What is tough love?
‘Tough love’ refers to “the promotion of someone’s welfare by enforcing constraints or making them take responsibility for their actions; the method of encouraging self-help by restricting the assistance of others.” The term was first used by community activist Bill Milliken, in his 1968 book of the same.
As a concept, tough love is divisive, to say the least. Some say it’s a necessary evil, others say it’s beneficial to those on the receiving end. And a few others advocate shunning it completely, citing harmful psychological effects.
Is this applicable to me?
As a parent, as a friend or even as a manager in the office, think about the last time you implemented “tough love”? Now, reflect on the following questions:
- Did you have the best interest of the other person in mind? Chances are, that you would say Yes!
- Now think about this:
- Did you have the best interest of the other person in mind AND NOT YOURS?
- Did you manage to successfully keep away your own emotional needs and insecurities aside while doing this?
- Were you able to keep away any narratives that humiliate/ shame/ intimidate/ gaslight the other person?
- Do you live by the things that you preach?
Now, if you are struggling to be 100% confident in saying a yes to all of the questions above, it is perhaps a good idea to understand the fine line between tough love and emotional abuse.
In fact, the most essential part of tough love though, whether you are the giver or receiver, is identifying when it crosses the line into emotional abuse. That is when the approach does a lot more harm than good, under the guise of ‘we want what’s best for you’ or ‘this is for your own well-being.’
How to tell the difference between tough love and emotional abuse?
- Being cautious or meagre with praise is one thing, but name-calling is another. Telling another person that they are stupid, or a loser or worse doesn’t qualify as tough love. It is plain hurtful and can have a devastating effect on the receiver’s psyche
- Trivializing serious issues is never the right approach. Be it a child who comes to their carer with a serious physical injury, or an adult discussing emotional trauma with their partner — brushing off serious issues with a ‘grow up’, ‘it’s no big deal’, or similar isn’t tough love, it’s gaslighting
- Screaming at someone, whether in public or in private, is inexcusable. A tough-love approach calls for a stern reproach when needed, but raising your voice can have a multitude of negative effects on the listener — including bodily impacts such as an increase in stress hormones and muscular tension
- Threatening is a clear sign of emotional abuse. While it is permissible to remind one of the results of an undesirable action (e.g. a continued use of X substance could lead to heart problems later on), scaring them with dire, disproportionate consequences is never the way to go (e.g. no dinner unless you finish your homework by 7 PM)
- Firm, no-nonsense disciplining is essential, manipulation is simply wrong. Constantly reminding the person of ‘how much you have done for them’ or of everything that they ‘owe’ you in order to get them to do something might have the desired outcome in the short-term, but will breed resentment in the long run
- Stone-walling or isolation is just as bad as name-calling or yelling. Shutting a person out, refusing to speak to them or even acknowledge them when they’re communicating with you can make them feel an intense sense of rejection and abandonment
- Treating someone with contempt will likely never lead to the desired outcome. This includes hurtful, sarcastic remarks, making derogatory comments, or treating the other person with arrogance and apathy. Tough love calls for a certain level of severity, but never for a lack of humanity or empathy
Victims of emotional abuse suffer from various long- and short-term negative effects. These include a lack of self-esteem, severe anxiety, depression, and feelings of helplessness. When the abuse is severe and ongoing, the victim could lose their entire sense of self, start believing the perpetrator of abuse, and become extremely self-critical. If you find yourself in this situation, or even suspect that you are being emotionally abused under the guise of tough love, reach out for professional help immediately.