When listening becomes enabling
A mother struggles with a daughter in an abusive marriage
My daughter is in an emotionally and verbally abusive marriage. She knows it upsets me to hear about their relationship, so she tells me she’s happy about his less abusive actions. I tell her that less abusive actions are still abuse. She knows I am here for her, especially if she files for divorce. But am I enabling her by listening?
Only if you ignore unacceptable behavior. Enabling would mean you are protecting your daughter from the full consequences of her choice to remain with someone who abuses her. Let me add that I've heard the term enabling most often in discussions about addiction. An enabler does things that make it easier for an addict to continue self-destructive behaviors. Although an enabler believes they're helping the addict, they are actually supporting the addiction.
Addicts and enablers both struggle with obsessive patterns of thinking. In a valiant attempt to free themselves from the prison of their thoughts, they engage in compulsive behaviors. For an enabler, the compulsion shows up as a habit of taking more responsibility for the addict than the addict does for themselves. Most enablers secretly feel unable to control their own life and so they fixate on controlling someone else's.
Your daughter tells you that her husband is less abusive because she imagines it is proof that she's right about him, and you're wrong. She believed he would become a better man and thinks it's happening. It means she is special and has saved him. When he returns to his old patterns of abuse, she may blame herself. She might scour recent events, obsessively trying to determine what she did or did not do that caused him to slip back into his cruel ways. She may become fixated on trying to help him change.
When your daughter tells you stories about her abusive husband, stay present to who you are and what you are about. The next time she expresses happiness that her husband is being less critical, say this: “I wouldn't stay with someone who put me down. When you decide to leave him, you can live with me for three months until you get on your feet.”
Do you see? Your job is to stay out of her life and be fully in yours. Don't tell her what to do or how to do it. Remind her that she can exit her marriage and that you will be waiting when she makes her move. Take care not to confuse empathy with drama. It's unhealthy to listen to a heartbreaking story about emotional abuse and respond by allowing your energy to plummet or your face to contort into a mask of co-suffering. Don't be fooled—that isn't empathy. It's you attaching to her wounded state.
If both of you are suffering, who is holding space for her to heal? Significant energy is needed to create the interior transformation that must happen if she is to leave her husband. Take care not to distract that process by participating in a pity party. Let your body language show that you trust her to change. Believe in her until she can believe in herself.