Tough love in adult relationships: What it is, what it’s not and how to use itWritten by Focus on the Family
What's inside this article
My husband’s problem with porn is destroying him, me, our marriage and our family. Friends who care about both of us tell me to use tough love with him. But then I read articles that say it’s the wrong approach – that compassion and patience would be better. What should I do?
The concept of tough love has been around for a long time – and it’s been misunderstood and misused for just as long. The problems usually revolve around a person’s reason for using tough love and how they carry it out.
Here’s the truth: Tough love isn’t a formula or quick fix to the heartache you face. But it’s the right thing to do in some situations – and the only healthy choice – even if change doesn’t look exactly like you had hoped.
We’re glad to offer a closer look at what tough love is (and isn’t!) and how to use it.
What tough love is NOT
When someone we love is harming themself and others, we have three choices:
- Give up, give in, stay quiet, and play the victim or martyr.
- Beg, nag, pester and play the codependent manipulator.
- Draw a line in the sand with tough love.
Spoiler alert: The third option is the only healthy choice. However, to understand what makes tough love work – the good that it is – we must understand what tough love is not.
Tough love is NOT about your preferences.
Preferences are far different from red flags. We all face occasional frustrations and have pet peeves. But not liking how your spouse loads the dishwasher, or disapproving of how your adult daughter cleans her house, or dealing with a slacking colleague, or being miffed because your friend forgot your birthday, or disagreeing over how to spend an end-of-year bonus are not reasons for tough love. (Those are opportunities for healthy conflict resolution – or learning to just let some things go.)
Tough love is NOT a one-size-fits-all solution.
Truly destructive behaviours are complex – in cause and impact and recovery. Issues such as abuse (physical, verbal, emotional and sexual), addiction, infidelity, complete disregard for financial responsibility, and more, cannot be resolved quickly. Tough love is an appropriate approach in these cases and can be an important puzzle piece toward healing. However, every situation is different because every person involved is different. Hold the outcome loosely; it might not look like you expect.
Tough love is NOT done out of punishment or revenge.
Make no mistake: Anger over injustice and oppression is healthy. The problem comes when we lose sight of the fact that we’re all sinners in need of a Saviour. If that happens, we turn from humility to superiority and use tough love out of unhealthy anger. We might then try to punish someone for the damage they’ve done instead of considering their well-being and the welfare of our soul. But tough love should never be undertaken with the mindset of, I’ll make you pay for hurting me.
Tough love is NOT about manipulation or control.
It’s OK to hope for healing, to want goodness for everyone involved. But manipulation is an attempt to take away someone’s free will and replace it with your own desires. Tough love cannot force the change you want, even when survival is on the line. You simply can’t control another person’s heart or behaviour. You can only control how you interact in your relationships.
Tough love does NOT deny the importance of boundaries.
A common misconception is that tough love is harsh, cold and withdrawn. People sometimes get hung up on the “tough” part of the process and fail to realize the “love” that’s still involved. They think that, even in harmful situations, you should simply set boundaries. Unfortunately, that path is wishy-washy at best and even more damaging at worst. Yes, boundaries are very much a part of tough love. However, destructive behaviour needs to be addressed firmly – and that can be done without being harsh.
Tough love is NOT easy.
Another wrong impression is that people only resort to tough love because it’s the “easy” way out. But tough love can often be harder on the person enforcing it than the one receiving it. For instance, a person who needs tough love has their own boundaries (even if not healthy), and they’re used to nobody rocking the boat. If the status quo changes, they might react intensely as they try to hold onto the lie of control. The struggle will be felt by everyone.
Tough love isn’t a quick-witted, one-and-done mandate that will make someone straighten up and fly right. On the contrary, it’s a carefully thought-through plan for the long haul that will likely be painful for both sides of the relationship. Love always tells the hard truth. And even though it’s the right thing to do, it’s never easy.
What tough love IS
One of the most important truths about tough love is that it’s primarily about you – not about the person doing wrong. Wait. What?! Isn’t the goal of tough love to help someone else see the harm they’re causing and to change their behaviour?
Yes. But the only way to use tough love wisely – the only way tough love stands a chance of resulting in the healthy outcome you hope for – is to get a handle on who you are. To become confident, strong, and aware of your boundaries, needs, and responsibilities.
