Using Tough Love – When You Can’t Avoid Hurting Someone

Using Tough Love – When You Can’t Avoid Hurting Someone


By Lorin Harrott

What exactly is tough love?

Most of us have been taught from a young age not to hurt other people physically or emotionally. In fact, hurting someone in either manner is often considered abuse. But what about tough love?

Are there times when causing someone pain is the only way to help them? It’s a dicey question, but the answer with many caveats is, yes.

Defining Tough Love

We’ve all heard of tough love – when doing the best thing for someone we care about is going to be painful and difficult for that person. It’s generally a last resort as a means of changing behavior and can be as painful for the person administering it as it is for the person experiencing it.

But because of the strong emotions involved, knowing just when and how to use tough love, or if it’s really the best choice at all, can be a very blurry line.

Tough love is a method of changing or attempting to change destructive behavior in someone by using what feels like harsh, uncompromising, and sometimes seemingly cruel means. It’s motivated by love and the desire for a positive change for the person involved, and it’s most often a method of last resort.

For instance, you wouldn’t use tough love on someone who occasionally forgets to pick their towel up off the floor. But for really dire situations like,

or other seriously self-destructive behaviors, you may have to make some uncomfortable decisions.

The repercussions of a tough love approach can help that person see the need for change and hopefully make the right changes.

What Does Tough Love Look Like?

Tough love can take several forms. The commonality is the painful effect they can have on the person on whom they’re exercised. Tough love tactics may mean,

  • Restricting access to money
  • Denying access to temptations (alcohol, internet, transportation, etc.)
  • Limiting or stopping communication
  • Group interventions
  • Even asking someone you love to leave your home until they change

In short, tough love is the polar opposite of enabling. In some cases, it may feel extreme, or even like abandonment to the person who needs the help.

The key here is understanding that tough love requires taking action on your part to get action on theirs, not talk or threats that may get empty agreements or general disinterest.

It also requires boundaries that will be maintained without fail – even when it hurts (particularly you).

When To Use Tough Love

Determining when to apply tough love can be very difficult. When you love someone, you want to believe the best, and you certainly don’t want to hurt them.

But when the behavior is so extreme that they are endangering themselves and others, or hurting you in the case of abuse, you may not have another option.

Tough love is often a method used when someone is suffering from an addiction they deny or for which they refuse to get help.

Addictions come in many forms and can be dire and endanger the lives of not only the addicted person but also those around them.

Consider, for instance, the alcoholic who drives drunk, or the gambling addict who risks their family’s livelihood. Even porn addiction may rise to the level of threatening the well-being of a family by destroying a marriage.

It’s important to understand, however, that the person you’re helping will almost certainly push back against your efforts.

Common reactions include:

  • Becoming defensive. “You’re wrong,” “You don’t understand,” “You wouldn’t get it,” “I have it under control,” “You’re overreacting.” These are all statements frequently used by someone who’s defensive when tough love is applied.
  • Attempting to justify their behavior. “I don’t have a choice,” “It’s normal – you just don’t get it,” “I need this,” “This helps me be more creative.” All are common responses from someone trying to justify their behavior.
  • Blaming others. “You make me do this,” “He/she started this,” “It’s their fault I’m this way,” “I have to so I can deal with (insert thing here – work, family, partner, the state of the world).” Anyone and everyone else is the reason they’re in a situation that requires tough love.
  • Feeling incapable of change. “I can’t,” “I’m not strong enough,” “I’m not strong like you,” “This is just who I am.” This resigned, defeatist attitude toward self-destructive behavior can be a sign of something deeper like depression.

Does any of this sound familiar?

When these excuses aren’t accepted – and you should not accept them – you can also expect anger and resentment.

A person who needs tough love isn’t likely to appreciate your efforts right away, possibly not ever. But for tough love to work you need to be prepared to go the distance. This means when the person you love,

  • Begs to break the boundaries you set,
  • Appeals to the love you feel for them,
  • Attempts to make you feel guilty,

or otherwise attempts to manipulate you, you’ll have to have the strength to stand your ground.

It also means when they claim they’ve changed there needs to be evidence over a period of time that the change is real and sustainable. If not, then your efforts won’t be effective, and your time and own mental anguish will be wasted.

How To Start Using Tough Love

Keep in mind that tough love will look different in each instance. And the degree to which you will have to use it will vary.

