Are You an Enabler? Understanding Codependency vs. Helping

Are You an Enabler? Understanding Codependency vs. Helping

Codependency isn’t just amplified helping.

One of the big misconceptions about codependency is that it’s simply being super, duper nice. It’s true that most codependents are kind and generous to a fault. You typically struggle to say “no” and set limits. As a result, people take advantage of your desire to help.

But codependency is much more than this.


Codependency is a dysfunctional relationship pattern.Are You an Enabler?

Codependency is a dysfunctional relationship pattern. It’s not a diagnosis. True codependency means there’s dependence on both sides of the relationship.

People who identify as codependent usually play the role of “rescuer” in a relationship with someone who is impaired or ill in some way. You’re constantly trying to help, change, fix, or rescue. You derive self-esteem and purpose through helping. You, therefore, become attached to people who have problems of various sorts and need to be taken care of. Perhaps you’ve noticed a pattern of dating or befriending people who need to be taken care of. However, your focus on helping creates an unbalanced relationship leaving your needs unmet.

Unmet needs and unexpressed thoughts and feelings are the breeding ground for resentments and anger. And codependents, like everyone else, eventually have a breaking point. Your resentments will build until you unleash your wrath directly or passive-aggressively.

It takes 2 dependent people to create codependency.

Codependency goes beyond a tremendous desire to help others. It’s called co-dependency because both people in the relationship are dependent on each other.

Although codependency came out of the substance abuse field, we now recognize that all kinds of impairments, such as mental illness, addiction, narcissism, or physical health problems, can also keep a person from functioning fully in a codependent relationship. This person is dependent on his or her partner/friend/family member* due to these impairments. The partner provides needed emotional, financial, or physical support. Often the under-functioning partner has few, if any, other close relationships. S/he’s burned bridges, has poor social skills, or a difficult personality which has left him/her estranged from or isolated from other support people. S/he’s truly dependent on the co-dependent partner.

You can’t change your partner, but you’re a pro at keeping his/her from experiencing negative consequences.

Rescuers are the clean-up crew. Every time the shits about to hit the fan, you’re there with your metaphorical mop to clean up the mess. You are skilled at sensing catastrophe in the making. You walk on eggshells trying not to wake the sleeping monster.

Your rescuing means  your partner never experiences the full impact of his/her poor choices, dangerous, illegal, or immature behavior, and never learns or changes. Why would s/he change when you’re solving all his/her problems, cleaning up after her, bailing her out of jail, paying her cell phone bill, etc.?

These problematic behaviors can continue for long periods of time in part because you enable them. Your rescuing actually erodes your partner’s motivation to change. Nothing will change as  long as you continue to be Mr. or Ms. Fix-It.

You’re a slave to your fear and guilt.

You feel guilty if  you consider setting boundaries, limiting help, or ending the relationship. Another true sign of codependency, is that your self-worth is so entangled with your partner that you’re afraid to say no. You’re afraid to let her suffer any consequences. Codependents are also “pleasers” with a high need to be liked, wanted or needed. You likely have low self-esteem, difficult asserting yourself, and fear of abandonment or being alone.

Care-taking becomes your identity.

You become so wrapped up in your partner (and his/her problems) that you lose yourself in the process. You don’t know who you are without your role as rescuer and care-taker. You’re desperate to feel in control of an out of control partner and relationship. Underneath the fixing and helping, there is anger, shame, anxiety and pain.

You’ve created the perfect storm: Your partner doesn’t develop the skills or experience the consequences needed for change. S/he is dependent on your help. And you need your partner’s addiction or illness to feel good as a rescuer and care-taker. Plus your fear of abandonment keeps you tolerant of poor treatment, unmet needs, and unhappiness in your relationship.

You’re half of the problem, but 100% of the solution.

All of this isn’t to say that you’re the problem or that it’s all your fault. But you have to understand that you’re half the problem and 100% of the solution. An addict or mentally ill person can’t be in a codependent relationship with a partner who refuses to play the part of rescuer and enabler.

You can’t fix, change, or save your partner. Even when you know this intellectually, it can be agonizingly painful to accept it emotionally. You can, however, save yourself. You have complete control over your own behavior and choices. Sometimes detaching and allowing your partner to hit bottom is the most loving thing you can do.

I specialize in helping codependents reclaim their lives. For counseling in my San Jose therapy office, please email me or schedule an appointment.

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*For simplicity, I use the term partner. But co-dependency can exist in any close relationship (parent-child, intimate partners, siblings, etc.).

©2016 Sharon Martin, LCSW.
Image by Ambro at


Sharon Martin, a licensed counselor and psychotherapist in Northern California, specializes in helping adult children of alcoholics and others who struggle with anxiety, perfectionism, and self-criticism. She has a private psychotherapy practice in CA where she is available for online counseling. Sharon is also the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and write the blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today.


  1. My husband has been working long hours in his business for 14 years but never contributed a cent to the household finances. In the last year I have also been paying his mobile phone bill and car and petrol expenses. I read this article last month and woke up the the fact I was an enabler and cut off this money. He still hasn’t contributed anything but has managed to make some more money to cover his expenses. Small steps!

  2. Hello,

    I’m finding your website very informative and helpful for my current life situation. I’ve decided that I need to find myself some help and I came across your site via a Google search on codependency counselors in Utah. I see, in the comments, that another individual was also looking for help in Utah. I would appreciate if you would provide me with a referral for the Salt Lake County area if you have any.

    Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge.

  3. do u offer online sessions? i live very, very far away. i can make pre-payment via Paypal or anything available? i absolutely need your help, im only a 22 y/o girl whose an enabler while he’s 36 whose a Psychiatrist, its hard to make him listen to me. your help could save my sanity and my future marriage. i’d appreciate your reply. thanks in advance.

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