What You Need To Know About Tough Love
Content Warning: Please be advised, that the below article mentions topics related to substance use that could be triggering to the reader. Please contact SAMHSA at 1-800-662-4357 to find 24/7 assistance if you or someone you know is struggling with substance use. You can also visit our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.
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? What if someone you love keeps making the same mistakes? For many people, this is when tough love comes into play.
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
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.
Substance use disorders
Substance use disorders, which are common, often 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 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 that 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.
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 pressure cooker 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 profoundly 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, though, 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, behaviors like reckless driving, which is not uncommon in some teens, and anything else that puts a person’s health at risk may be grounds for tough love. It may be vital to explore the causes and contributors to the behavior, and 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 to be acknowledged, too. 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 responsibilities. 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. These behaviors may call for tough love.
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. Holding meetings with employees and staff and discussing expectations can help you set guidelines for behavior and productivity. You may consider offering praise for a job well done as well as counsel for 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.
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, it may help you keep things in perspective. It can be tough to see people in pain, and it may feel harsh to give them tough love, but letting problems continue can make them worse.
It is also important to note that some people have equated the term “tough love” to disciplinary action or even outright abusive behaviors. This is not at all the same thing. No action that causes harm to another person – such as abusive wording or physical aggression – is love of any kind; it is unacceptable and should not be excused.
If you or someone you know is experiencing any form of abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline immediately by visiting their website, calling 800-799-7233, or texting START to 88788.
Give yourself tough love
For many of us, giving advice to others is often 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.
Giving yourself tough love is just another way of practicing self-control and discipline, though. Discipline means setting goals and experiencing rewards and consequences. For example, giving yourself tough love could mean:
- Refraining from 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 mean beating yourself up. You can use self-compassion and tough love together, and self-compassion can be beneficial when it comes to meeting goals.
Ways to show tough love
Tough love can be valuable if it is exercised properly. Understanding the best way to demonstrate tough love 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 when 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 has decided to drop out of college. When a situation is not one of immediate danger or harm, it may be advisable to respect the autonomy of other adults in your life.
- Establish and follow healthy boundaries: Sometimes, you may need to be willing to set boundaries and say “no.” On days when 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 may 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 can be 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 great deal 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 almost 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, 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 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 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:
- 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.
- Stand your ground: This means maintaining your resolve and sticking 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 both firm and loving.
- 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 honored, and discuss a plan of how to follow through on the new roles and expectations in the relationship.
- 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.
Build a support system for yourself
Again, tough love isn’t always easy, and it’s important to have people on your side. You may be able to find a support group, speak with friends and family, or begin seeing a therapist.
Tough love involves 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 professional help. A therapist can give you the understanding and emotional support you need when grappling with tough love.
It can sometimes be difficult to discuss matters of the heart with a stranger. This can be particularly hard in-person. Many people find online settings more conducive to these intimate discussions.
In recent years, online therapy has gotten a lot of attention, especially from researchers in the mental health space. Many studies have shown that this type of internet-based therapy, whether delivered via video-conferencing or messaging, can be as effective as traditional in-person counseling.
At BetterHelp, professional therapy is affordable and convenient, so that anyone who wants help with life’s challenges can get support. BetterHelp has a team of experienced, accredited therapists who are dedicated to helping others overcome life’s difficulties. With BetterHelp, you can participate in therapy via videoconference, live chat, in-app messaging, or phone 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.
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What are the disadvantages of tough love?
While tough love can have its merits in specific situations, it also comes with disadvantages, particularly when applied to parenting and managing addiction.
In parenting, excessive tough love, characterized by strict discipline and a lack of emotional warmth, can lead to long-term negative consequences for children. It may result in alienation, low self-esteem, and difficulty forming healthy relationships. Recent evidence indicates that parental warmth during childhood may predict adequate coping skills and emotional well-being in adulthood. Children may perceive their parents as unapproachable, making it challenging to seek guidance or support when needed. This behavior can have adverse effects on their emotional well-being and overall development.
In addition, tough love may involve cutting off all support or contact with an individual facing addiction in the hope that they will hit rock bottom and seek help. However, this approach can be risky, as it might further isolate the person and prevent them from getting the necessary treatment. Tough love doesn't always guarantee positive outcomes and can potentially make the problem worse.
