Sponsor This PageClick here to find out how

The Dangers of Enabling

4 Warning Signs that Caregiving Is Damaging You and Your Loved One

The Danger of Being an Enabling Caregiver

Enabling refers to doing for others what they should be doing for themselves. When you enable, you are over caring—caring too much—and in the wrong ways. It’s the cause of irritability, anger, excess work, stress, and critical and guilt-ridden feelings toward ourselves.

Over-caring Starts With Being the “Good” Spouse

Jim and Karen were college sweethearts and have been married for 35 years. When Jim had a stroke, Karen was devastated. Like most wives, she immediately immersed herself in her husband’s care. Karen knews a “good wife” wouldn’t let her husband struggle. Even though Jim was able to do most everything and didn’t need much help, Karen did everything to take care of all of his needs. After all, his quality of life was at stake. But Karen was so caught up in his care that she didn’t notice its negative effects.

Now, her life is buried in a list of to-dos for Jim. She no longer enjoys her favorite activities, partly because she doesn’t have time and partly because she doesn’t have the energy. She won’t accept help from anybody. She thinks it will take too long to give directions, and others won’t do things “right” anyway. Yet she is irritated with people who don’t offer help.

She is beyond exhausted, and is angry--with Jim, with herself and at how her life has turned into something she hates. And she is harming Jim. Her anger spills over into his care and she is often abrupt and insensitive with him. In subtle ways, and with the best of intentions, she does further damage because her over caring turns Jim into a physical as well as an emotional invalid.

You see, if you do everything for your husband, you take away any chance he has to still feel like a man and to feel proud of himself and to stay physically fit. You stop being his wife and you become his parent-–and not a very nice one. Of course, the same problems arise for a husband caring for a wife, or a child taking care of a parent.

Karen, like so many caregivers, was encouraged and rewarded for being selfless since she was a child. She was taught that it was wrong to think about herself and her needs. This was so engrained in her that she didn’t realize it was destroying her, Jim, their marriage and many relationships. Fortunately, she learned she had options and choices to save her marriage and her life. 

Four Warning Signs of Enabling and Options for Alternate Behaviors

1. Knowing what's best for your loved one and insisting on making that happen.

Karen genuinely thought it was her responsibility to be in charge of everything related to Jim’s illness, including what he and everyone should do in regard to it. She tried to engineer things so everyone adhered to her ways. The option: Realize that ultimately it is the ill person's disease and their responsibility to decide the course they and it will take. The caregiver needs to discover the ill person’s wishes. If you don’t ask, you won’t know.

To do this, Karen learned to prepare for important discussions, then approach Jim and communicate with him in a collaborative way. For the first time since his stroke, she found out what he really wanted and expected. Now she was able to decide what she would do, and would not do, in response to his wishes.

2. Pleasing everyone, but not yourself.

When in-laws visited, Karen followed their wishes, not hers. It seemed that either silence or confrontation were her only options, so she said nothing. And she was rewarded with praise and positive responses. It felt good in one sense, but also left her filled with anger and resentment. The option: Karen learned to respond so she wouldn’t have to make her in-laws wrong in order for her to be right. Now she’d say: “I realize you want Jim to eat dinner at 6, however, we’ve decided that he does better with dinner at 5:00.”

3. Reading your loved one's mind.

Karen also tried to do Jim’s thinking for him, partly to save time and partly to guarantee the outcomes she wanted. She feels she knows his mind, yet sometimes assumes things that aren’t correct. For instance, she bent over backwards to create a time for Jim’s brother to visit during a busy day, yet never realized that Jim didn’t want to see him. The option: Karen learned how to work collaboratively with Jim, rather than making one-sided agreements.

4. Being pleased that the ill person relies on you.

Karen’s friend, Mary, was also a caregiver. Whether it was conscious or not, she made herself needed and indispensable so her husband would remain reliant on her - and her alone. This reliance ensured her place in her husband’s life, offered a sense of stability and “job security”, gave her a feeling of importance, and showed the world how hard she worked. The option: Mary needed to ask herself who is benefiting more from this image: she or her husband? Mary, who was enjoying her martyr role, needed to consider counseling.

When you choose to stop assuming all of this unnecessary responsibility and control, your workload will decrease, your anger and stress will subside, you’ll have fewer arguments yet better communication, and you’ll end up with more time for yourself. Your home will become more peaceful and you will help your loved one feel stronger and more independent and capable. And most importantly, rather than resenting your husband, you will reclaim the loving feelings you had toward your spouse and become their loving partner again.

By: Diana B. Denholm, Ph.D., LMHC, author of The Caregiving Wife’s Handbook: Caring for Your Seriously Ill Husband, Caring for Yourself

^ back to top

"When you enable, you are over caring—caring too much—and in the wrong ways."

About the Author

Diana Denholm, PhD, has been a board certified psychotherapist for more than 30 years. For 11 years, she was the primary caregiver to her husband during a series of grave illnesses. Her critically-acclaimed book, The Caregiving Wife’s Handbook: Caring for Your Seriously Ill Husband, Caring for Yourself, offers hope, advice and resources for women and men caring for their spouses with long-term illnesses.

Diana’s Book Ad Maya Hennessey Box 2 Your Ad Here