Am I Selfish for Stopping My Enabling Behaviors?

Morning friend,

Next week I’m going to Paris with my granddaughter for her 13th birthday. Each of my granddaughters get to pick where they would like to go for this special milestone. I thought we’d better do this at 13 years old instead of 18 because by 18 they may not want to hang out with their grandparents for a whole week. We have all kinds of fun things planned, riding to the top of the Eiffel Tower, a food tour in the Art District, making a purse from scratch, a baking class of French macaroons and lots of looking around. Pray for our safety and health. I’ll post a picture when we return.  

Question: Thank you for what you do. I have read your book and listened to many of your videos. After years of counseling, reading, and praying, I cannot shake the belief that I am being selfish. 

I’ve been married for 25 years. All 25 years I have worked to support our family. In the beginning, this was difficult for me, but I was willing to work toward my husband’s dream job. I worked while he built his business. I helped finance all his projects while he promised that he just needed another year to get going, etc. etc.

Here we are 25 years later in the same place only more expensive to accommodate his projects. Nearly all his profit goes right back into the business. There is no contribution to any household expenses. However, because the business is in the backyard, he sees it as helping with our “situation”. 

I have trouble seeing it this way, so I become confused. Aside from the chronic financial stuff, he is short-tempered. He acts like a schoolyard bully that teases people for their flaws. He easily becomes angry if you show hurt feelings. He is loud, crude, entitled, and cocky. He shows an “I’ll hurt you before you hurt me” attitude. When he gets angry with me, he rages with insults and accusations about me, my family, my work, my hobbies, and sometimes our children. He gets angry when I spend time with my parents. Teases me if I go to church. 

He tells me I’m “stepping out” when I take my mother to craft shows or go somewhere with a friend. He has disowned every member of his family. He hasn’t spoken to his own daughter from a previous marriage in nearly 10 years. He sleeps late in the day. He answers to nobody, with no responsibility to anyone or anything. If he doesn’t want to do something he just doesn’t do it. I feel sorry for him. 

He is like a child that gets so hurt that he has turned into a hateful person as a defense. He’s been diagnosed with depression and OCD (intrusive thoughts), anxiety, and sleep apnea. He will go to doctors for a bit and then decide they don’t know what they are doing after he’s put little to no effort into treatment. He is very good at convincing me that he's doing anything different is impossible. 

My question is this. If I know his behaviors are coming from past hurts and some mental issues and I leave him, does that make me a bad person?

Also, if I’ve enabled this behavior all these years, am I selfish and cruel to just abandon him now? I’ve become his parent. I’m responsible for his well-being. After all these years I feel taken advantage of, sad, defeated, and quite frankly…. Ticked. Yet, I can’t get away from the feelings of selfishness and guilt.

I’m also afraid that my kids will be angry especially if he turns to them for financial help and dependence. How can I stay well, or leave well when he isn’t well in either situation?

Leslie’s Answer: I’m so sorry for all you’ve had to experience in your marriage. Your husband sounds like a difficult man to live with. From what you wrote, it sounds as if you have been very compassionate towards him and have tried to understand where this might stem from. Yet, you’re the one who feels responsible for his well-being, not him. I doubt if he even thinks he has much of a problem to work on.

There are a lot of different angles here but let me tackle two in this short blog. The first is your nagging and chronic fear that you’re selfish and a bad person for wanting to be done, especially because you think you know the origins of some of his issues.

Let me ask you a question. Yes, your husband may have depression, some anxiety, and other mental health challenges. Yet most people who have these challenges, still go to work, support their family, make an effort to have positive interactions with their spouse and kids, apologize when they’ve messed up, go to the doctor, take their medication, and work on making changes in order to live more responsibly and create a better future.

From what you’ve written, your husband has not consistently followed through with anything, including earning a living or building his own business beyond a hobby. He’s also been angry, possessive, controlling and critical when you try to do some things to nurture your own self, like go to church, spend time with others, and enjoy an outing with your mother. 

