What You Need To Know About Tough Love

By: Darby Faubion

Updated November 11, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Martha Furman, LPC, CAC

Loving others is natural. Whether it's parental love, romantic love, or friendship love, it is a vital part of human relationships. What happens, though, when love doesn't seem to be enough? When someone you love keeps making the same mistakes, with often serious consequences? For many people, this is when tough love comes out.

By definition, tough love, according to Oxford Languages, is "the promotion of a person's welfare, especially that of an addict, child, or criminal, by enforcing certain constraints on them, or requiring them to take responsibility for their actions; the method of encouraging self-help by restricting the assistance of others."

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Tough love is not about being rude or alienating friends or loved ones. Yet, when people we care about engage in unsafe habits or practices, it often becomes necessary to remove certain conveniences for them to change. Some people mistakenly believe that tough love only affects the people who are being restricted. This is not the case. In fact, tough love can be just as hard on the person giving it as the one who is receiving it.

Situations that May Require Tough Love

Any time a person indulges in behavior that could cause harm to themselves or others, it may be necessary to practice tough love. Keep in mind, there are some situations that can be handled by simply making changes within your home and relationships. Other situations may require the assistance of an outside resource, such as a counselor or therapist. We will discuss options for counseling and the cases where it may be beneficial later throughout this article.

Some of the most common reasons tough love may need to be enforced include the following:

Substance Abuse: People abuse drugs and alcohol for different reasons. No matter the cause of addiction, the effects are often detrimental. A person who is addicted to drugs or alcohol, as mentioned above, may not be able to think beyond where their next high or drink is going to come from. Many addicts lose their jobs, homes, and families before they even consider seeking help. Some never end up getting the help they need at all.

Loving someone who is addicted to drugs or alcohol is difficult. Many people find themselves in the role of an enabler or an enforcer. The enabler often holds out hope that the addict will change on their own. During this time, they may pay bills or buy groceries and clothing for the addict. While the gesture is usually with kind intent, it sends a message to the addict that their behavior is acceptable and that someone else will take care of their needs while they are abusing. The enforcer, on the other hand, is the person who decides to give tough love. This person may refuse to provide food, shelter, or other essential needs while the addict is using. Being an enforcer can feel heart-wrenching at times. Many people lost in addiction play on the sympathy of an enforcer in hopes that they will give in to specific demands.

Difficult Relationships: It can feel very frustrating when the dynamics of a relationship begin to change. Some factors that may influence how individuals in a relationship treat one another could be a financial strain, lack of effective communication, or loss of a job. Many people do not even realize that their behavior toward others in a relationship has changed. In fact, many times, the person who feels wronged or underappreciated may not say anything at first. This can result in a roller-coaster of emotions.

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It's one thing for a person to have a bad day, to apologize, and to move forward with a better attitude. It's a totally different circumstance when poor behavior becomes a habit, and someone is left feeling hurt or disrespected.

When a relationship becomes strained by someone's behavior, tough love may be necessary to get things back on track. Establishing ground rules for how you expect to be treated and what behavior is acceptable in the relationship may feel uncomfortable at first. Without setting these guidelines, bad behavior could continue to the detriment of the relationship. Remember, it's okay to expect to be treated kindly and respectfully. You also have a right to remove people who do not add value to your life or make you feel like you are not valued as a person.

Physical Well-Being Is at Risk: Physical health is usually not the first thing we think of when we talk about tough love. There are times, though, when a tough-love approach may be the only thing that helps someone get perspective on what is happening with their physical well-being.

Children today, for example, spend much more time in front of the television or computer than outside playing sports or being involved in other physical activities. The convenience of fast-food versus a home-cooked meal often wins out, especially in families where both parents work, and schedules are tight. These factors alone contribute to the increased rate of obesity in society.

An example of tough love in this instance would be restricting fast food, sweets, and sodas. Children, especially, may be unhappy about changes in diet and/or the limits that are placed on indoor activities. However, giving tough love and making changes now could mean a healthier future for them.

The workplace: Whether you are a business owner or a new employee, there may be times when you feel like the people who work with you are taking advantage of you. It may not be intentional, but it can have long-term effects on your productivity. Having meetings with employees and staff and discussing what your expectations are will help you set guidelines for behavior and productivity. Offer praise for a job well done and counsel with those who do not meet expectations. Tough love in the workplace may seem harsh, but it could mean the difference in failure or success of a business.

Give Yourself Tough Love: For some, giving advice to others is easier than following our own advice. The same can be said of tough love. In fact, many people don't consider tough love to be something that we can practice for ourselves. We can, and we should.

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Giving yourself "tough love" is just another way of saying that you are practicing self-control and discipline. Discipline means setting goals and having rewards and consequences.