Tough love IS about addressing truly harmful behaviour.
Infidelity. Pornography. Substance abuse and addiction. Emotional, verbal, physical, spiritual and sexual abuse. Violent anger. Dishonesty. Complete financial irresponsibility. Unwillingness to ever own up to mistakes or sins. These are some red flags that should never be ignored or negotiated in dating, marriage, parenting or any other relationship. They must be dealt with, and tough love usually is the best path.
Now, we’re not saying you should put yourself on a pedestal if these aren’t sins you struggle with. (Each of us has done wrong in God’s eyes – and those wrongs grieve God, hurt us and negatively impact our interactions with others.) What we’re saying is that you should be transparent and matter of fact about legitimate harm happening in your relationship.
Tough love IS about becoming self-confident.
Becoming self-confident means that you don’t have to lean on another human for approval. Even in difficult situations, you can respond confidently from the core of who you are. In other words, you have good ego strength – solid self-awareness that you don’t have to draw your value from other people.
Tough love IS about learning self-acceptance.
Closely tied to self-confidence is self-acceptance. For example, some people are tempted to look to their spouse to be their sun. However, another person can’t truly generate light. They can reflect the truth of who a person is, but they can’t create the truth. That’s why self-acceptance is key: A healthy marriage should be about the wholeness of each spouse – not a sense of dependence where one or both act from a mindset of, I can’t be me without you.
Tough love IS about being grounded.
You must have a realistic view of yourself and the situation. No over-spiritualizing, no head-in-the sand belief that everything will work out. Instead, you are grounded in (you pay attention to) the realness of what’s truly going on. Being grounded has two parts: You don’t gloss over the hurt that’s happening, and you confidently remember that your foundation is in Christ.
Tough love IS about correctly understanding boundaries.
The Bible does teach us to care for and help others. And God does expect us to help those who truly are overburdened (widows, orphans, the poor and the disabled). But the Bible doesn’t teach us to be enslaved to someone’s felt needs. (Felt needs are self-perceived wants or desires – not genuine lack of basic or true needs.) People are obligated to take care of their own day-to-day life responsibilities.
Tough love IS about knowing your boundaries and your responsibilities.
Personal boundaries mark where you end and where someone else begins. Boundaries define who you are, protect what you value, show what you’re responsible for and keep you safe. You have the right and the obligation to safeguard your own well-being. Be honest with yourself about what you can and can’t control, what you are and aren’t responsible for, and where you may need to course-correct your relational interactions.
Tough love IS about compassion – just not in the way some people think.
Critics of tough love often think that compassion means always turning the other cheek. Even people who are stuck in a harmful relationship can believe they show mercy by giving someone another chance (and another and another and another). They mistakenly believe that being tough will further wreck an already-broken person. But that doesn’t allow for what love truly means.
Sincere love doesn’t overlook someone’s behaviour. Rather, sincere love has compassion for someone’s brokenness (because all of us know brokenness) and yet understands that enabling is not helping. Sincere love calls someone to higher behaviour, to live their one life wisely in gratitude and service to their Creator. Love and approval are not always the same thing.
Consider Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well. He didn’t berate her, but neither did he leave her to a life of brokenness. He guided the discussion in such a way that she eventually came to see her sexual compromise for what it was: sin to be recognized, confessed and turned from. He accepted her, but he also held her accountable.
Think of tough as truth. Tough love done well is true love.
Tough love IS about recognizing free will (choice).
In the biblical account of Adam and Eve, God laid out one rule in the garden of Eden, one clear boundary: Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. On the day that Adam and Eve chose to eat from that tree anyway, God watched them. Did he stop them? No. Didn’t he care what was about to happen to them? Of course!
But man is created in God’s image, which means Adam and Eve had free will (as do we). God had to let them choose, even if they chose poorly and faced consequences. In the same way, even though watching someone we love destroy their life is agonizing – even if their actions hurt us – we must acknowledge their right to choose.
Tough love IS about becoming strong.
What are you willing to lose if the relationship boundaries you set aren’t respected? Are you willing to lose the relationship for the sake of your safety and well-being? Can you trust the Lord to bring healing according to his good and perfect plan?
The one true God who created you and your loved one isn’t surprised by their choices. Like you, he grieves over their behaviour, and he longs to see them freed from their struggle. At the same time, he has always known you and loved you, too – and he doesn’t want you to live in fear, harm or someone else’s shadow.