It seems to me the person who is being selfish is him not you. He expects your life to revolve around what he wants and needs. That is the mindset of an infant, not an adult. You are not selfish or mean to expect an adult to act like an adult. To expect a man to function like a man and not a child. 

Yet, in your own unhealthiness, you’ve accepted that your role is to bend over backward and sacrifice yourself, to enable him to continue in this dysfunction. But is that what God calls you to? Or what God calls him to?

Is it biblical to sacrifice yourself to enable someone else’s sinful dysfunction to flourish? Let’s be practical here. Proverbs 6 for example, specifically warns you not to co-sign on a loan for someone who has been financially irresponsible. Why not? Because you are not to sacrifice your financial safety and well-being to enable someone else’s irresponsibility to continue. And, it also says if you’re already done this, stop it, speak up, and release yourself from this burden. And Proverbs does not say that is selfish, it says that is wise and good stewardship of you. …and hopefully good for the other person too.

This nagging feeling of selfishness and meanness must come from an underlying belief that you have that is a lie. The belief might be: “I’m to always sacrifice myself to help someone.” Even if that help is not truly helping, but actually enabling bad or irresponsible/immature behavior to continue without consequence. 

That brings me to the second area which is related to this belief. If you have enabled his self-centered and irresponsible behavior all these years, is it cruel of you to now withdraw your support by stopping, or even leaving?

Some of my answer depends on how continuing to carry him impacts you. Any caregiver knows that being responsible to fully care for another adult’s needs can be exhausting and burdensome even when they are totally unable to care for themselves. I remember when my mother-in-law was caring for my father-in-law who had ALS. There came a time when she just couldn’t anymore. It wasn’t an issue of being selfish, it became an issue of stewardship. 

Taking care of him was killing her and her body and spirit were breaking down. She needed to place him in a facility that could better care for his physical needs and she then also got a break from his negativity over his illness.

Right now you are struggling with negative emotions, resentment, anger, contempt and perhaps even disgust. These are normal emotions you feel when you are being perpetually taken advantage of, disrespected, demeaned, mocked, and bullied.  

Your emotions are telling you that something is wrong. Pay attention. The problem is not just with him or your marriage, but also with you. Most people when they start to fill up with negative emotions towards someone realize that they need to make some changes for themselves. 

The changes can be drastic like ending the relationship, but they can also be less drastic or final by you having better boundaries for yourself. For example, saying “no” to new requests for money, or having better boundaries around what you will listen to and what you won’t listen to when he gets negative and critical. 

It also might mean establishing some excellent self-care routines and not allowing him to bully you or badger you into giving up things you want to do or doing things you don’t want to do.

Here’s an analogy for you to ponder. If you were repeatedly getting your foot stomped on by dancing with your husband, the pain in your foot is telling you something is wrong. Ouch! At first, you might try telling your spouse that he needs to stop stomping on your foot. But when nothing changes and he keeps stopping on your toe, is it selfish for you to take care of your foot? 

No! And the only way you can take care of your foot if he won’t stop stomping on it is to stop dancing with your partner. It doesn’t always mean you have to leave the dance entirely, but you have to stop your part of the dance so your foot doesn’t continue to get stepped on. 

Therefore, you might say, “I won’t slow dance with you anymore.” Or “I won’t dance with you where you hold me close because you continue to stomp on my foot and it hurts me. I won’t dance like that anymore.”

Empathy and compassion for your husband are good qualities, but this strength of yours, (like all strengths) becomes a weakness when it blinds you into taking more responsibility for his well-being and care than is wise or needed.

The Bible says that we are to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:4-6), which means we are to be unselfish when we see someone struggling beneath a heavy load. But it also says, each one should carry his own load and be responsible for one’s own well-being.

From what you say, your husband has never had to bear his own load earning a living to sustain himself let alone support a family. He doesn’t bear his own load relationally. He just cuts people out of his life if they ask too much from him. He’s done that with his daughter and his biological family. I suspect he keeps you around because you give so much and require nothing in return, not even a modicum of respect or appreciation. Your relationship is not mutual or reciprocal. Nor do you have the freedom to make good choices for yourself like going to church or visiting your parents without a receiving heap of contempt from him.