Dr. Kurt counsels regularly on the use of tough love in many scenarios. According to him,

Just the name ‘tough love’ itself sounds harsh. But most of us practice it somewhat regularly and may not even realize it. Saying, no to our kids – that can be tough love (they usually think so anyway). What we’re really talking about is setting boundaries, which is healthy and necessary. Some versions of tough love are just harder to do than others. ‘No dessert if you don’t finish your dinner,’ not so difficult. ‘You can’t live here anymore if you’re going to drink 18 beers every night,’ that’s difficult to do (I’m working with a couple whose adult son is doing this and we’re working on applying tough love).

If it feels like the right, maybe only choice, then you will need to start by making a plan for yourself. Yes – yourself.

Be prepared with the following:

  • A specific change you expect to see.
  • A form of accountability.
  • Boundaries that you will maintain.
  • A clear way of articulating your expectations and reasoning to the person in question.
  • A support system for yourself when the process becomes painful for you. And if you’re using tough love with someone you love deeply, it will likely become very painful.
  • An understanding and mental preparation for the likelihood that the person the tough love is being applied to will say hurtful things, accuse you of harming them, blame you for what are the consequences of their own actions, or remove themselves from your life for some period of time.

Without your own plan in place, it’s very easy to let yourself be swayed.

People who are wrestling with something that requires tough love can be extremely persuasive when it comes to getting back to whatever bad and destructive habit it is that needs breaking.

Don’t underestimate their ability to manipulate your relationship and love in order to get what they want.

What Tough Love Is NOT

Let’s be clear – tough love is motivated by, well, love. It comes from a place of true caring and a genuine desire to really help someone. Tough love is not about,

  • Getting what you want
  • Punishing a person for not doing things your way
  • Controlling them

You don’t use tough love when someone makes general, correctable mistakes or chooses their own, non-harmful pathway in life.

Tough love is also not abusive.

So, physically hurting someone, or emotionally abusing them, in the name of tough love isn’t at all appropriate. No one needs a beating, physically or emotionally, in order to initiate change.

Oh, and it’s not in any way an overnight fix. In fact, you should expect things to get worse, or at least uglier, before they get better. And it’s very possible you’ll need to repeat the process more than once before the changes stick, for you and them.

Does Tough Love Ever NOT Work?

The short answer is, yes.

Tough love isn’t a magic bullet, and it can be emotionally exhausting for the person applying it.

There are two major considerations for tough love to be successful:

  • How much is the person willing and ready to invest in their own change?
  • How much are you willing to sacrifice for someone else’s change?

For tough love to work the person to whom it’s being applied will need to rise and respond. It’s really only that individual who can make the needed changes.

You can apply the pressure and place the boundaries, but if they don’t, won’t, or can’t meet you at least part of the way, tough love won’t work. This is on them to decide.

There’s also a point of diminishing returns in any relationship. You can only do so much before you begin to sacrifice too much of your own health trying to save someone else. This is on you to decide.

When these two things strike the right balance, tough love works. When they don’t, it doesn’t. That doesn’t mean it never will, however.

The bottom line is people are ultimately responsible for their own actions and you can’t help someone who’s not willing to be helped. If they resist help? Yes. If they reject help altogether? No.

What To Take Away

No one wants to be in a situation where tough love seems to be the only option for effecting change. Unfortunately, many of us will find ourselves there at some point.

If you think tough love is a choice you’ll have to make, keep the following things in mind:

  • Tough love should have a targeted plan and objective – namely positive change.
  • A recipient of tough love will probably not thank you until they’re on the other side of things, if ever.
  • To succeed, you’ll need your own plan, conviction, and thick skin.
  • You can’t do it alone – the person who needs to make the change is ultimately responsible for their own behavior.
  • You will need patience.

Using tough love is a sign of your investment in another person. Even if it feels cruel or makes it seem like you don’t care, it’s actually the opposite that’s true.

Although tough love may be the right and healthy choice, it’s not likely to be the quickest or easiest. When a person has gotten to the point with a behavior that tough love is the only option, it means they’re not willing or able to make the changes easily on their own.

Be warned, however. Reaching a successful outcome will require sticking with it. Using tough love can take its toll on you, so be sure to invest in your own well-being too. Otherwise, there will be two of you who need help.


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