When you seek support from a friend or family member about something hurtful someone else did or said to you, do you ever hear things like:

“Well, it takes two to tango…” or

“You’re too sensitive…” or

“You need to let it go…” or

“Why can’t you just forgive and forget…” or… any variation of thereof?

If there are people in your life who can’t wait to blame you for the crappy behavior of someone else, I created this 2-part series for you. 

In part 1 of Identify + Manage Abuse Enablers, I’m breaking down the different ways people in your life might be contributing to an environment that fosters toxic behaviors and relationships.

Prefer the audio? Listen here.

Abuse and dysfunction don’t happen in a vacuum. They happen in a system and there are other players in that system. Even if the behavior isn’t abuse with a capital A, if it is causing you pain and harm, and there are others enabling it, you can learn how to advocate for yourself. 

Where do you feel like someone is part of the problem for keeping you stuck in an unhealthy relationship? If there are people in your life constantly blaming you for the situation you are in or for the bad behavior of others, we need to think about healthier ways to interact with them in order to protect ourselves. 

Let’s be clear: this is not about blaming others.

This is about raising your awareness of who you might be giving access to the VIP section of your life. So what can this kind of enabling look like in practice? 

You might have had an abusive or dysfunctional childhood and you have a sibling who denies it. You might hear things like, “We weren’t abused,” or, “They’re still our parents. They’re going to die one day.” (yikes) 

It is very common in a family system for people to want to keep the system the way it is. We as human beings are wired to resist change. Fear of change can be a big motivator to keep things the same or to maintain denial, even if the situation is dysfunctional. 

The enabler might be afraid of the abuser, want to stay in their good graces, or are trying to protect themselves in any way they can. We see this a lot in narcissistic systems. In a classic narcissistic family system, the family is organized around the narcissist. There is usually a main enabler who will blame others for the narcissist’s bad behavior (ie. “look what you made your father do”). Other players in the system may take on the role of “flying monkeys” who carry out the needs and wants of the narc so everyone stays in line. (For more on narcissistic family roles read this).

The same patterns and roles can play out in almost any kind of abusive or addictive family system. These behaviors learned in childhood can carry on into our adult relationship dynamics. Other common red flags of enablers to be aware of:

  • They make excuses for the other person (ex. they had a bad childhood, they had a bad day, etc.).
  • They take the other person’s side for no good reason. 
  • They minimize your experience. 
  • They tell you the other person was “just joking”.
  • They gaslight you by telling you you’re imagining it or just being dramatic.
  • They tell you they’ve never had any problems with that person. 
  • They tell you you’re just taking it the wrong way or you’re too sensitive. 

It is such a painful experience for a friend or family member to deny or dismiss your reality. If it is too toxic, going no contact might be the best option in certain circumstances. That said, cutting everyone out of your life isn’t the only solution. Establishing stronger emotional boundaries is a very effective, proactive protective measure. 

The first step is to raise your awareness of where this might be happening in your life. Inside this week’s guide, you’ll get an enabler inventory and learn how to create an energetic hit list to help you identify where to put your focus and renegotiate your boundaries. 

You can download that right here. 

The other thing I invite you to think about (with as much self-compassion as possible) is that we are all 50% of every relationship we are in. What is your 50% of the relationship “dance”? 

One of the major behaviors I have seen in my therapy practice over the last 25 years is there can be a compulsion to convince people we are not wrong. Rather than looking at the enabler’s behavior as being unsupportive and creating more pain, we can lean in and try to convince them otherwise. 

So in that 50%, we become complicit in perpetuating the dynamic because we want to defend and explain ourselves. Instead of getting the comfort you were seeking, now you’ve got another conflict. There is a way to step back and draw healthy boundaries instead of staying stuck in this painful repeating reality. 

Your boundaries are built on what is and what isn’t OK with you. They are your preferences, limits, and deal-breakers. Having healthy boundaries means knowing yourself, what’s important to you, and having the ability to communicate those things directly and transparently when you so choose. 

Boundaries protect our relationships, our dignity, our feelings, and our most tender hearts. When you learn the language of healthy boundaries, you set the other people in your life up to succeed. 