Balancing discipline and support, tailored to individual circumstances, tends to yield more effective and compassionate results, both in parenting and addiction recovery. When people feel safely supported and accepted, they are more likely to open up and seek help when needed. Therefore, it is essential to be mindful of the potential drawbacks of tough love and approach situations with
When should tough love be used?
Tough love should be employed thoughtfully and selectively, primarily when its benefits outweigh the potential drawbacks. Tough love can be most effective when the goal is to teach accountability and responsibility and improve resilience.
- Teaching accountability: Tough love can be valuable when someone consistently avoids taking responsibility for their actions. In the long run, tough love sends a message that one must face the consequences of their choices, fostering a sense of accountability.
- Building resilience: In some cases, facing challenges and adversity head-on can help individuals develop resilience. Encouraging them to confront difficulties with determination and self-reliance can lead to personal growth.
- Breaking destructive patterns: Tough love may be necessary when someone is trapped in self-destructive behaviors, like an addiction. It can be a last resort to motivate change, but it should be approached cautiously and obtain professional help.
However, tough love should not be a default approach in all situations. You should consider the individual's circumstances, needs, and emotional well-being. Overusing tough love can strain relationships and harm emotional bonds, especially without emotional support and understanding. Balancing discipline with empathy is often more effective in achieving long-term positive outcomes.
Is tough love more effective?
Whether tough love is more effective than a compassionate and empathetic approach depends on the situation and the individual's needs. Tough love can be effective in specific circumstances, such as when someone's behavior is self-destructive or repeatedly harmful to themselves and others. It can serve as a wake-up call, motivating change through consequences and accountability.
However, tough love is not universally superior. Often, an approach rooted in empathy and compassion is more effective. This approach fosters trust, open communication, and a supportive environment, especially in relationships or when dealing with emotional issues. Empathetic listening and understanding can help individuals feel heard and valued, which is essential for personal growth and healing.
Ultimately, the most effective approach combines tough love and compassion, tailored to the individual's needs and circumstances. Striking the right balance between accountability and emotional support is key to promoting positive change and maintaining healthy relationships.
Why do some people need tough love?
Some people may need tough love because they lack self-motivation or struggle with making responsible choices. Tough love can serve as a means to set boundaries, provide consequences, and encourage personal accountability. It's often employed when individuals repeatedly engage in self-destructive behaviors, such as addiction or unhealthy relationships, and more gentle approaches have not been effective.
Tough love can be a wake-up call, helping individuals recognize the seriousness of their actions and the need for change. By imposing consequences for negative behavior, it aims to motivate them to take responsibility for their actions and make healthier choices. However, it's essential for those applying tough love to strike a balance, as excessive harshness can lead to resentment and alienation.
While tough love can be necessary in some situations, it's important to approach it with empathy and care, ensuring that it is a supportive and constructive means of encouraging personal growth and positive change. As with any approach, it should be used thoughtfully and in conjunction with professional help when needed. A mental health professional can help navigate the nuances of tough love and provide guidance to ensure its effectiveness. S
Is tough love unconditional love?
Tough love is not synonymous with unconditional love, although they can coexist. Unconditional love refers to a deep and unwavering affection that is not dependent on conditions or behavior. This kind of love encompasses a profound sense of care and acceptance regardless of circumstances.
The neural basis for unconditional love involves various components of the brain's reward system, including releasing oxytocin and dopamine, which are associated with bonding and pleasure. Unconditional love is often experienced in familial relationships, where love for a child, for example, transcends any difficulties or missteps.
Tough love, on the other hand, involves setting boundaries, imposing consequences, and sometimes being stern in response to negative behaviors. While it may appear conditional because it responds to actions, its underlying motivation is often rooted in a desire for the individual's well-being and personal growth.
While tough love is not unconditional love, it can be an expression of love that seeks to guide and support someone, even when conditions are set to encourage positive changes in behavior or choices.
Which type of love is harder to maintain?
Unconditional love and tough love can be challenging but in different ways. Unconditional love requires consistent empathy, compassion, and acceptance, even when faced with difficult behaviors or choices. Maintaining this type of love takes a lot of emotional work, particularly if there are ongoing challenges or conflicts in the relationship.
On the other hand, maintaining tough love also requires emotional effort, as it involves setting boundaries and imposing consequences. Balancing discipline with empathy and avoiding being too harsh or lenient can be difficult. Additionally, tough love may strain relationships, particularly if not accompanied by emotional support and understanding.
