Is There Always an Enabler?

I realize by writing this post and publishing it I am embarking on the touchy subject of enablers in weight loss.  I have watched shows on the former channel, Discovery Health, about the struggles of the super obese and on every show I’ve seen, there was someone else “feeding” this poor, struggling person. Both literally feeding foods as most of them were unable to walk, and emotionally feeding their inner struggles.

I’ve taught enough of my weight loss classes and spoken to enough people who struggle with their weight to realize that there is not always an enabler. However, in my personal experience – there often is.

Darlene Albury, LMSW defines enabler as: “A person who by their actions make it easier for an addict to continue their self-destructive behavior by criticizing or rescuing.”

John and I did some family therapy early in our marriage when we were trying to set boundaries with some family members, but I have never been in therapy with the purpose of learning about codependency, enabling behavior or an eating disorder.

I talked with John about this in terms of my decade long struggle with obesity, and we both agreed that he probably was enabling me by agreeing to go with me to fast food restaurants, bringing me home one pound bags of M&M’s when I asked him too, and never saying a negative thing about my weight. Technically, he was enabling.

But, I would not have reacted kindly to him telling me I could not eat certain foods or listening to his advice, no matter how sound, on weight loss and overeating. I think had he taken that tact, it would have harmed our relationship.

I’ve known people who rely on adult children to bring them fast food meals at all hours of the day. I’ve never spoken to the adult child, but I wonder what it feels like to be on the other side of the problem. I know what it feels like to be the obese, struggling person. It’s not a good place to be. I suspect there is a lot of conflict within someone who is enabling unhealthy behavior – whether it be through eating, smoking or another type of codependent relationship.

My husband is a genuinely nice person. He’s extremely easy-going and hard to “rile up.” He said he always “felt sorry for me,” and just wanted me to be happy. He knew I wasn’t happy being 300 pounds, but he also saw me feel happy temporarily after I ate too many M&M’s or cookies. I suppose living with me was a little bit like living on a merry-go-round. How could he get off without harming our relationship?

I’m thankful every day for him, and thankful that I no longer have to deal worrying how John feels about the amount of food I eat. If you struggle with being on either side of these relationships, take heart in the fact that these types of behaviors can change, and you can grow together. Is it always easy? No – but how many things in life are?

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on enablers in the weight loss arena. Complicated issue? Diane

Image: Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

53 thoughts on “Is There Always an Enabler?

  1. Sharon says:

    Yes it is complicated and enabling can occur in so many forms often unique to just that individual situation. My husband is an “enabler,” but if this is even possible, he doesn’t mean to be. It’s HIS poor eating habits that “enable” me to sometimes excuse mine. He has no interest in healthy eating, has never had a weight issue and has better “numbers” that I do. He loves to cook, but is VERY busy with his work, so food planning and prep falls to me. I am in a good place right now (thankfully), but will never ENJOY cooking and have been known to fix what he likes/wants in order to make him happy. And often, that is something not healthy or not good for me, but I use it as a excuse to eat it myself. And I eat twice as much and suffer twice the consequences. I wouldn’t trade my spouse for anything in the world, but this is one thing I wish I could change about him. He’s just not interested in healthy eating. Most of the time I’m strong, but occasionally, his disinterest “enables” me to show disinterest as well.

    • Marty says:

      My girlfriend weighs 250 pounds. Her deadbeat husband weighs 500 pounds. They have health issues, no longer have sex, and never do anything except eat. Fast food, all you can eat buffets, grocery shopping for anything that had no nutritional value… chips, soda, cookies, ice cream, fatty red meat. Well you get it. She treats him like a baby and he acts like one. He does nothing. She loves it. She needs to be needed. He’ll never leave her. This is the life she wants. They are so codependent neither sees it. I try to talk to her but the denial is a mile deep. They do not want to change. So they burden a health care system with the avoidable ailments.

  2. Deniz says:

    Yep, complicated alright. My lovely hubby thinks he was my enabler, and that my increasing weight was his fault (he’s the main cook) but I disagree. I don’t think I needed any assistance at all, either to gain weight or remain obese. I did that to me all by myself. The term ’emotional eater’ was tailor-made for me!

    He did, in fact, on more than one occasion try to talk to me about my health – especially after his diabetes was diagnosed. It took courage to do that. Can’t say I was ever in listening mode back then. He’s been such a support during the weight loss journey, and has made huge strides in losing his own excess weight more recently.

