Tough Love in Adult Relationships Part 1

January 1, 2023

The concept of tough love has been around 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 even if change doesn’t look exactly like you had hoped. 

In part one of this series, we’ll briefly outline what tough love isn’t and what it is.

What tough love is not

When someone we love is harming themself or 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 isn’t about your preferences. It’s not done out of punishment or revenge, and it’s not about manipulation or control. At the same time, tough love doesn’t deny the importance of boundaries. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, and it’s never easy.

What tough love is

Tough love is about safeguarding your own well-being while also considering the other person. Once you become confident, strong, and aware of your boundaries, needs, and responsibilities, you can courageously say to the other person, No, your behavior is not OK. It’s not OK to treat me (or others) this way

Tough love is also about compassion. 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). 

However, sincere love doesn’t overlook someone’s behavior. Rather, sincere love has compassion for someone’s brokenness and yet understands that enabling is not helping. Sincere love calls someone to higher behavior — to live their one life wisely in gratitude and service to their Creator. 

Next month …

In part two of our series, we’ll talk about the importance of action-for-action in carrying out tough love and why accountability is critical.

NOTE: Similar concepts of tough love can be used with children and teens, but there are notable differences. If you have questions about how to help your child learn valuable lessons while preserving their dignity, start with our article Five Characteristics of Biblical Discipline. You can also listen online for free to our broadcasts Practical Advice for Parenting Strong-Willed Children  and Navigating the Challenges Teens Face.

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Focus on the Family’s Counseling Staff is a group of highly experienced, state-licensed clinicians and pastoral counselors who specialize in addressing personal and family issues from a biblical perspective. Focus has enjoyed a long and valued referral relationship with Meier Clinics and other like-minded agencies who serve the cause of Christ in their clinical work. Focus on the Family offers free consultation through 1-855-771-HELP.

At Meier Clinics, all of our counseling staff are in agreement with our Christian statement of faith.   They are Christian and respect our clients’ beliefs, meeting our clients where they feel comfortable in their spiritual beliefs. Call us at 888-7CLINICS to get set up with one of our Christian counselors.


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