Very often enablers are oblivious to what they are doing. Now, that does not let them off the hook for their poor behavior, but there are some who are so entrenched in the systems and cycles of dysfunction that they are unaware of their own part in the injuries. Again, this is not an excuse. However, if your goal is to maintain a relationship, it is your job to draw boundaries with them. 

In Part II of this series, you’ll learn more about how to verbally set healthy emotional boundaries with the enablers in your life plus get scripts and sentence starters you can make your own. 

The most important part of this entire process is focusing on your own self-care because self-protection and self-care go hand in hand. Remember, the way you treat yourself sets the bar for every other relationship in your life. Hold yourself in high esteem and high regard. If you think you are amazing and continue to cultivate deep self-love and self-compassion, you will inevitably attract others who will treat you the same way. You deserve to be loved, cherished, and understood….says me. 

I hope this added value to your life and helped you realize that you are not alone if this is something you are struggling with. Please drop me a comment or question here on the blog, on YouTube, or connect with me on Instagram at @terricole.

If you think this could help someone, please share it with the people in your world. 

As always take care of you.

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  1. Thank you Terri for the good information and advice. I am wondering how does a person know if they are with someone with significant narcissistic traits or am I the more narcissistic one? I struggle with my partner and I believe that he may project his own short comings onto me, but I’m not sure.

  2. Very timely advise! My closest friend who I trust to share her wisdom and discernment told me she didn't want to hear my abusive recordings, YouTube videos or an article on "Friends Supporting Friends In Abusive Relationships. She said she didn't want "that stuff" in her head. She has told me the same thing when I tried to share information about narcissism. Ironically, six years ago she was the first person to suggest my husband was a narcissist! She told me to stop reading "that stuff," focus on my bible study, especially the scripture to "lay down my life for another," and be in constant prayer. I was devastated! Our prayer group has been so faithful to pray with me but now I can't talk to her about my pain. I told her I would no longer be able to share my fears or decisions regarding my marriage.
    I also told her one the worst things to do to an abused victim is to imply that we need to pray more, do more, or suffer more.
    I also stopped seeing our couple's counselor. As I described my husband's very specific words and behaviors and used the word "abusive" he said "well, it may or may not be abuse." He also said people react differently to "perceived anger." Don't dismiss my fear and pain!

  3. Hi Terri,
    I see now how I am that person who always thinks but you must have done something as my first thought. I see how it's not fair or my place to jump to that conclusion now. I know from past experiences I have been holding back saying anything and then the other person thinks I'm not listening or I dont care. I need to work on this. It definately comes from my family. I can see it coming out also as a vindication. See I was right or why would you do that, that's so stupid. And while i have a brief sense of satisfaction in the moment the regret comes and the damage to the relationship. It also reminds me how I can see these things straight away in others and i should help them but realise if I think inward its actually me who needs to listen up and take action myself from what you are advising. Always great working on myself in bits from your videos I hope it's making a better person of me a little bit more each week.

  4. I’ve read this and am a little confused. I’ve been in this situation where I was being abused and my needs were repeatedly minimized. I made boundaries with these situations (I got another job and left my abusive intimate relationship and cut off contact with my abuser completely.)

    I started a new career and am in a loving marriage.

    I learned a LOT from being in those relationships and continue to learn about setting boundaries and claiming my worth.

    Recently I find myself on the other end of this conversation. I married into a family that has really given me a lot of practice with boundaries. There is a lot of mental illness, abuse, codependency, childhood neglect, aka “shitstorm” in my husbands family. His grandmother was in and out of institutions for being bipolar. My mother in law is very manipulative and untrustworthy. This family is riddled with sob stories and no accountability. People are often in jail, or the court system for one reason or another. My husband and I have limited our contact with them but stuff creeps up occasionally.

    When my husband tells me about things, my replies often mirror the comments in your post. “What is the other side of the story?”

    I also have friends who seem to have placed boundaries around toxic people in their lives but continue to build their identities around the wounding of the past. The same wounded stories of the past would come up at least once every time I saw them. I could see how this was having a negative impact on their life. After 3-4 years, I needed to set a boundary for myself around this. THAT did not go well and the person got very upset. She told me I was invalidating and I was basically being the person you described in this post. A year went by, I apologized and their response was strangely patronizing. Almost as if I were one of their counseling patients. I just figure we aren’t in the same place and really don’t want to continue our friendship.

