Our three-part series on tough love in adult relationship can only offer an overview of this complex topic. It’s important that you read the full article to unpack these principles and get a handle on whether and how they might impact your specific situation: Tough Love in Adult Relationships.
For this final column in the series, we’ll look at tough love in marriage and when parenting an adult son or daughter — and whether tough love can fail. (Again, we urge you to read the full article for detailed insight about how to apply tough love.)
Tough love in marriage
As an example, tough love is the right approach when your spouse is involved in porn and refuses to change. Their addiction is disrespectful to you, dishonors your marriage vows, and hurts the entire family.
You 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 help, or you find another place to live until you’re ready to cooperate.
Tough love in parenting an adult son or daughter
Carrying out tough love doesn’t mean you don’t care; it means your love can’t be used against you. As an example, if an adult daughter struggles with substance abuse, say something like,
Your choice to do drugs is hurting all of us. We must step out of the way so that you’ll rely on God instead of us. We will watch you throw away all your bottles and pills, and you will find an accountability partner. You have one week to check into a recovery program, or we’ll find one for you. If you choose not to follow these steps, you’ll be responsible for all legal, medical, or financial fallout. You won’t be allowed to live with us.
Does tough love always work?
Tough love isn’t a formula. The person causing harm is the only one who can choose to change. But what if they don’t? Does that mean tough love has failed — that you’ve failed? No.
Tough love always works in the sense that it will give you a clear behavioral answer from the other person, and that means you’re no longer in a stalemate. Still, it’s agonizing when a loved one chooses a destructive path even after all your efforts.
Your only choice for a healthy future is to remember that you have value apart from what the other person says or does. Trust God with the outcome. Hold fast to the boundaries you’ve set, follow through on the consequence(s) you set, take care of yourself, and keep a strong support system.
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.