As a positive term, "enabling" is similar to empowerment, and describes patterns of interaction which allow individuals to develop and grow. These patterns may be on any scale, for example within the family, or in wider society as "enabling acts" designed to empower some group, or create a new authority for a (usually governmental) body.
In a negative sense, "enabling" can describe dysfunctional behavior approaches that are intended to help resolve a specific problem but in fact may perpetuate or exacerbate the problem. A common theme of enabling in this latter sense is that third parties take responsibility or blame, or make accommodations for a person's harmful conduct (often with the best of intentions, or from fear or insecurity which inhibits action). The practical effect is that the person himself or herself does not have to do so, and is shielded from awareness of the harm it may do, and the need or pressure to change.
Codependency is a type of dysfunctional helping relationship where one person supports or enables another person's drug addiction, alcoholism, gambling addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility or under-achievement.
Enabling can be observed in the relationship between the alcoholic/addict and a codependent spouse or a parent. The spouse may attempt to shield the addict from the negative consequences of their behavior by calling in sick to work for them when they are hungover or binging on substances, making excuses that prevent others from holding them accountable, and generally cleaning up the mess that occurs in the wake of their impaired judgment. In reality, what the spouse is doing may be hurting, not helping. Enabling can tend to prevent psychological growth in the person being enabled, and can contribute to negative symptoms in the enabler. Therapist Darline Lancer writes, "Stopping enabling isn’t easy. Nor is it for the faint of heart. Aside from likely pushback and possible retaliation, you may also fear the consequences of doing nothing. For instance, you may fear your [addict] husband will lose his job...You may be afraid the addict may have an auto accident, or worse, die or commit suicide." The parent may allow the addicted adult child to live at home without helping with chores, and be manipulated by the child's excuses, emotional attacks, and threats of self-harm.
In the context of narcissists or abusers, enablers are distinct from flying monkeys (proxy abusers). Enablers allow or cover for the narcissist's or abuser's own bad behavior while flying monkeys actually perpetrate bad behavior to a third party on their behalf.
Emotional abuse is a brainwashing method that over time can turn someone into an enabler. While the narcissist often plays the victim, it is quite common for the true victim to believe that he or she is responsible for the abuse and thus must adapt and adjust to it.
Examples of enabling in an abusive context are: