The phrase “tough love” is believed to have originated from the title of Bill Milliken’s book “Tough Love”, in 1968. It has since become a catch phrase for any kind of stern, blunt, cold, punitive, and even harmful way of handling someone’s actions—a departure from, and misinterpretation of, the author’s original concept. Tough love can be effective, when used correctly in the right situations. Used incorrectly, in the wrong situation, tough love is simply abuse and comes with all the same long-lasting negative impacts.
I used to be a fan of “tough love”. My reasoning was that a kick in the butt had really helped me a few times, so it had to be a good, right? And it wasn’t like I wanted to hurt anyone (or did I?), I was trying to help them, that’s the “love” part.
I was wrong.
Also, I was mean and kind of jerk.
Oh, you want an example? Very well.
A little more than a decade ago, I was an active member of an internet forum. Members came from all walks of life and discussions were lively. Topics ranged from ridiculous to profound, and I loved having such an interesting virtual hangout since I was so far from home and my friends. One of the forum members, who I will call Rose, was in an emotionally abusive relationship. From what she wrote, I recognized all the signs, including the cycle of “abuse—apology—forgiveness—honeymoon phase—more abuse”. There might as well have been red flag emojis instead of words in her post.
I liked Rose and I ached every time I read that she was heading back into the arms of the abuser, but I never commented on those posts because of the “huggers”. Every time she would share the latest terrible thing her partner had done—and they were terrible—she was flooded with support and virtual hugs. “Oh my gosh, Rose, I’m so sorry this happened. I hope you’re taking care of yourself. (((((HUGS))))).” It was always a hugfest and all I could think is, You’re not helping her!
Then, one day, I snapped. If no one else was going to be the asshole and be honest with Rose, I would do it. (Excuse me while I pat myself on the back). I can’t recall my exact words but it was something like, “Rose, you are a sweetheart but you’re starting to sound like a broken record. You keep telling us about all these terrible things your partner does and then you keep going back to them. You need to take a good look at this pattern because it’s not going to change.”
There! I had used the power of Honesty! And now she would see the truth and take steps to change.
Rose left the forum that day and never returned. I reached out to her in a personal message, but I never heard back. The unanimous opinion of the huggers was that I was a jerk. “But I was only trying to help her! It was just tough love!”
I think of Rose a lot. I hope she broke out of that relationship but I’m no longer deluded or foolish enough to believe it would be because of anything I told her. I worry that she remained in the abusive relationship and that I cut off one of the few places she had for comfort and support. I worry that she might have been so hurt by my words that she harmed herself. I am haunted by my irresponsibility and reckless use of “tough love”. I wish I could take it back.
That is one example. It shames me to admit there are others.
The irony is that, in those moments, I genuinely believed I was being kind, that I was doing the right thing, that I was motivating someone through honesty, and that I was bravely risking their opinion of me in order to save them. I was wrong. I was wrong every time.
And, occasionally, I still slip and make the same mistake.
What is it about kicking someone’s butt when we believe they are doing something wrong that is so much more appealing than hugging them and just being there for them?
I’m not a psychologist but I can tell you that, for me, it felt like action versus acceptance. I didn’t see the results of the huggers—building trust, creating a safe place for the other person to speak, creating a sense of community, getting to know and understand the other person more deeply—I only saw that the undesirable behaviour was not changing, and I wanted to fix it…NOW! I wrongly assumed that because the huggers weren’t being bluntly honest with Rose then that meant they were okay with her behaviour.
There was an element of ego in there as well, “Look at me, I’m willing to be hated to help this person! Aren’t I brave?” Gold stars!
At the darkest end of the spectrum, let’s be honest, humans want to see bad behaviour punished. We can wrap it up in all the fancy words we want but the fact remains that there are limitless ways to deliver the truth and when we choose the fastest, bluntest, and least compassionate way, we know it is going to hurt and we want it to. We don’t think we do, we fool ourselves into believing our motivation is pure, but punishment is satisfying on a primal level. When someone’s actions hurt us, either directly or indirectly, we want to punish them for it. Watching Rose making all the same, painful mistakes I had made, reminded me of my own failures and that hurt. I’d be lying if I said a microscopic part of me didn’t want to punish her for that.
I’m not suggesting that we should never be honest, especially with those closest to us, I am saying that we need to be careful about how and when we are honest. There’s a reason people don’t go to one therapy session and walk out cured. Humans are complex and the “truth” can be even more so.
So, what about the people who kicked my butt and helped me change? Well…that’s complicated too.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that some of those folks didn’t actually help me. In one case, a woman from my Karate dojo dropped an honestly bomb on me a few months before I married my first husband. She told me I was making a huge mistake, that I was too young, I wasn’t thinking clearly, he wasn’t good for me, etc, etc, etc. Folks, she was right, but the way her words were delivered made me angry, made me double down on my commitment to get married, made me dislike and distrust her, made me feel bad about myself, and basically made everything worse. Could she have helped me or helped me change my mind? Perhaps not in that moment, but she could have made herself someone I trusted and felt safe with, someone I could have talked to when things got bad (well, worse) and I needed a friend.
Some of the butt kickers did help me but in each case it was because we were extremely close friends, they understood the situation in all it’s complexity, we had built trust between us, they delivered the butt kicking with obvious love and concern, and they made it clear that they would support me no matter what. Another important element is that it was clear they valued what I thought of them and did not want to risk our relationship. They made me feel supported instead of ashamed.
I think more carefully when I navigate other people’s undesirable actions now. I can’t say that I won’t mess up, but I think I’m more likely to apologize when I do. I will use tough love, but mostly as a tool for setting healthy boundaries. “I love you but I do not love this behaviour/action, so here are my boundaries…”
I still strive, often unsuccessfully, to be a hugger, but it is the huggers who have made the biggest, longest lasting, and most profoundly positive changes in my life. These are the people who inspire me to be better, simply by watching how they move so kindly and compassionately through the world. You can kick anyone’s butt if you’re foolish or stupid enough but hugging requires you face the person head on, open yourself up, and make yourself vulnerable—and that is true bravery.
I hope to be that brave.
And if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of my boot, I am deeply sorry.