    Yes, enablers exist, but I don’t think we can ever truly blame others for our own choices. Our bodies = our responsibility.

  3. John says:

    I’ve been in a relationship with a morbidly obese person and I’ve been asked to buy junk food (my ex couldn’t drive). Sometimes I said yes, sometimes I said no. However, the quantity of food that I was asked to bring home was hardly anything, certainly not enough to live on, even for a person of normal weight. Maybe once or twice a week. The problem is that if you want your partner to eat healthy, there is really no way to make it happen. You can eat vegetables every day for a month, but you can’t force them to eat them if they don’t want to. Similarly you can’t stop them from eating a block of chocolate 3 times a week. The pattern I got into was to say “that’s not healthy” and leave it at that.

    Some things have no solution, I think this is one of them. At least, in my experience.

  4. E. Jane says:

    I have often wondered if my husband was an enabler. He is often the first one to suggest going to a restaurant to eat. But I have to be cautious before I label him as such. He is a very nice person, and wants me to be happy, but if I tell him “no” he will always back away from “food adventures.” Other people in my life (friends & kids) will also not push food on me, if I don’t want them to. I have come to realize that I am my own enabler. It’s like there’s this enabling voice sitting on my shoulder. It’s up to me to silence it.

    Great post, Diane!

  5. Jennifer says:

    From personal experience, I can say that enabling does go on and it is not easy to fix. I think the person who is allowing it to happen (the obese person) is the one who has to draw the line and end it. My husband is very like yours. He has never said anything about my weight, yet he was always happy to take us to get ice cream or bring things home. He likes them, too! But he is not obese or even overweight now. It was when I drew that line and said to stop, he did. I blame myself, totally, for my weight. He was just trying to make me happy.

  6. Diandra says:

    Most enablers do not mean harm – in many societies we have come to associate food with care. If the BF brings me home some cookies, it is up to me to either eat them, store them for later or give them away. And I think it will always be this way.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Good point. Often times they are trying to help the person feel better, or give them what they want. It doesn’t always have to be a conscious decision. It can be just how the person functions within the relationship.

  7. Julie Lost and Found says:

    This is a very touch subject for me and a sensitive one to comment on.

    In my home, my husband is the enabler. He can be critical of my weight, but then when he sees me really working hard, both mocks the healthy eating sometimes, and brings all kinds of junk into the home. It’s also during those times, that if I AM having a craving, he’s more than happy to run out to the store and get me anything my heart desires. I truly believe he does not really want me to lose weight. I don’t know if it’s an insecurity thing or what, but he’s even alluded to it.

    He is not overweight, and all three of my kids are little string beans.

    I’m not blaming him for my actions or my being overweight, but we’re talking about enablers, and well, he is mine.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Thank you for being so transparent Julie. It will likely help other people in their own journey. It can make a difficult journey even more challenging when someone you love is also someone who is enabling the behavior that you are trying so hard to change.

  8. Jane at Keeping the Pounds off says:

    First: No matter what, only I am responsible for what I put into my mouth and this comment in no way suggests the other people in my life are to blame. It is informational, not accusatory to any person.

    There are enablers and there are pushers.
    The pushers suggest your favorite foods and where you can get them right now. They buy them for us without being asked. They encourage the buffet, the ice cream party, the pizza blitz. They brings gifts of candy to diabetics in the hospital. It doesn’t matter if they are ‘nice’ or wonderful – it is the mark of a pusher to be charming.

    The enabler gets the food for me when I want it. Perhaps they know I will be annoyed if they don’t so they do it without wanting to. They love us but do not have the coping skills for dealing with our food-dementia except for enabling. This is why successful weight loss and maintenance cannot exist unless the enablers learn the tools with which to change right along with the food addict. Very few people have the chops to push past their pushers at the beginning.

    Thank you DIane, as always you give me a great idea for a future topic on my blog.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      John was not a pusher, but rather an enabler. He sometimes suggested “bad foods” but more often than not he encouraged me when I said I wanted “x” or “y.” I never blamed anyone but myself for the foods I put in my mouth either. After all, no one force fed me chocolate, chips, or junk.