That’s why it’s important to pursue spiritual, emotional and physical strength. These areas can be weakened in dysfunctional relationships. And in the case of domestic violence, the perpetrator often purposely works to erode their partner’s identity and strength.
What are you doing to take care of yourself so that you won’t give in to emotionally charged decision-making? Are you working with a pastor, trusted friend or registered counsellor to help you become strong? Someone who has been hurt, isolated, or marginalized by another person’s harmful actions need wise, caring people who will speak health and balance into their life.
You don’t need to be perfectly strong to exercise tough love; you need to be strong enough. You need internal strength to weather the storm that could come when you decide to hold your loved one accountable.
Tough love IS about having courage to take action – even if you’re scared.
Tough love is about safeguarding your own well-being while also considering the other person. Once you understand your own boundaries and responsibilities, you can courageously say, No, your behaviour is not OK. It’s not OK to treat me (or others) this way. You can feel scared at the same time as being brave enough to take healthy action.
This is when a solid support system becomes even more critical. You need people who will reinforce your decision to act. And you need their unbiased insight to confirm whether your loved one is making concrete, lasting changes for the better.
Basic steps of tough love
- Make sure you have a good support system that includes trusted friends, your pastor and a registered counsellor.
- Become strong enough so that you’re ready to stand up to harmful behaviour. (You’ll need that strength to follow through with your commitment to tough love, even if the outcome doesn’t match what you hoped for.)
- Be honest with yourself about whether you’ve been enabling or codependent and how you might need to change so you can use tough love effectively. (Work with a registered counsellor or your pastor.)
- Decide ahead of time what you need the other person to do. Write it down. (If you do have to carry out a consequence, a predetermined plan will reduce your stress since you won’t have to think on the fly.)
- Clearly tell the other person how their actions are being destructive. Use “I” statements to explain your boundaries clearly, honestly and respectfully. Then explain what steps they need to take to change their behaviour – and the consequences if that desired behaviour doesn’t happen.
- Step back and quietly watch for the person’s response in the form of action. Don’t chase, smother, beg, grovel, manipulate or demand compliance. Instead, let the other person choose whether they’ll take responsibility for what is theirs to control.
- Accept the person’s free choice and their answer (in the form of their actions) – whether or not it’s what you wanted their answer (actions) to be.
- Hold the person accountable to the consequences you laid out in the beginning.
A closer look at tough love
Sarena’s* husband, Nick*, was having an affair – and she knew that tough love was necessary. She laid out what needed to happen: He had to end the affair, stop all communication with the woman going forward and go to counselling. And if he didn’t? There’s the door. Yeah, Nick kept saying, I’ve ended the affair. But come to find out, he hadn’t. So Sarena changed the locks on the house.
As painful as the decision was, Sarena followed through on the consequences she’d laid out for Nick. It wasn’t easy; she had truly believed him when he first told her he’d ended things. However, Sarena’s counsellor reminded her that words don’t matter; actions do. And when she “listened” to Nick’s actions, she realized that they didn’t match what he had been verbally telling her. So she followed through on the consequence – on her commitment to tough love.
Action for action is key in tough love.
To be clear, tough love isn’t about responding in kind. In other words, you don’t act toward someone in the way they act toward you. (Remember, tough love isn’t about punishment or revenge; it’s about boundaries.) Instead, you follow through on a predetermined action (consequence) in response to the other person’s action (choice).
Tough love is like a game of checkers: What’s your move? When it came to Nick and Sarena, Nick made his move (not to change his behaviour). Even though he didn’t choose what Sarena wanted, she wisely didn’t plead for change. Instead, she calmly made her move (to lock him out of the house as she’d told him she would).
You must see your loved one taking necessary steps to healing – not just rely on their promises that they won’t ever do XYZ again. Good intentions don’t matter if never followed through.
This is especially important when it comes to physical and emotional abuse in relationships. A proactive approach doesn’t mean the consequence always has to be immediately throwing someone out of the house. It could be, If I don’t see change, I’m going to talk to the pastor – or call the police.
Regardless, if you’re in an abusive relationship, you need to take extra measures to keep yourself and your children safe. Call 911 if you’re in immediate danger. You can also find a full list of helplines and shelters across Canada at EndingViolenceCanada.org. Or you can call our team of registered counsellors at 1.800.661.9800 for a free, one-time phone consultation.
