What You Need To Know About Tough Love

By Darby Faubion|Updated August 11, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Martha Furman, LPC, CAC

This article contains mention of substance use disorders. Please contact SAMHSA at 1-800-662-4357 to find help—24 hours a day, 7 days a week—if you or someone you know lives with a substance use disorder.

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 into play.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, tough love is “love or affectionate concern expressed in a stern or unsentimental manner (as through discipline) especially to promote responsible behavior.” The phrase “tough love” is thought to have been coined by Bill Milliken, in his 1968 book of the same title. Since then, there have been countless books and articles written using that same name, with plenty of opinions on the merits of tough love and how (and if) it should be applied.

Practicing 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 adopt a more serious approach to helping them grow. 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

"Do You Feel Like You Should Know More About Tough Love? "

Now that you know what tough love is, when should you use it? When 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 therapist. We will discuss therapy and the cases in which it may be beneficial later in this article.

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

Substance Use Disorders: Substance use disorders, which are common, often a call for a more assertive approach. No matter the cause of the disorder, the effects of it are often detrimental. Some people with these conditions lose their jobs, homes, and families before they seek help. Others never end up getting the help they need. The idea of seeing someone you care about go through something like this can be scary. While public awareness of substance use disorders has increased, there is, unfortunately, still a stigma around these concerns in the US, which can make it even harder for people to get help.

Some people who have a loved one with a substance use disorder might find themselves in the role of an enabler. The enabler often holds out hope that the condition will dissipate on its own or the person will simply quit soon, and they may do things like lie for them or ignore serious warning signs. They may not put boundaries in place where needed. This is where tough treatments may be applicable and necessary.

Difficult Relationships: It can feel very frustrating when the dynamics of a relationship begin to change. Some factors that influence how individuals in a relationship treat one another could be 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 rollercoaster of emotions.

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

When a relationship becomes strained by one partner’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 boundaries, unwanted 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 distance yourself from people who make you feel like you are not valued as a person.

Other Risks To Physical Well-Being: In addition to substance use disorders, things like reckless driving, which is not uncommon in some groups of teens, and anything else that puts a person’s health at risk may be grounds for tough love. It’s vital to explore causes and contributors to the behavior, of course; and, like all of these scenarios, tough love is only one part of the equation. For example, substance use disorders and actions like reckless driving are often linked to other mental health concerns, and for someone to get the care that they need, these other factors may need acknowledgment, too, even if it is a little bit later in the course of their treatment. That said, tough love can be an important piece in getting someone the care they need.

Daily Life Obligations: When it comes to your children specifically, or anyone else in your care, you may have to implement tough love when it comes to daily life obligations. For example, your child may play video games for an excessive amount of time and may not engage in social activities, chores around the house, homework, and so on; and this may call for tough love even if you have familial love for them. Again, parents have to stay connected to their child and remain emotionally available in their child’s life, as there may be an underlying concern.

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 between failure and success in a business.


GiveYourselfTough 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.


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. So, for example, giving yourself tough love could mean:

  • Refraining from a behavior that you know is not good for you (e.g., not texting an ex, not starting an argument online, stepping away instead of butting heads with your boss).
  • Engaging in a behavior that you know is good for you (e.g., going to therapy, using opposite action when you’re about to self-sabotage, using self-care practices even when you do not feel up to it).

Tough love doesn’t have to mean beating yourself up. You can use self-compassion and tough love together, and self-compassion can be very beneficial when it comes to meeting goals.


Why Is Tough Love So Hard?

It can be hard to hear that our decisions are poor or unsafe. Often, those who are participating in risky behaviors get offended when they are confronted. For example, someone with a substance use disorder may become upset when told that their behavior is causing pain to others. This can lead to more guilt and shame, which may be detrimental. Sometimes, a person might not have a full perspective on their situation and may not feel open to help.

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 may help you keep things in perspective. It is tough to see people in pain, and it may feel harsh to give them tough love, but letting things continue the way they are can make the problem worse.

