Tough love? No thanks: it’s not love

Tough love? No thanks: it’s not love

09 February 2016


We hear a lot about the use of “tough love”. I am not a fan of tough love. I have seen it used most by people looking for an excuse.


Unwilling and unable to face up to their own complex feelings about their relationship with someone who has been struggling with behaviour problems, addiction, or inappropriate social behaviour, they resort to the use of tough love.


In addiction treatment circles, tough love is associated with intervention. Now this idea of intervention is often well-meaning and well intended but badly thought through; and ultimately a shadowy set of behaviours that mask unresolved feelings that get acted out in inappropriate ways.

Love is for me most obviously a natural human emotion. I am a parent, I love my children; I do not however enjoy some of their behaviours. In fact, some of their behaviours I think could be called problematic. Nevertheless this does not mean that my love for them is lessened,  I.e. there is a difference between loving the essence of a person and disliking their behaviours.

Tough love is usually deployed because the behaviours that are not liked or wanted have become so extreme that something needs to be done to stop them.

I can understand that. If somebody is coming round to your house, breaking into your cupboards, stealing possessions, taking your money and generally misusing their relationship with you, then action needs to be taken.

That action might be quite drastic. But it would be an error to coat the actions up with a covering of love for the person who is performing the actions.

Taking action to protect our own boundaries and our own security is an act of self-interest. A healthy act I would say but still self-interest. Nevertheless when it comes to the bottom line, it is not being done out of love for somebody else, but love for ourselves.

In this way when people say they are doing things to other people out of tough love it is usually that they are doing things for other people out of care and love for themselves.

When we are experiencing strong emotions about the behaviour of somebody else, then we are wanting often to stop feeling those emotions.

We will then create whatever way we can for us to feel relief from those emotions. Tough love is often taken in order for those acting out the tough love to actually get relief from their own emotions.

The problem of course with deploying tough love is the fact that acknowledging these two extremely important aspects is not what is actually done. Often the so-called reason for the tough love is given as being in the interests of the person on whom this tough love is being inflicted.

I have been involved over the years in many tough love interventions (much to my regret) as an observer.

What I did notice was that when people are confronted by a family or a group of friends or a mixture of both around their behaviour from the position of so-called tough love, the recipients of the tough love could very easily see that this was really a group acting out of self-interest first and care for them second.


Tough love is of course not only used in response to crises like alcoholism or addiction. It is used within the context of the justice system and the disciplining of young people. It is also used within schools.

In all these contexts there is clearly a difference between genuine action taken out of love and care and compassion for a person, and when it is really just a series of actions taken out of self-interest.

Tough love then for me does not contain love as I understand it. That is not to say that love and compassion does not contain firmness, boundaries and strength. It does. But we need to be clear about our own part in wishing to enact tough love on another person.

Most people who are involved in self-destructive, damaging, self-limiting and socially divisive behaviours are trying to make sense of their lives and challenges.

It is better for us to try to understand those challenges and what is troubling them than to simply try to remedy in the first place the behaviours we don′t like. Love then inspires the willingness to understand a person rather than to try to control them.

People can tell whether our approach to them is generally an act of love. They can tell the difference between being judged for their behaviours and being loved beyond the behaviours.

A fundamental component of our modern human existence seems to be that most of us accept that all of us have the right to some kind of self-determination about our lives.

Tough love often is an attempt to take away that self-determination from somebody. It′s a good question to ask in any situation, Am I genuinely trying to understand and love this person or am I really just trying to change their behaviour because I don′t like it and can see that they are suffering from their own behaviour?

There is time for fierce action from love in service of another person. But rare are people that can take such fierce action from love and compassion where it is not just a mask for their own self-interest.

Where tough love gets deployed most is usually with parents and their children. This can be particularly heartbreaking for the bonds between parents and the children, no matter how old they are, are unbelievably strong.


Confronted with children who have run into deep problems parents can blame themselves, feel that they failed in some aspect of parenting, may well feel all sorts of emotions the that they struggle to be with It can seem almost irresistible when the so-called tough love theory is offered for it  put into practice in this way it is possible to modify your own feelings. Great care should be practised in the use of tough love in such situations for the damage that can be done to those on the receiving end.


So when we find ourselves tempted towards the tough love model we can stop and ask ourselves a couple of important questions. Is what is being proposed actually about love for somebody else or is it really more about our own self-interest and love for ourselves?


And will our emotions really be resolved by following through with a tough love intervention? If we make sure to examine our own feelings and hearts we may well find that ultimately the choice is to love and leave out the tough.