So, I’d like you to answer this question. Why do you think it’s selfish for you to say “no more” to a grown-up man who is functioning as a 12-year-old boy? Maybe it’s time for him to face his own self and be invited to grow up through some tough consequences. Maybe it’s time to stop taking the mother role and let the chips fall where they may. Perhaps only then will he pick up his own load to do the hard work he has to move himself into adulthood instead of staying in selfish pre-adolescence.  

I encourage you to do your own work of understanding what your fears and obstacles are that stop you from having better boundaries with a man who continually hurts and demeans you. My guess is he’s a lot more resourceful than you know or even he knows. Maybe he’s never had to discover what he’s capable of because he’s always leaned on you. 

Friend, what helped you let go of the guilt that you were a bad person when you stopped enabling or over-functioning for someone who should be carrying his or her own load?

21 Comments

  1. Caroline Abbott on March 8, 2023 at 9:56 am

    One thing that really helped me stop over functioning was the book Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend. In it, they very well make the case that boundaries are biblical. Even God and Jesus set boundaries all the time. Once I realized that, it was much easier for me to accept I needed to make them myself. https://carolineabbott.com/2016/10/standing-up-for-yourself-by-using-boundaries/

  2. Moonbeam on March 8, 2023 at 2:57 pm

    One of the greatest hurdles for women stuck in domestic abuse is to learn to value themselves. Detoxing from the situation is the first step to healing. It takes years of professional counseling and incredible courage to leave such a relationship. The result of which is clarity. Once self worth is established there would be no reason to ask or address such a question. Healthy living is ahead for those who detach from their abusers. Be brave. Love yourself more.

  3. Amy Joy on March 9, 2023 at 8:19 am

    Boundaries and Goodbyes is a very good book by Lisa Tyerest. Before divorcing look into the laws of your area about divorce. He may be entitled to alimony and half of your retirement and whatever is left in the bank, but definitely you need peace.

    • Christine on March 9, 2023 at 1:14 pm

      Yes, Good Boundaries and Goodbyes, by Lisa Terkeurst is excellent!

  4. Fef on March 9, 2023 at 8:24 am

    What might be going on with a person to allow this man to act like this without consequences? Asking for a friend.

    • Moon Beam on March 10, 2023 at 3:40 am

      Are you asking about the behavior of the victim or the abuser? Abuser need psychological diagnosis by professional. The victim’s behavior is one in a series of common coping mechanism subconsciously adopted to endure her abuse.

    • Jami on March 12, 2023 at 11:15 pm

      My situation is very similar to this. When I have asked my husband to work to support his business ideas I am shamed for not seeing “our money” as ours. He makes me feel guilt that I am not willing to let him spend our savings on his next great idea. This feeling of guilt and shame cause me to question myself and back down to his request.

      • Moon Beam on March 14, 2023 at 11:03 pm

        Jami, you are a victim of financial abuse. See how he is playing on your emotions and spiritual beliefs to manipulate you? You Dear woman are being abused. What would you like to do as your next step to get out of an abusive relationship?

  5. Laurie on March 9, 2023 at 9:27 am

    One more thought: the kids are learning from their father how to treat others and how to be treated. Standing up and saying no may be the healthiest thing they’ve ever seen and may truly help them in their futures.

    • Leah Lewis on March 10, 2023 at 5:13 am

      100% yes 🙂

  6. Anita on March 9, 2023 at 9:42 am

    Wow…what a great reply! It’s something I needed to hear as well even though my situation is behind me.
    Three things really helped me let go.
    1) Realizing my worth in God’s eyes did not line up with how I was being treated.
    2) If I’m honest, I had a little bit of ‘martyr syndrome’ – being slightly proud of myself because ‘look at all I’m doing’.
    3) I also realized in doings all these things for him, that was actually selfish….I had the wrong belief that I was in control of the relationship by all my ‘helping’, which made me feel secure like I had all the control.
    Sometimes our thinking is SO backwards!

