What You Need To Know About Tough Love

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti
Updated February 21, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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.

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

It’s called tough love for a reason

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.

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 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.

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. 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:

  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. 
  2. 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.
  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 honored, 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.

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.

It’s called tough love for a reason

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.

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.”

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“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.”

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Takeaway

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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