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Two people - one with darker skin, the other with lighter brown skin - grasp each other's hands in a show of support

The difference between showing empathy and enabling is a fine line, and you will have to learn the difference to help your loved one. 

It can be challenging to watch a loved one suffer from an intimacy disorder such as sex addiction or porn addiction.

You may think that you are showing empathy to your loved one. In reality, though, you may be enabling their behavior. 

Showing Empathy: Supporting your Partner or Loved One

You would do anything to support your loved one in a time of need or otherwise. Helping those we love is often innate. Sometimes, we may feel like we are the only one who is willing to do so. 

By understanding the difference between showing empathy and enabling, you’ll be able to recognize what you can do to help your loved one. 

What is Empathy?

Empathy can be characterized by “the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another person…”

We begin to develop a sense of empathy early in life. We show compassion when we build friendships, cooperate with others, and make decisions according to our moral compass.

There are five critical tenets of compassion and empathy we can use to support others: 

  • Soothingly offer comfort. Comfort can come in many forms. Touch, a hug, or some kind words are examples of comfort. These actions can help soothe the person’s reaction and provide a sense of security during a difficult time.
  • Express that you can recognize suffering. This is especially true for those who have endured long-term suffering and trauma from childhood. 
  • Listen with compassion. Allowing someone to feel heard can be one of the most powerful gifts you can give. Those suffering from addiction and substance use disorders are often feeling shame and guilt. 
  • Validate emotions. Everyone suffers from difficult times and feelings. Supporting someone and validating their challenging experience can allow healing. 
  • Offer respect and care. Remind your loved ones that you care about them as human beings. Acknowledge their battle and show them that you care for them regardless. Doing so can help bring a sense of calm, especially for those who suffered from a lack of attunement in childhood. 

A compassionate ear is one of the most excellent tools we have when showing empathy.

What is Enabling? 

“Enabling” and “enabler” are terms that are thrown around often. To fully understand what an enabler is, we must first look at the word’s definition.

Merriam-Webster defines an enabler as “one who enables another to persist in self-destructive behavior by providing excuses or by making it possible to avoid the consequences of such behavior.”

In your attempts at showing empathy, you can inadvertently encourage addictive behaviors.

Enabling Behaviors 

Sex addiction is a complicated disorder. It can be challenging to understand how to support a person who is living with an addiction. There are many actions you can take that ultimately enable your loved ones continued behavior. Some of these enabling behaviors are more obvious than others. 

Providing Access or Encouragement 

Providing access and encouragement may sound like a simple concept. However, it covers more than you may think. While you may not directly be supporting the behaviors, you may inadvertently be doing so. 

Example: Your loved one is experiencing financial hardship due to excessive spending directly related to their sex addiction. 

While you may not give them money that you know will be spent financing their habit, you opt to remove some other financial burden. Perhaps you take on a car payment. While you believe that you are showing empathy, it’s quite the opposite. 

By removing some of their financial burdens, you’re enabling them to continue spending their money on sex workers rather than prioritizing their health. 

Making Excuses for Behavior 

Making excuses is one of the most common tropes of an enabler. 

Imagine you walk in on your porn-addicted spouse masturbating on their computer. 

You think, “he’s had a stressful day and just needs to relax.” 

What may feel like showing empathy is just creating an excuse for the behavior. This reaction enables continued behavior every time they’ve had a stressful day. 

Downplaying Behavior

You may hear a voice in your head reassuring you, “it’s not that bad” or “it could be worse.” 

Don’t compare your situation to others living with an addiction. This could allow you choose to believe that you’re lucky and that your loved one’s behavior isn’t that bad. 

By failing or refusing to recognize and acknowledge the problems, you’re encouraging them.  Actions such as this can make it more difficult for your loved one to ask for help. 

Showing empathy would be addressing the issue at hand and encouraging your loved one to take action towards recovery.

No Consequences for Behavior 

Even if you notice problematic behaviors from your loved ones and disagree with their actions, you may choose to ignore them. 

With your partner noticeably absent more often, you begin to sacrifice more of your time to make up for their absence. Because you’re giving up your time and resources to help them, they aren’t suffering from the consequences of their actions. 

You may try to set boundaries for your partner or loved one after you begin to experience significant suffering. You are telling them that there will be negative repercussions for their actions.

However, if you don’t follow through on what you’ve stated, then the person suffering from the addiction will learn that nothing will change. 

By not following through, you’re telling them that their behavior is excusable and that they can continue to live the same way. 

Avoiding Difficult Conversations

Sitting down to have a productive and compassionate conversation can be remarkably beneficial. However, for many, it may feel more comfortable to avoid discussing the hard things. 

You don’t want conflict or for resentment to develop. Therefore, you avoid the topic entirely or wait for them to bring it up themselves. 

By avoiding the issue and not addressing it, you’re making more space for it. 

A graphic shows the four tenets of empathy. An eye - to see the world as they should. A circle with a slash through it to show nonjudgment, a lightbulb to indicate understanding, and a speech bubble with a heart in it to indicated communications

The four key tenets of empathy are based on the ability to listen from an open place with no judgment and communicating that you understand.

How to Stop Being an Enabler

When you’ve been enabling a loved one for an extended period, it may feel like an overwhelming task to stop. In a way, you’ve become dependent on avoiding the problem as a means of coping with it. 

When you’re ready to stop enabling and start showing empathy, there are a few simple things you can do to help your loved ones recover and get the support they need. 

  • Start talking about it. Bringing attention to the addictive behaviors can help your loved ones recognize that what they are doing is not okay. Being compassionate is helpful, but allowing space for those actions is not. 
  • Encourage them to get help. Make them aware that help is available and that you support the pursuit of recovery. 
  • Set your boundaries and stick to them. Tell your loved ones what your limitations are, and then stick to the consequences of crossing them. 

Importance of Empathy in Recovery

Being compassionate and empathetic toward someone who is suffering from addiction is critical. While you may not have been in the exact situation, you can try and shift your perspective. 

Using things like person-centered language can often help focus on the behaviors that are the real problem. Stay away from accusations, blame, and stigmatizing their addiction. Using supportive language can show that you genuinely care about and support them. 

Showing empathy can demonstrate that you can feel what someone else is feeling in its most basic form. Put yourself in their shoes and show them that you can understand and be compassionate towards them. 

Empathetic Behaviors 

Language is one of the best ways of showing empathy towards another person. Upholding a space of respect, compassion, and patience creates a deeper bond between you and your loved one. 

Treating the situation and the person the way you’d want to be treated is vital. Keep your behaviors and language focused on the person suffering from addiction. Remind them that they deserve to be heard and healed. 

Compassionate empathy is an active form of empathy that involves having concern for another person and sharing their emotional pain. It allows you to take tangible and practical steps to stop the behaviors. 

Learning all these tools can take a lot of time and effort to do on your own. That is why we have our Partner Support Program, where you will learn the tools to heal yourself and learn how to best support your loved one. 

  • Category: Relationships
  • By John Squires
  • February 25, 2021

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