nearly all of them were men – died for?
    If men are free to behave as they wish and have so much privilege – just experiment as I have, in trying to speak your mind publicly about women or this aspect of life.
    What is so shameful about the truth, that scientific evidence exists to back up the arguments put forward?
    Unless, of course, some great manipulation is going on that the truth must remain hidden at all costs?
    Esther Vilar had something to say about that.
    Warren Farrell too.
    So, when men go so far as to lash out and even use physical violence… PLEASE try to map-out the FULL cause-and-effect chain that brought events to that logical point of behaviour.
    EVERYTHING happens for a reason. Test who the REAL abuser is by mapping all these cause-and-effect links in the chain out – and seeing WHO exactly LIES about THEIR part in causing abuse and perpetrating the abuse-cycle back round.
    I think you’ll find that women are vastly less innocent than they pretend to be, and men vastly more provoked under all circumstances than is admitted-to, including by those same men (internalised misandry or just pride), bar the lucky (or powerful) ones.
    Only by understanding abuse as a cycle, that permeates society, can we hope to stop it. You cannot stop a disease by being prejudiced about who you treat for the disease, whilst blaming the sick person for being sick – and refusing to innoculate 50% of the population whilst blaming the other 50%. That’s basically where we are with post-Feminist Western society and abuse (especially domestic violence issues). Psychological violence is real, it kills, slowly. Women, for evolutionary reasons mainly, love using passive-aggression (or at least CHOOSE to use it, rather than be non-violent).
    Stop lying about this and whitewashing it, and we can start using the energy currently wasted on lying and angry conflict over the lying, on honest, loving solutions.
    People are so obsessed with the power of manipulation that they’re not quite ready, yet, it seems. Good luck with that, time is short, I think!

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