If you have reached a place in your life where you feel your health is declining, you aren't performing well at school or work, or your relationships are suffering, now is the perfect time to evaluate what's going on and make a plan of action. If you have gained weight and are beginning to feel sluggish, establishing an exercise routine and planning a healthy diet can make a huge difference. If your grades are suffering or your job performance has been less than perfect, set ground rules for how much time you will devote to studies and/or completing projects. Relationships require a great deal of effort. Just as you want to be respected and valued, the other people in your life do as well. If you feel as though you have been inattentive, ungrateful, or rude, it's vital for your wellbeing that you try your absolute best to improve.

Why Is Tough Love So Hard?

No one wants to hear that their decisions are "not good" or are "unsafe." Often, those who are participating in risky behaviors get offended when they are confronted. For example, a drug addict does not need to be told that their behavior is causing pain and suffering to others. In fact, many individuals who have addiction issues can't see beyond the need for their next fix. It is an unfortunate reality that affects every person who cares for them.

When faced with the difficult decision of making changes and giving tough love, many people feel challenged. The fear of upsetting or alienating the person who needs "tough love" is often a deterrent to making those changes. During this time, it's important to consider the reasons you feel tough love is necessary. If you can rationalize the pros and cons of tough love for yourself, it will help you keep things in perspective.

Ways to Show Tough Love

Tough love can be incredibly beneficial if it is exercised properly. Understanding the best way to demonstrate tough love effectively increases the chances of it being effective.

  1. It's not all about you. Sometimes we want something for someone else so badly that we think we know what's best for them. The effort we put into making life better for others often leads us to become an enabler rather than someone who encourages independent behavior. Learn to let go of the person you care for. As difficult as it may feel, you must be willing to let them find their own way.
  2. Do not fall for the "victim mentality." When you decide to show tough love, it is very likely that the other person will give you a sad story of how hard their life is, how no one cares, and how hopeless they feel. It's okay to listen. In fact, you should. You must learn to separate the emotions pulling at your heartstrings from the reality of what's going on. The victim mentality is a manipulative maneuver from someone who is trying to gain attention. Giving in to this type of behavior makes the person you are trying to help become a martyr in their own story. The goal of tough love is to teach them to be independent and be their own heroes.
  3. Establish and follow healthy boundaries. There will be times when it may feel easier to give in to the demands of the person you're trying to help. You have to be willing to set boundaries and say, "No." On the days that you feel like you are being too hard, remember, this is not about one day or one week. It is about establishing a healthy way of life for years to come. No matter how challenging the process becomes, it's essential to stand your ground.
  4. Make them do for themselves. Doing good for others is never a bad thing. If you have children or an elderly person who needs help, by all means, help them. However, if a person is able to do for themselves, let them. Don't do anything more than you really need to. If the person who needs tough love is capable of performing a task, make it known that you expect them to do it.

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  1. Don't be afraid to ask for help. A person with a risky lifestyle or poor behavior is not always the only one who may need outside help. If you are struggling with giving tough love or you don't know how to stop enabling someone, seek help. Behavioral specialists and counselors will be able to help you understand when tough love should be given and help you learn how to do so.

Establishing a Tough Love "Plan"

Knowing that you need to give tough love and actually giving it are very different things. Toughness can be difficult for both the giver and the receiver. For this reason, it's important to know why you feel tough love is necessary and to develop a plan of action on how you're going to follow through.

Some steps to establishing a plan for tough love include:

  1. Decide. Make a decision about who needs to receive tough love and why. Decide what boundaries you want to establish.
  2. Refuse. Refuse to give in to any pressure from the other person.
  3. Stand your ground. Maintain your resolve. If you give in, your pattern of enabling behavior will take over, and you will not accomplish anything productive.
  4. Develop. Develop a plan of action. Talk to the other person/people who will be affected by your decision to make changes. Explain the boundaries that you expect to be followed and discuss a plan of how to accomplish the new roles and expectations in the relationship.
  5. Show Respect. You can show respect to someone else, even the people who you need to give tough love. Treating others with respect does not mean allowing them to mistreat you. Rather, it is a pattern of behavior that you should expect to be reciprocated.

Tough love has a lot to do with teaching ourselves and others to be responsible and independent. However, there are times when even the most self-sufficient person needs a little help. If you have found yourself at a place where tough love is difficult for you, you might want to consider seeking an in-person or online therapist. A therapist can give you the understanding and emotional support you need when grappling with tough love.

At BetterHelp, our mission is to make professional counseling accessible, affordable, and convenient so that anyone who struggles with life's challenges can get help anytime, anywhere. Our team of licensed, experienced and accredited psychologists, marriage and family therapists, clinical social workers, and board licensed professional counselors are dedicated to helping you overcome life's difficulties. Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

"Dr. Gonzalez has been very supportive and empathetic from the beginning. She replies promptly to my messages, and when I don't write to her for a day or two, she reaches out to see how I'm doing. She has been a great comfort at a difficult time for me."

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Loving others sometimes means having to make difficult decisions. When bad behavior or a risky lifestyle threatens those we care for, giving tough love may be the only option. If you feel like tough love is necessary, there are resources for the support that can help you as you make changes for the better.

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