Similarly, it can be hard to show yourself tough love. It can be hard to break long-standing patterns, and this is one of many scenarios where a mental health professional may be an advantageous part of the equation when it comes to behavior change.

Ways To Show Tough Love

Tough love can be incredibly valuable if it is exercised properly. Understanding the best way to demonstrate tough love effectively may increase the chances of it being effective. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Ask Yourself Whether It’s Necessary. Sometimes, we want something for someone else so badly that we think we know what’s best for them. However, there are cases where tough love is appropriate, and there are also times where it might not be the best way of showing love or could come off as controlling. For example, you may use it to help a child with a substance use disorder, but you might not use it on your best friend who wants to drop out of university and has already made their decision. When a situation is not one of immediate danger or harm, it’s reasonable to respect the autonomy of other adults in your life.
  • Establish And Follow Healthy Boundaries. Sometimes, you have to be willing to set boundaries and say no. On the days that you feel like it’s too hard to do this, remember that 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 can be essential to stand your ground. This way, old patterns can be broken (even if it’s a difficult adjustment), and new ones can form.
  • Remember To Emphasize Love And Encouragement. It is very challenging to see a loved one engage in behavior that is causing them harm, and it is important to remember that this person may feel a high level of shame. Remember to show your support and unconditional love for the person during this time. When you say, “I know this is tough; it’s what we have to do,” consider adding something like, “I love you and am so proud of you.”
  • Promote Independence. Doing good for others is never a bad thing. If you have children or an elderly person in your life who needs help, by all means, help them. That said, allowing for choice, decision-making, and personal action can be helpful. For example, if you have a child in eating disorder treatment, they may not be able to pick their own meals or decide when to eat yet, but perhaps they can choose their hairstyle or what kind of clothes they get for school.
  • Don’t Be Afraid To Ask For Help. The person you’re supporting or want to support through tough love may not be the only one who needs outside help. If you are struggling with giving tough love or you don’t know how to stop enabling someone, consider seeking help. Behavioral specialists and therapists can 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, again, 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. Decide what your boundaries are, think about how you might communicate them with your loved one and make sure that you can stick to them. What actions are you going to take to show care firmly and help your loved one?
  2. Stand Your Ground. Maintain your resolve and stick to your word. This can be particularly important if enabling was a concern in the past or is a potential issue. Remember, you can give love in other ways, and it’s important to do so. You can be firm and loving both.
  3. Develop. Develop a plan of action. Talk to the other 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 follow through on the new roles and expectations in the relationship.
  4. Show Respect. You should always show respect to others, especially the people who need tough love. Treating others with respect does not mean allowing them to mistreat you, though. Rather, it is a pattern of behavior that you should expect to be reciprocated.
  5. Build A Support System For Yourself.  Again, tough love isn’t always easy, and it’s important to have people who you can turn to on your side. You may be able to find a support group, speak with or ask for the help of friends and family, and so on.

"Do You Feel Like You Should Know More About Tough Love? "

Tough love has a lot to do with teaching ourselves and others to be responsible and independent. However, at some point, 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, need help with self-care while helping someone else, or want support in another area of life, 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, professional therapy is accessible, affordable, and convenient so that anyone who wants help with life’s challenges can get support. BetterHelp’s has a team of licensed, experienced, accredited therapists who are dedicated to helping others overcome life’s difficulties. With BetterHelp, you can participate in therapy via videoconference, live chat, messaging, or phone call—from the comfort of your home (or wherever you have an internet connection). A BetterHelp therapist can help you provide support to loved ones in your life and manage conflict in a productive way. Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar concerns.

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.”

“My experience with Laurie has been exceptional. Her intuitive connection to my energy, concerns, and silence on each message and video call has lifted so much weight from me and has allowed me to feel incredibly safe and supported. She provides a balance of both practical actionable and internal guidance with each interaction. It’s like talking with a soul you’ve known/trusted your entire life. I’m extremely grateful.”


Loving others sometimes means having to make difficult decisions. When maladaptive behavior or risky actions threaten those we care for, a tough love approach may be the only option. If you feel like practicing tough love is necessary, consider reaching out for help today.

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