  9. Leah says:

    Personally, I never felt like someone else was an enabler to me. I know my weight increased as I fed myself more and more food, and I have never been able to bring myself to blame someone else for my choices. I have a hard time with people getting upset when someone in their home, who does not have an issue with weight, brings home junk food (unless they are truly commenting and trying to sabotage you and force the food on you..that is different). I’ve always felt my issues with food are something I need to work on, not make my entire family or group of friends work on.

    hhhmmm….this is a topic which makes me think. I also find it interesting that in the definition you quoted and enabler can also be some who is critical of the addiction. Had my family or my husband been critical of my weight that would have been very destructive to me as I’ve always worried about what others thought of me. I’m working on that, but after reading your post I’m seeing that a critical person can definitely be as enabling as a person who actually brings the food.

    Thanks for opening up a topic and making me think today, Diane. 🙂

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      You have a really healthy attitude toward this issue Leah. At the end of the day, it is about our own choices. There are times or situations (like on those television shows) where the obese person is absolutely dependent on a caregiver for their food needs and in that case the person is in the hands of an enabler. You know?

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment Leah – I always appreciate your insights.

  10. Janis says:

    I’ve seen with a few different kinds of addictions that there are different people who are considered enablers sometimes: there’s the person who is simply in love with someone who is addicted, and quite reasonably doesn’t really know how to cope with it, or doesn’t know the magic words to say that will “cure” that person. They want what’s best for the person, but they also know that it’s hell to live in a house with an addict, and maybe if they get this one little hit of their drug-of-choice, they’ll be able to quit, after all they said they would … etc. etc. etc.

    Then, there’s the one that undermines any genuine attempt at the other person straightening themselves out because they fear that if the other person ever gets their act together, they’ll leave. Or they like having someone about who is “screwed up” because it makes them feel better about themselves. Or they don’t WANT the problem to be addressed, because then they’ll have to admit to their role on it. Or any of a dozen really poisonous reasons to outright sabotage someone when they are trying to get their heads on straight. Both are sometimes called enablers, but the first is just someone trying to cope with a problem that they can’t solve — the second is a saboteur.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Great explanation of an enabler and a saboteur. I know from talking with a lot of people that many, many spouses or significant others often feel really threatened when an obese person changes their appearance/lifestyle/habits. That feeling of being threatened can often bring out unexpected behaviors and feelings.

  11. Amanda says:

    I don’t think I had an enabler outside of myself. I was living in a horrible situation, and that situation was a large part of what drove my weight gain. When I realized what had happened and started losing weight, though, I did see that I had some people in my life who appeared to be a stumbling block rather than a help.

  12. Taryl says:

    I get a little frustrated with the enabler criticisms I have seen in the blogosphere other than here, because there is a really fine line between loving and wanting to serve our partner and causing them harm through that, you know? My husband might have been an enabler by some definitions, because he didn’t play food police with me or try to augment my decisions about my body, just helped where he could and kept his council to himself… But if that is enabling, what would a healthy marriage be if that wasn’t there? Even in hindsight and I can’t see a better course of action for him to have taken – he has supported me in all my pursuits and loved me regardless, that’s all I can ask. He isn’t my parent, coach, or holy spirit! He’s not here to control, train, or convict me of my actions.

    Thus, while he may have enabled a bit in some of his behaviors or by not refusing me, I really believe he did his very best and made the right choices. The one enabling and continuing my weight issues was me, he just didn’t step in and put a stop to it, because it wasn’t his place to do so.

    I think you handled this subject better than most, actually!

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I agree. As I’ve said before, if John had policed my eating, it would not have been good for our relationship. Although honestly, there was some enabling going on between the two of us.

      It is a touchy subject and although I don’t have all the answers, I think it is important to think about. After all, this journey isn’t just about losing pounds. It’s about dealing with the emotions that got us there in the first place. Often times within those emotions are complicated relationships as well.

  13. Dawn says:

    I find myself getting so angry sometimes watching those shows with the super obese and how people (generally the moms) are killing their children with food. I can never understand that they don’t see what they are doing in most cases either. As for myself, yes both my husband and I were enablers of each other, we were partners in food. When I started losing weight he wasn’t ready. So initially it was hard for him to not do what he was use to doing such as picking up some haagen dazs when I was stressed or upset. He too just wanted to see me happy and he always loved me through all of it. He wasn’t all that supportive in the beginning with my constant walks or gym trips because he was use to me handling most everything with the kids but eventually him and the children both saw how much happier and more even keeled I was after exercise and soon they would actually suggest I go for a walk or to the gym when they could see the stress or anxiety in me. Now that health is important to both Mike and I and even the kids, life is so much better. Sometimes I wish I could give what I know to every obese person but I know just as I found with my own family it has to be in each person’s own time.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I don’t understand it either. It seems so obvious as an outsider looking in that when your child or adult child is incapable of taking care of himself because of his extreme obesity that something is wrong. Especially if the obese person is unable to drive to get food or even stand up long enough to prepare it.

      Thank you for sharing how you and your husband handled your own journey. It really is a change of lifestyle for the whole family. Spouses, children, in-laws – everyone has to adjust and learn new behaviors. Every path looks different and I’m so glad you found yours!

  14. marie says:

    You’re right, this is a complicated one. I’ve never heard anyone react well to people telling them to eat better, so I myself wouldn’t do it. I feel the person with the weight problem needs to take responsibility and ask for help or what they need. Husbands especially aren’t mind readers and I think a supportive spouse is always better than one who criticizes.

    I feel I have a lot of knowledge when it comes to nutrition but would never confront a friend. But if they asked I am all there!

  15. Jody - Fit at 54 says:

    It is complicated Diane BUT as I watch some of those shows too, it would be worth it to me to piss of a loved one & say NO then to see them kill themselves with the wrong choices. Again, complicated but it is tough stuff. Same with those shows that used to be on with parents that submitted their kids for shows to lose weight but they were heavy also & obviously not doing what is needed in the house to keep them healthy….

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Yes, I know what you are saying. I saw one show where the enabler was the mother of an older teen or young adult girl. The mother goaded the girl after her surgery and obviously had some very serious issues surrounding her daughter’s weight and independence. In some of those cases, the co-dependency aspect is very strong.

      The childhood obesity issue makes me so sad because although kids do eat at schools, the majority of foods they eat comes from the home or is provided to them by the parents.

  16. La. says:

    Since women eat for emotional reasons I think husbands have a hard time of it! This is one of those areas that they can’t do anything right!

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      It’s definitely a delicate situation. I still don’t like John telling me what to do (not that he really does) and I know I would have built up resentment toward him had he really tried to take an active role in “policing” my food choices.

  17. Maren says:

    I think there are the “involuntary enablers”, people in situations such as your husband was in… and then there are the “voluntary enablers”. Such as some of my friends that continue to insist that I should have cake, ice cream etc when we gather, because “I have to live a little”. Whatever their motivation is, it’s pushing me back towards somewhere I do not wish to be,.. And I can resist this constant urging, but I see that some others can’t – and that’s why I feel they are enablers. Even coercers!

  18. me says:

    I can’t call someone an enabler when I would’ve just gone and gotten it myself had they said no~and probably in larger quantity after such a discussion! LOL! I can share that at present I have had to tell all of my children that they are NOT to offer me food. Ever. It’s very new and weird to them, as they love to share! It’s led to very good and interesting talks. 🙂

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I can understanding the children thing. There was a very brief time when I asked my older child to hide the cookies from me. I realized quickly that I could not rely on her to “police” my behaviors. Instead I had to learn to draw my own boundaries and make my own decisions.

  19. vickie says:

    I saw a number of comments where I think there was confusion over what enabling actually is.

    A few of the comments above, I suspect they are living with a sabotager and not actually an enabler. I think there is a difference.

    Even if we would go and buy or eat or whatever of our own accord without the other person’s participation, if they participate, it is still enabling.

    I think after patterns get repeated for a long time, or are similar to patterns of a person’s family of origin, enabling becomes very hard to identify.

    Your visual and mine are exactly the same – the housebound person being fed. And my ‘favorite’ one recently was the immobile person being driven home from a obesity related hospital stay and the enabler stopping for drive thru on the way home from the hospital.

    Diane, I have always thought your husband and mine were very similar on this topic. Sort of just going with the flow, and we had to learn set our own flow. I agree that when my husband participated in going out to eat with me (too much and for the wrong stuff) he was enabling. It was not up to him to stop me, or even to voice his disagreement with me, but he should not have gone with me, pretending it was okay. I think there are a lot of men who just want to know what the boundaries are and then will respect them. It is up to us to set our own boundaries. And hopefully we are married to the right kind of men.