    • Jamie on March 9, 2023 at 11:59 am

      Amen, sister! This was me exactly! Backward thinking in every area! But, praise God, I have learned now.

  7. Carrie on March 9, 2023 at 11:18 am

    Leslie!! Wow!! Your to-the-point, biblical and wise words are BEYOND amazing! I’m so grateful for your wisdom but more than that your bravery. It takes guts to say this, write this, teach us how to live like this. I’m forever changed by your ministry and forever grateful. Praying for you ❤️❤️❤️

  8. Connie on March 9, 2023 at 12:09 pm

    I completely agree with the counsel above. I would encourage the reading of Don Hennessy’s books, “How He Gets Into Her Head” and “Steps to Freedom”. I have had to completely get rid of the ideas of ‘he had a rough childhood’ and ‘he doesn’t know what he is doing’. Many of us have had rough childhoods. And, they know exactly what they are doing. “Bold Love” is another good book. It is not loving well to help someone stay mean and immature. It is not selfish to stop interrupting gravity (a Boundaries term for keeping natural consequences from doing the job of getting someone to grow). I know it sometimes takes ages to ‘get it’, so if you can at all do it, find good counsel on a steady basis, even a friend who gets it, because these guys know your every thought and every weakness and the second they smell that you are even thinking of setting boundaries and taking care of yourself instead of him, they know EXACTLY how to snuff those thoughts and suck you right back in. Also, at that point they can get very dangerous, so lots of prayer. Know your Father, and hear His voice.

    • Moon Beam on March 10, 2023 at 3:35 am

      Love Don Hennessey’s books. Agree.

  9. Kelly on March 9, 2023 at 7:14 pm

    My husband was/is very similar. My mom and my daughter kept telling me, “he is always mad, so you might as well get on with doing what you need to do for yourself, because he will still have the SAME reaction.” Finally, one day that truth all settled in. I understood it, prayed a lot and continued to grow in my relationship with God. When I played out the “worst case scenario” in my head – – I realized: What was the worst that could happen? His anger? Him leaving me?
    And I realized all of the “worst” wasn’t as bad as letting him to continue to act in an immature way towards me and everything and everyone in our lives. I made peace with “the worst” in my head. Once I did that, the buttons he used to press with me, just no longer worked. I got a job and started to make progress and I continue to live in an internal peace. I guess this is CORE strength working! It was pivotal.

  10. Lisa Sarver on March 10, 2023 at 6:49 pm

    Wonderful answer! I’m wondering, though, if her husband is autistic. My 68-year-old husband was just diagnosed with autism level 1 (Asperger’s) and ADHD. I’m learning that there are some things he does and other things he just can’t do because of his brain wiring. Sinful behavior should absolutely be addressed. I’m not saying it shouldn’t. My husband often seems like an adolescent to me, but he needs concrete guidance on how to participate in an adult relationship.

    • R on March 14, 2023 at 7:51 pm

      My h is likely on the spectrum but undiagnosed. We finally found some healing when he became open enough to realize that he had badly hurt me and our kids for many years. Your h needs to be open to hearing your feedback. If he is, healing is possible. If he doubles down and tries to justify his mistreatment of you, then he’s not interested in healing, and autism isn’t a good excuse for him to be mean.

    • Grace on April 22, 2023 at 3:11 pm

      How and where were your able to get your husband diagnosed?

    • Grace on April 22, 2023 at 3:15 pm

      How were you able to get your husband to a counselor to get a psychological evaluation? Was it a psychiatrist?

  11. Hope on March 16, 2023 at 12:03 pm

    Same with me. My husband fits much of the criteria for Aspergers too. I had to realize Aspergers is an explanation for some of his behaviors, but it can never be an excuse for them. Such a difference! The million-dollar question is, Is he open to input from me and/or others? Does he show a teachable heart? Is he willing to get help with his challenges? If the answer–chronically and consistently–is NO, my marriage is like a plane trying to fly with one wing. Then I have some tough choices to make. It was hard, but freeing, for me to realize that. But praise God for clarity!

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