Accountability is also critical.
Flight to health is a term used in the counselling profession to describe a person’s sudden “recovery” when they want to avoid having to actually do the hard work of long-term healing. For example, an alcoholic might say, I’ve been sober for two weeks so I should be able to come back home. In reality, they’re fooling themself (and others) into thinking there’s a quick fix to a deep problem.
It’s easy for someone to say everything is all better. But you need to see evidence of real change in the ongoing journey to wholeness. Tough love can’t be wishy-washy. Here again, the offending person might say, Give me some credit! I’m doing “XYZ” a whole lot less! Be that as it may, their behaviour is still unacceptable. You’ve already drawn a line in the sand. You’ve told your loved one, This is not acceptable. This will stop, or here is the consequence.
Go back to your personal boundaries. If the other person in the relationship chooses to continue doing their own thing regardless of the boundaries you’ve set, then you have a choice: Either hold them accountable for their actions, or ignore their behaviour and maintain the status quo. Keep in mind, though, that the latter option won’t help anyone and is likely a sign of codependency (a mixed-up motivation to help).
Tough love in marriage might involve creating a crisis.
We’re not suggesting you add fuel to the fire. Rather, you may need to motivate your spouse to acknowledge their problem and agree to treatment. Say something like, Either you admit you have a problem and get the help you need, or you find another place to live until you’re ready to cooperate.
More than just locking someone out of the house, you’ll pursue a therapeutic separation. A therapeutic separation is a formal separation with clear, specific guidelines and boundaries around extra-marital relationships, professional counselling, sexual intimacy, communication rules, living arrangements, children and finances. Divorce is not the goal; you just want to break through denial.
If separation becomes necessary, follow the advice of wise legal and Christian counsel. It’s best if your spouse moves out. However, if they won’t go along with that, you might have to relocate with your children. In that case, make sure you have a support system and a place to stay. (Have a plan, line up your resources, and make your arrangements ahead of time instead of reactively packing and leaving in a hurry.)
Let your spouse know how you can be contacted, and make it clear you’ll restart negotiations as soon as they’re willing to cooperate.
A therapeutic separation might be what it takes for them to admit the seriousness of the situation. Here again, watch their actions. A lot of times a spouse will promise the moon just to be back under the same roof, but words aren’t the same thing as change.
NOTE: A therapeutic separation in the case of crisis is different in some ways from a healing separation. Healing separation assumes that both spouses are invested in restoring their marriage – and that’s not always the case when one spouse is engaged in harmful behaviour. Still, for related insights, we encourage you to read our article “Why and how to pursue a healing separation.”
Tough love in action
This space isn’t large enough to take a deep dive into every circumstance that requires tough love. And getting a sense of direction often means working with a registered counselling specialist to identify underlying issues and relationship patterns that led to the crisis.
Still, we want to touch on two relationships that most commonly benefit from tough love: marriage, and parenting adult sons and daughters.
Tough love in marriage
Tough love is, indeed, the right approach when your spouse is involved in porn and refuses to change. Their addiction is disrespectful to you, dishonours your marriage vows and causes pain for the entire family.
- Decide your boundaries. Talk with your support system about how you’ll take care of yourself through the process.
- Create a plan for how you will approach this issue. (Remember: Having a predetermined plan can help you not to react emotionally.)
Set a time to tell your spouse where you stand on this issue and what changes you expect him/her to make– what changes you expect to see – and the consequences if he/she chooses not to follow through. For example:
- Your pornography use twists God’s plan for sex. It’s keeping us from being genuinely intimate in marriage, it’s demeaning to me, and it’s setting a horrible example for our kids.
- I need you to stop using porn.
- I’ll watch you delete everything inappropriate from every device.
- I will have access to all your device passcodes going forward.
- You will go to counselling.
- If you choose not to take these steps, you’ll need to find another place to live until you decide how you want to move forward.
- You have one day to take care of your devices. And you have one week to start counselling. All or nothing. Your actions will be your answer.
- Wait, watch and hold your spouse accountable for the agreed-on actions. Stick with what you’ve determined in your heart, ask God to give you wisdom and strength, and stay connected to your support system.
