Dear Michael,

In the article “Depression Grooving Research,” Debi wrote, “Enablers think of themselves as more forgiving and loving, but every psychologist on earth agrees: it is never a positive thing to have a sweet, gracious, loving enabler on your team… If you have a loved one who falls into discouraged sadness… don’t coddle or talk away their pain…”

So that’s what we shouldn’t do. What should we do? And what if the “enabler” is the wife, who is trying to submit to her husband’s wishes?

-A Reader

Mike answers

Your question is well stated and right to the point, prompted by a seeming conflict with other things we have written about wives submitting to their husbands and being a good help meet. When writing on a particular subject in the magazine, the limited format prohibits a thorough analysis of all relevant points. Yet I can see how we could have been more definitive in the article.

The subject was enablers—close friends, family members, or spouses—who are consistently motivated by their own personal need to support the poor behavior of one close to them. They support untoward behavior by treating it as normal, by sympathizing with irrational behavior or chronic self-pity. Their support does not make room for the other to see his or her behavior with discerning eyes; to the contrary, it totally normalizes the broken or selfish state.

You quoted Debi, “If you have a loved one who falls into discouraged sadness . . . don’t coddle or talk away their pain . . .” She speaks of those who live in a state of sadness or discouragement as a personality trait—a way of life when things don’t suit them—not the individual who is suddenly struck by a truly sad event. If an otherwise stable friend falls into depression, it is not enabling to take them on a walk or invite them over for a cookout or to listen to them talk out their depression. If your spouse or friend wallows in self-pity and misery or becomes stricken and loses confidence over a minor personal issue, you are an enabler if you treat their complaints with tender understanding instead of steering them to see themselves objectively. Your goal is to bring them to normalcy, not legitimize their misery by expressing sympathy and confirming their false assumptions. Being a good help meet is helping your spouse be stronger, happier, healthier, and more discerning of themselves as well as others.

You made application to your role as help meet, so I will answer your question by taking this opportunity to expand the scope of your question and look at the principle in a broader way. If your husband is lazy and will not get a job, and blames his state on the workplace or the way he is mistreated, and you sympathize, sharing his denunciation of the lousy world, you are an enabler. BUT, if you treat him with disdain or anger, you are dishonoring your man and God. There is a clear difference in the two responses.

A help meet is a wife who helps her husband by meeting his needs. If you walk around on pins and needles, trying to clean up emotionally behind his destructive behavior, not allowing him to feel the consequences of his misdeeds and miswords, you are not being a good help meet; you are being a poor, helpless enabler. If you get a job when he will not, you are an enabler. If you agree with his paranoia about the world, the church, etc., you are an enabler. BUT, if you ridicule or mock, you are dishonoring and thus sinning against God and will drive your husband further into weirdness.

Being a help meet is a job given to you by God, so do your duty and help where it is needed. When you see he is overreacting, tell him so; you are a person and you have a right to have an opinion. If he is not working and blaming everybody else, and you see he is off track, tell him he is off track and remind him that the family needs him to step up. He might and he might not; that doesn’t change your opinion or your attitude. Learn to pray for him as he sleeps at night. God hears and answers.

It all boils down to the wife’s attitude. If you have good will toward your husband, you can be patient with his imperfections without enabling him to think of it as normal. You can with dignity give him that look that says, “I love you even though you are being ridiculous.” You can respond to untoward behavior by voicing your concerns in a manner that does not attempt to punish or humiliate him. Steel yourself with the confidence that you are his helper who is not broken by his verbal blows. Stand up and say with your eyes and demeanor, “I am a person of worth, and I do not deserve this; you have acted improperly, but I forgive you. I will follow your lead as head of the family, but I will not accept as normal your ugly behavior. The fault is yours, not mine, and the marriage is worth healing, so I am here as your faithful and forgiving partner.”