    Good post. And yes, you were brave to bring up the topic.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      I too think our husband’s reactions to our eating behaviors were similar Vickie. The last thing John wanted was to make me unhappy or make me feel like he was judging me. However, he was enabling me by agreeing with me and participating in my own unhealthy behaviors. The boundaries I set when I was losing weight were not hard to “enforce” as he was still happy to eat what I cooked and never criticized me for making healthier choices when we did go out to eat together. The most he expressed was surprise that I stopped pigging out after dinner. That was probably the most difficult adjustment for him.

  20. Karen@WaistingTime says:

    I used to hate when I ‘d say to my husband, “Let’s go get some frozen custard” and he’d say “Are you sure? I don’t want you to get mad at me.” I kept telling him that I didn’t want HIM to suggest any “bad” food but if I did, it was okay to go along with me. Silly me.

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      That’s me too. Completely. It was okay for me to suggest bad food or to go along with him but I certainly did not want him questioning whether I should or should not eat something.

  21. Dr. J says:

    It probably often comes down to what is lost and what is gained with being an “enabler.” If not being part of the solution is being an enabler, that’s a pretty strict definition. Take a mother with an obese child, or a child with an obese parent. There are not a lot of good choices after expressing your concern and having set a good example.

  22. jules- big girl bombshell says:

    it’s really not complicated as much as it is dysfunction….
    I am co-dependent…I am an enabler….I am all of that and more with others…
    Because I thought that is where my worth was
    learned it early on have been on that enabling side of many others addictions….

    with myself….learned early on to survive the constant giving to others by using food to give to myself..the only comfort…love….escape I could get from tat unworthy feeling you get from being in that position of unsupport and that they are more important…they are better….they KNOW more than you…all a judgement by those that I was forced to enable…

    Case in point:

    You said:
    But, I would not have reacted kindly to him telling me I could not eat certain foods or listening to his advice, no matter how sound, on weight loss and overeating. I think had he taken that tact, it would have harmed our relationship.

    Jodi said: it would be worth it to me to piss of a loved one & say NO then to see them kill themselves with the wrong choices

    ******It would be worth it to piss off the loved one and the loved one wouldn’t have taken it well and it would harm the relationship*****

    and the relationship gets damaged and possibly ends…

    THAT is what fuels it…

    CO — dependent.++enabling……..both parties are dependent on the judgmental behavior and rebellion and something outside ourselves to use or blame, whether that is substance, relationships, or opinions ………..hence enabling ourselves to feel good about ourselves

    It is ALL about judgement and choices…within ourselves that we learned and how we can just survive through those old behaviors -fears- myths……and no one can change that until the person knows and believes in their own worth … ALL parties involved….

    Sorry for the long winded comment and please to both you and Jodi…..you both are RIGHT in what you say …..but thats the DYS….in the function……i *heart* and respect both of you….and hope this comment is not taken wrong………

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      Not taken wrong at all. I always enjoy reading your insights Jules. I think so much of this journey is so dependent on our childhood issues, how we react to authority, and our relationship with the significant others in our lives. It does come down to choices – both on the part of those people who bring food to us and within our own selves.

  23. me says:

    I always enjoy the comments here!!!! I’m not sure my husband is an enabler if he is just continuing to eat the food he’s always enjoyed. That means he has his own issues to fight! And maybe then *I* am part enabler? We enabled each other! It’s kinda hard to tell someone no to something you yourself indulge in.

  24. Evilcyber says:

    There is one question that came to my mind reading your article: What could your husband have done if you hadn’t changed your self-damaging behavior?

    • Diane Carbonell says:

      He probably couldn’t have done anything to help me change. That really had to come from within. He and I have talked about this a lot, and he often said he just wanted me to be happy. He never “preached” at me or made me feel guilty about what I was eating. I gave myself enough of a guilt-trip every time I overate, whether it was by myself or with him. Great question.

      • Evilcyber says:

        Thank you for your answer, Diane. I asked because I imagined it would make me feel very helpless if I saw this happen to the person I love, and there wasn’t a single thing I could do.

  25. Sheri - Motivation for Health & Fitness says:

    Oh yes, they are tough to live with thankfully I did not during my journey to health. My hubby did do it once or twice in the beginning and then I explained to him how that is hurting me and I do not need it. He was fantastic he allowed me (and still does) to do what I need to keep the weight off.

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