Tough love in parenting an adult son or daughter
As your child grows, the template should shift from parent-child to adult-adult. They’re not your adult child; they are your adult son or adult daughter. They have become your peer. At the same time, breaking the once-a-parent-always-a-parent mindset is difficult. That’s one reason why seeing your son or daughter struggle – and choosing to not necessarily rescue them – is so painful.
Maybe they’re in and out of trouble with drugs and alcohol. Maybe they’re always asking for money and help with legal issues. Maybe they refuse your wisdom but always demand that you fix things for them. Maybe they’ve chosen a lifestyle that dishonours God and will lead to their destruction. Maybe they even use your grandchild as a shield or pawn, paralyzing you from taking appropriate action out of fear of harming your grandchild.
It all hurts. And it hurts because you love your son or daughter. But your love for them – your good heart that wants the best for them – is being used against you. Choosing tough love will help you protect your heart so you don’t get conned. Choosing tough love doesn’t mean you don’t care; it means your love can’t be used against you.
Using the same basic steps we mentioned above, let’s look at how to use tough love with an adult child living at home who refuses to get a job.
- We love you, and you will always be our son/daughter. But now that you’re an adult, you need to get a job and become all that God created you to be.
- God has created you for good work and to be responsible. An adult can stand on their own two feet. They know how to work with others, but they don’t depend on them for their welfare.
- We will no longer pay any of your bills.
- You will start paying us rent.
- If you choose not to get a job, you’ll have to find another place to live, and you’ll be responsible for any late payments or bill collectors.
Or what about substance abuse?
- Your choice to drink and do drugs is hurting you and our entire family. Our hope and prayer is that you turn to God with your pain instead of false fixes. And we must step out of the way so that you will rely on him instead of us.
- We will watch you throw away all your bottles and pills.
- You will find an accountability partner, and we can ask them at any time to check on you and search your living space.
- You have one week to check into a recovery program, or we will find one for you.
- If you choose not to follow these steps, you will be responsible for any legal, medical or financial fallout. You will not be allowed to move back in with us.
No parent ever wants to put their son or daughter out on the street, but it could be the most loving thing to do. Will you trust God to use your son’s or daughter’s rock-bottom place to draw them close and save them?
What if tough love doesn’t work?
Tough love is not a formula. Even under the best conditions, even with the most faithful prayers of family and friends, even with the wisest counsel from trained therapists, the person causing harm is the only one who can choose to change.
Yes, we will always love them and pray for their wholeness. And yes, we hope they will realize the dangerous path they’re on and commit to a better way. But what if they don’t? Does that mean tough love has failed – that we have failed? Not at all.
Tough love always works in the sense that it will give us a clear behavioural response from the other person, and that means we’re no longer in a stalemate. To put it another way, we become confident in who we are, and we now know without question where they stand. Unfortunately, getting to that point doesn’t guarantee a happily-ever-after ending.
One of the most painful places to find ourselves is when a loved one chooses a destructive path even after all our efforts. That hurts. It’s a hard pill to swallow, and it’s why we often want to give a second (third, fourth, tenth) chance – even though we know, deep down, another chance won’t help.
That’s why having self-confidence and being grounded in your identity is so crucial. If you believe your self-worth is based on someone else’s acceptance, you’ll do things that don’t work. As terrible as someone’s rejection might feel, your only choice for a healthy future is to remember that you have value apart from what they say or do.
No matter what, stay the course. Trust God with your fears, trust him with the outcome. Hold fast to the boundaries you’ve set, take good care of yourself, and keep in close connection with your support system. Hold onto the Lord’s promise of hope:
How do Christians persevere in difficult and sensitive relationships within the family? Paul says, more than once, that one secret is hope (Romans 15:4, 12, 13). Followers of Christ have more resources in difficult relationships than unbelievers do, because we have hope. Paul ends this section of the letter with what we all need: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13, emphasis added).
If you’d like to talk more about how this principle impacts your specific situation, call us for a free, one-time phone consultation. Our registered counsellors would welcome the chance to hear your story and help you take the first steps toward healing. They can also suggest referrals to ongoing support from qualified counsellors and Christian therapists in your area. Call our team at 1.800.661.9800, Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Pacific time. Or visit FocusOnTheFamily.ca/Counselling to learn more.
*Names have been changed.
© 2021 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at focusonthefamily.com.
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