Ultimately, both types of love require ongoing work and commitment. However, they can also be rewarding when expressed in healthy ways that promote personal growth and positive change. Whether unconditional love or tough love is harder to maintain may depend on the individual's circumstances, needs, and relationship dynamics. Both types of love have their place in certain situations, and finding a balance between them can be key to maintaining healthy relationships.
What is the difference between tough love and boundaries?
Tough love and boundaries are often interrelated, but they are not the same thing. Boundaries refer to personal limits and expectations that individuals set for themselves or in relationships with others. These can include physical, emotional, and behavioral boundaries.
Tough love, on the other hand, refers to an approach used by others to encourage positive change by setting consequences and holding someone accountable for their actions. Boundaries can be an essential tool in implementing tough love, as they provide a clear framework of what is and isn't acceptable behavior.
While boundaries are often used to support tough love, it's important to note that they can also exist independently. Individuals can set personal boundaries without external pressure or consequences as a means to take care of themselves and their well-being. Boundaries can also exist in relationships as a way to maintain mutual respect and promote healthy communication.
How do you accept tough love?
If you are on the receiving end of tough love, it can feel challenging and even hurtful at times. However, it's essential to understand that tough love can come from a place of concern and a desire for your well-being.
To accept tough love, try to view it as an opportunity for growth and change rather than a punishment. Take responsibility for your actions and be open to feedback, even if it is difficult to hear. Remember that tough love is often rooted in love and concern, even when it may not feel that way.
It can also be helpful to communicate openly with the person applying tough love. Express your feelings and try to understand their perspective as well. Seek support from others if needed, such as a trusted friend or therapist who can help you process your emotions and navigate the situation healthily.
Accepting tough love often requires a willingness to change and grow, even when it may be uncomfortable. By embracing this challenge and approaching it with empathy and understanding, it can lead to personal growth and stronger relationships in the long run. Overall, both tough love and compassionate approaches have their place in promoting individual growth and well-being. The key is finding the right balance.
What are the characteristics of tough love?
The characteristics of tough love may vary depending on the situation and the individual applying it. However, some common traits include:
- Setting boundaries: Tough love involves clearly defining what behavior is acceptable and what is not. Boundaries help individuals understand their limits and promote personal accountability.
- Imposing consequences: When someone engages in negative behavior, tough love often involves imposing consequences to discourage that behavior. These consequences may be natural, such as losing privileges, or pre-determined, such as an expected disciplinary action.
- Being empathetic: Although tough love may appear harsh on the surface, it often stems from a place of empathy and concern for the individual's well-being. Tough love is not meant to be cruel or unfeeling but to promote positive change.
- Encouraging growth: The ultimate goal of tough love is to promote personal growth and development. It is not meant to discourage or punish but to guide individuals toward healthier choices and behaviors.
- Balancing discipline with support: Tough love can be challenging, so it's essential for those applying it to also provide emotional support and understanding. This balance between discipline and empathy is crucial for maintaining healthy relationships.
The characteristics of tough love are generally rooted in a desire for positive change and growth, even if it may not always feel that way. By understanding these traits, both those receiving and giving tough love can navigate challenging situations with compassion and understanding.
Does tough love work with anxiety?
Anxiety is a complex and individual experience, so it's challenging to determine if tough love will work for everyone with anxiety. However, some aspects of tough love may help manage anxiety symptoms.
For example, setting boundaries can benefit individuals with anxiety as it helps them define their limits and focus on self-care. Additionally, imposing consequences can encourage individuals to take responsibility for their actions and make healthier choices.
However, some anxiety symptoms may be triggered by tough love, particularly if it is not applied with empathy and understanding. For someone who experiences low self-esteem, criticism, and punishment may worsen their anxiety symptoms. When you consider the individual's needs and work collaboratively to find a balance between discipline and support, tough love may be a useful tool in managing anxiety.
While tough love may not be the sole solution for managing anxiety, it can be a helpful part of a comprehensive approach that includes self-care, therapy, and other support systems. If tough love worsens the individual's anxiety symptoms, it may be necessary to reassess the approach and find a more compassionate way to support their well-being. Every individual is different, and what works for one person may not work for another. However, patience, understanding, and a willingness to find the right balance between tough love and compassion can be a powerful tool for promoting personal growth.
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