Enabling vs Tough Love

In recent years, the term ‘enabling’, which is essentially something positive, has been overtaken and used negatively:  someone enables another person to misbehave.  I very much dislike this usage for a number of reasons.  First, it is the duty of, and societal expectation that, parents enable their children to learn, to be healthy, to try new things.  We are expected to meet with teachers, take the children to doctors, sports activities, etc.  The same is true for spouses.  Spouses expect that their better half will enable them to pursue their careers, hobbies, good health, etc.  These are all good things.  Second, saying that someone else is enabling another person’s addiction or misbehavior is once again throwing the responsibility onto the victim rather than the perpetrator.  In my mind, it is just one shade away from the problem of blaming a rape victim for the act because she wore a short skirt.  Families are taught to love and forgive – without end.

Having said all of that, there is the very real problem of perpetrators taking advantage of unending love, but let’s not call it ‘enabling’.  I far prefer the term ‘tough love’ or rather the lack thereof. I remember learning the phrase ‘tough love’ in the late 70’s from some Leo Buscaglia tapes my father brought home from a divorce recovery seminar.  Leo told the story of when he called his mom from Paris because he ran out of money.  She told him to get a job and earn his way home!  Sometimes as a society, I think we have forgotten that kind of tough love.  It’s a love that recognizes that one member of the family does not have the right to rob other members of the family of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness!

It’s also incredibly risky.  It’s one thing to tell a capable young man in a foreign country to ‘find a job and earn your way home’.  It’s quite another to allow a drug or alcohol-addicted family member to end up in a gutter (or jail) and claw their way back to reasonable behavior themselves.  Letting a family member take the consequences of their behavior full on the chin is gutsy.  Besides accepting the risk that that family member can end up beaten up, traumatized or dead, it can also bring a lot of societal shame and rebuke on the heads of the family as well.  But the experts say, it is necessary.  In the end each person has to carry the responsibility for him or herself.  That is when the truth sets them free.  That is when they meet themselves face to face and find out who they truly are.

For families who are busy trying to love their errant member back into the fold (ie enabling them to remain a member of the family), it can be tricky to even spot when ‘tough love’ should be enacted.  Sometimes it takes someone on the outside to say, “Look that family member is really screwing you.  It is time to cut the virtual umbilical cord.”  Cutting the cord sucks.  I mean it really, really sucks.  It means having to believe – like never before – that they will be caught by the Hand of God and created anew. 


About Lois Loban Stuckenbruck

Trained as a Ballerina, then completed a BA in Business Adm and English Literature at Milligan College. More recently trained to be a lay pastor (Reader) in the Church of England. Wife of a Biblical Scholar, Mother of three. I'm an American who has also lived many years in England and Germany (currently Munich). I have worked as an Editorial Assistant, Systems Manager (Xerox Stars on Ethernet Network), and several positions in higher education fundraising (Alumni and Development).
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One Response to Enabling vs Tough Love

  1. Makini Ahket says:

    I totally agree with your viewpoint. At a recently attended workshop the presenter also de-villainized the act of enabling. The rationale was refreshing, liberating, and needs to be fine tuned by the healing arts professionals. Thank you very much.

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