What Are Enabling Behaviors?
Empowering, not Enabling
Written by: Sydney Martin
In the book, Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen. It is the fictional story of Fran Benedetto, and her escape from her abusive husband. One passage that struck me from the first few pages of the story was this:
“I remember a story in the Daily News a couple of years ago about a guy who kept a woman chained in the basement of the building where he was a custodian. Whenever he felt like it, he went down the concrete steps and did what he wanted to her. Part of me had been in a cellar too, waiting for the sound of footfalls on the stairs. And I wasn’t even chained. I stayed because I thought things would get better, or at least not worse. I stayed because I wanted my son to have a father and I wanted a home. For a long time I stayed because I loved Bobby Benedetto, because no one had ever gotten to me the way he had. I think he knew that. He made me his accomplice in what he did…”
In this story, the main character Fran went to work and pretended that nothing was wrong at home, she lied to her son and said she had accidents when bruises showed their angry marks on her face and arms, she cleaned up the blood that her husband spilled, she tiptoed around and refused to even pick up the remote and change the channel to avoid his angry outbursts. She reset her own broken nose. And she enabled her husband’s abusive behavior.
While initially actions such as Fran’s are used in order to keep the peace and try to eliminate abusive episodes, ultimately these sorts of things do nothing more than enable the abuser to continue their pattern of behavior. It reinforces the unhealthy hierarchy in the relationship, in which the abuser has control, and abuses in order to get what he or she wants.
In the end, if enabling keeps happening, abuse will keep happening as well. And then you might end up feeling like Fran, being made the accomplice to your own abuse. While these actions might seem to be the best option right now, they will actually trap you in a vicious cycle. Read on to identify enabling behaviors so that you can avoid them, and begin empowering yourself.
What Are Enabling Behaviors?
While avoiding certain things in order to keep a spouse or partner from exploding might seem like a viable option, this really just gives that person an unhealthy amount of control. Changing the way you dress, who you talk to you, what you buy, where you work, or what you say, is never something you should have to do to please someone you love.
And after a while, you will probably find yourself dodgingdoing pretty much anything, and still experiencing abuse no matter what you do. Which is why it is best to avoid changing your behavior to avoid abuse. You are wonderful just as you are, and you should dress how you want to, talk to who you want to, and be who you want to be.
I was a lifeguard for two years. And in my training, I learned something interesting about saving a drowning person. There are times when you are in the deep end of the pool, and if you swim up to someone from the front, their first instinct is to grab onto you in order to save themselves. In this case, the drowning person is going to push both of you underwater.
Thinking you are going to fix or rescue someone who is abusing you is a lot like saving a person who is drowning and calling for your help, but then hold you underwater with them until you begin to drown. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can “take it” or that you are strong enough to absorb another person’s pain. The more you try to rescue them, the more they’ll drag you under.
So, with lifeguarding, the interesting thing I learned about saving a drowning person:
If they drag you under with them, you are supposed to fight against them to get away from them.
Our instructors told us to squirm, kick, and push away from the person we are trying to save. Because it is impossible to save someone if they are drowning you along with them.The same applies to an abuser. You cannot fix them or rescue them if you stay in an abusive relationship with them.
When in a controlling and manipulative relationship, it may be easy to find yourself convincing yourself that things will get better, blaming yourself for the fights, putting on makeup to cover up bruises, creating elaborate stories to explain away your wounds, or cleaning up after violence and not speaking of it again.
You may cover up your bruises to hide your hurt from others because you are convinced that things can only get better. They can’t get worse. Your partner only hit you because you were talking with that cute neighbor. It was your fault anyway. You can just clean up the blood, pick up the broken glass, cover up your scars, and continue on.
But covering up and making excuses and lying will only lead to more hurt and more covering up. When you hide what is happening, you give the abuser so much power over you. They have learned from your actions that they can hurt you, and they can get away with it because the next day, the glass and blood will be cleaned up, and your face will only faintly show the bruises. Don’t let them have that power. Don’t make excuses. Don’t lie. Don’t cover for them. They need to accept the responsibilities of their behavior. It is the only way they will realize it is unacceptable.
In the United States, we all have a ritual of asking how others are doing, and quickly responding with “I’m fine, how are you?” even when we are not doing fine. It can be very natural for us to put up a wall and act like we’re doing great, even when there is violence and abuse at home. It makes me think of the song “Stained Glass Masquerade” by Casting Crowns. Their lyrics speak to this act of covering up what is wrong:
Everybody seems so strong
I know they’ll soon discover
That I don’t belong
So I tuck it all away
Like everything’s OK
If I make them all believe it
Maybe I’ll believe it too
So with a painted grin
I’ll play the part again
So everyone will see me
The way that I see them”
While it can be hard to let others see your hurt and struggle, covering it up becomes a negative behavior pattern that blurs reality. You begin to live in a world in which there is no one who can help you, no one you can reach out to, even when that is not the case at all. Don’t be afraid to stop covering up and share your truth.
Break the silence.