5 Habits that Enable an Abuser (& 5 Ways to Change It)
Enabling is an uncomfortable word, but it’s a very real part of abusive relationships. Enabling happens when a victim engages in behaviors that hide abuse and shield the abuser from the consequences of their actions. Enabling allows abuse to worsen by keeping evil shrouded in darkness (where it only grows).
Let me be clear:
Abuse is NEVER a victim’s fault.
You are never to blame for an abuser’s choice to hurt you.
That being said, enabling permits abuse to continue. And I know it comes from a well-meaning place; it’s just that many times, what we think is the loving or biblical thing to do truly isn’t. But it is possible to rise above the dynamics of an abusive relationship, and to access the healing and power that come through authentically biblical responses to abuse.
The Roots of Enabling
As we discussed previously, a person who is being terrorized by an abuser is NOT causing the abuse. AT ALL. Abuse is never an understandable way to deal with another person, especially not from the hands of someone who claims to love you. But somehow, victims are groomed to believe they are part of the problem. How does this happen?
When a person is continually abused, a phenomenon known as “battering fatigue” sets in. “Battering fatigue” can cause a victim to normalize and minimize abuse as they empathetically (and defeatedly) lower their standards. The abused person rationalizes that the abuser is not perfect, and often empathizes with the perpetrator over the significant traumas that they have experienced (and might I add, NOT healed from). The abused person believes the best, and is quick to accept apologies and promises, rather than carefully watching what the abuser’s behaviors actually reveal about their attitudes and character.
An abused partner may then believe that loving the abusive person better will save the relationship. It’s common for the abused to believe they can help the abuser change by setting a better example. Churches further this myth by giving similar advice. But an abuser thrives on control and manipulation, and derives power from watching another person jump through hoops for them. Nothing the abused person does can ever be enough for a person who has an excessive need for adoration. In the end, the victim’s attempts to please the abuser only allow the problems to swell as the abused person does all the work, playing into the abuser’s elaborate (and intentional) manipulation.
And this can all occur even when the relationship has ended, as the abuser’s need for power and control does not go away but rather changes shape.
5 Enabling Habits
Unfortunately, a victim’s “help” only makes the abuser bolder, thereby permitting the abusive dynamic to continue.
Enabling behaviors include the following:
Changing your own behavior to avoid triggering the abuser.
It’s the classic “walking on eggshells” scenario. You do (or don’t do) things you know will set the abuser off. You find yourself apologizing a lot, and doing all the work.
Believing you can help, fix, or rescue the abuser.
Victims often have a strong sense of personal responsibility and duty towards finding “the thing” that will fix the situation and help the abuser wake up. Victims are often on the hunt for answers- books, therapists, relationship intensives, gifts, acts of love, etc. But when the abuser is not invested in their own recovery, the relief is always temporary.
Making excuses for or covering up the abuser’s behaviors.
Maybe you fib about the abuser’s whereabouts when they fail to show up somewhere. Or if the abuser disappoints your child, perhaps you reassure the child that their other parent really does love them. These practices actually further the harm of the abuser’s choices, as they permit the abuser to continue constructing a false reputation at the expense of the people around them.
Minimizing the abuse and not requiring accountability.
Abuse is not normal. Ever. If you have lowered your standards and accepted that an abuse is “just the way it is,” you’re settling for less than God intends for you. God desires mutual trust and care in your relationships, and you do not need to give someone full access to your life who has repeatedly demonstrated untrustworthiness. Boundaries are essential to minimizing your exposure to an unhealthy person.
Blaming the abuser’s past traumas or other individuals for their behavior.
Most abusers have some kind of past trauma or issue that has resulted in poor coping skills (like controlling and manipulating others). But those traumas and the people who inflicted them are not responsible for the actions an abuser chooses. There are plenty of folks who experience trauma and don’t become abusers. Identifying past traumas can help an abuser discover where healing is needed, but it does NOT excuse the behavior.
What the Bible Says About Enabling Abuse
The Bible actually speaks out against enabling abusers.
Proverbs 19:19 says:
A hot-tempered person must pay the penalty; rescue them, and you will have to do it again. (NIV)
The Bible is clear that when we interfere with the natural consequences of another person’s sin, the sin will continue.
5 Ways to Stop Enabling Abuse
The Bible states that the righteous thing to do is expose an abusive person’s sin so that it can be dealt with in the light. An abused person has the power to stop enabling habits to instead embark on the path to healing.
Stop participating in arguments.
Abusers seek any reaction they can get (positive or negative) because they crave attention and control over the emotions of others. When you stop engaging in arguments, you protect yourself from falling into their hands, and deny the abuser the sinful pleasure of knowing they still have power over you. Offering non-emotional, canned responses like, “I think we just disagree on this issue,” are helpful.
In Matthew 18, Jesus lays out the steps to confronting sin amongst believers. Get the assistance of your church in addressing the abuser’s behavior. Not all pastors and counselors are versed in handling incidents of domestic violence so we have posts on domestic violence resources for churches to help guide your conversations.
Allow consequences to play out.
Most often, experience is the best teacher—and that includes consequences.Resolve to stop making excuses to cover up the abuser’s choices. Break the silence about what’s occurring. You don’t need to all out defame the abuser’s character, but those around you (including your children) need to know the truth about the abuser’s choices. Allowing consequences to play out isn’t punishment; it’s the loving thing to do for a person who resists being reasoned with, that they might have the opportunity to turn from their sin.
Stop “fixing” behaviors.
Don’t try to be the abuser’s accountability partner. Don’t make appointments for the abuser, or create a list of books or websites they should read. Do not coddle them when they start missing appointments because they’re “doing better.” The abuser needs to develop their own plan and do the work. And for repentance to be evident there needs to be longterm established changed in behavior (at least a year) before any work on reconciling the relationship in any way should be considered. In the meantime, instead of focusing on the abuser, turn that love and compassion towards yourself and your children.
Put the responsibility for the abuse where it belongs.
And that’s on the abuser. The abuser’s family of origin is not responsible (though they may have played or continue to play a part). The person who traumatized the abuser as a child is not responsible. You are not responsible. These are lies that keep everyone locked in denial and in Satan’s grasp. Change the narrative you speak over yourself. You are a child of The King and God’s masterpiece. He has loved you with an everlasting love. God desires life and peace for you, and regardless of what has happened, that is all still available to you. When you turn your attention from the one who has hurt you and turn to God, I can promise you, you will find life.