    Is there something I am missing or could have done better? I don’t want to be someone who perpetuates abuse and invalidates people being abused.

    Thank you,

    1. Tricia,
      When it comes to the goings on of your husband’s family what is the need to know the other side of the story? Since you guys are on the same page about it perhaps just asking your partner how they feel about the information they are sharing with you would be more supportive. For clarity, nothing you have described here falls into the category of abuse enabling that I was talking about in this episode xo

  5. Beautifully written with useful, validating information. Stepping back, establishing new firm boundaries to communicate has been extremely helpful in my world. It’s allowed me to achieve greater piece in my life. Still difficult to navigate parents that point finger, take side of other sibling that was dismissive of the emotional experience/fear I was going through during a health scare(lumpectomy).They have difficulty accepting the change in relationship between myself and that sibling as does my husband.

    1. Hi Jukie,
      Absolutely! It is not an easy task to set these boundaries. I also appreciate your insight in knowing the difficulty you have in changing relationship dynamics. Thank you for sharing and for being here!

  6. I recently ended a two year relationship. For the last year we have all been dealing with my 19 year old sons addiction. Its been a nightmare to say the least. Over the last few months though my ex's drinking escalated. Everyone has been frustrated with me for not being able to assert boundaries with my son. He doesnt live with me but does show up and create chaos. I have been trying but still unsure the best course to take, trial and error for sure. Drinking though is a no go, and my ex was aware. Thats the reason my marriage before didnt work out. Lol a clue to my messy life! One afternoon though while pretty tipsy my ex snapped 'stop being the victim'. This was regarding my son. Oooh its rattled me. It hurt. But made me mad too. Maybe because its true. I dont think I was playing victim. Sure I've cried a tonne this past year and I've tried desperatley to start over. This relationship was a huge attempt, but I suppose not enough in his eyes. I'll give him that the stress has been unbearable. Maybe he had enough too. But I cant just waive a magic wand and forget I have a son either. He was happy with things when my son wasnt around, there was releif for sure. My son is hooked severley on opiates. Extremely scary. So anyway things escalated further that week and I ended things. Learning to go it alone. Its tough but I've got kids to take care of. The victim comment though. I cant put my finger on the emotion. Kind of a betrayal but it makes me want to defend myself. No sense talking to him about it anymore but any thoughts on that one? Is that an example of what you are talking about here? Much appreciated. And thank you for all you do!

    1. Thanks for sharing your story here with us, Sarah. Loving an addict is incredibly painful. I am not sure if what you are describing falls into the category of abuse enabling but it is hurtful (even if you know there is some truth to it). I think your most powerful move is to get support from Alanon or a therapist. Sending you so much strength xo

  7. I didn't understand the necessity of boundaries for my sanity until I was in a toxic relationship with a sociopath. I thought using good communication skills were all I needed to have them understand the need to change behavior that was damaging the relationship. I finally realized trying to reason with him only enabled him to further abuse me.. I finally realized it was hopeless, ended the relationship, went no contact, the ultimate boundary.

    1. Hi Stacy,
      I’m so glad you were able to see the situation for what it was and set your “ultimate boundary”! I’m cheering you on! I appreciate you sharing this nad being here <3

  8. Thanks Terri, I always find encouraging from you.
    The people I've chosen to share my challenges with living with a verbal and emotional abuser are very supportive and have encouraged me to leave. However, my best friend, whom I rely on to keep me spiritually grounded, the one who's wisdom I trust, has said some very hurtful things. I should pray more, have a sacrificial attitude of "laying down my life for another" etc. The disappointing part of this is she knows me as well as anyone and knows how hard I've tried for six year to be the best wife I can be to affect change.
    I had to tell her I couldn't talk to her about it anymore; I didn't need to hear I should be doing more or trying harder.

    1. Hi Darra,
      It sounds like you made a difficult decision that was right for you – that’s amazing! I’m so proud of you for setting your boundaries and knowing what you need. I’m holding space for you with so much compassion as you navigate the possible end of your friendship <3

  9. I found this both enlightening of my family situation as well as overly simplistic. As the oldest daughter of three, I’m sure my sisters have viewed me as an enabler I see myself in that role in the first 20 years. In the last 20, I’ve acknowledged and listened. But I’m exhausted now. I’m not a therapist and I’ve found I need to set my own boundaries.

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