“You must practice tough love!”
“Let them hit rock bottom!”

For decades, we’ve heard these common recommendations come from the medical profession, therapists, friends, and even the recovery community itself. Unfortunately, these two themes rooted in concepts of tough love, could not be more inaccurate or hurtful to the health of our suffering loved ones and to the health of our overall family’s healing, and happiness!

Tough love means different things to different people, but in the world of addiction and mental health—unhealthy tough love is often associated with shameful, aggressive, and punitive behavior and actions. It’s language that’s harsh, counterproductive, and even abusive. To provide clarity amid such ambiguity and misunderstanding around tough love, defining our understanding is essential. The unhealthy form of tough love that has a destructive impact on our loved ones, is a form that extends beyond a mere belief that there should be accountability and consequences in life; these are healthy beliefs! Boundaries, accountability, and consequences are a natural part of life that help us adapt and grow—and tough love is not required or necessary to make these happen.

Destructive tough love that is often associated with addiction and mental health goes much further into an unhealthy, toxic, and aggressive pattern of how those boundaries, consequences and accountability are established, communicated, and acted upon. Setting and following through with a boundary, such as: “to remain in this house, you have to be sober” (and loving them through the consequences of their decision) is NOT the same thing as kicking someone out, or putting them on the streets, cutting them off and never speaking to them again.

Such degrading actions directed at the suffering individual is more like to have the opposite effect on our family members in the long term by creating an atmosphere of distrust, disrespect, and disconnection. Addiction and mental health are maniacal diseases already characterized by toxic shame and isolation where the suffering individual already feels ashamed and unworthy—more of the same does not create healthy healing and positive change. So, what does?

We believe in the appropriate expression of love, which includes boundaries, accountability, and consequences as essential components of life and relationships. This belief is without venom—a way of embracing assertive communication, consistency, and accountable behavior highlighted by compassion, empathy, and empowerment.

Empathy and compassion are still uncomfortable to navigate. Resiliency and connection in relationships isn’t “pain free”—rather the opposite; it is often a result of leaning into the discomfort, “embracing the suck”—the uncomfortable, and being vulnerable that people grow, change, and become more connected. Being consistent, communicating healthy boundaries, and allowing your love one opportunities of growth, experiencing the authentic consequences of their own choices should NOT be considered tough love, but the appropriate expression of love.

Tough love and coddling are two opposite, extreme ends of the continuum. The balance in the middle is the healthy and assertive expression of love, necessary to form healthy, meaningful relationships that help our loved ones and families heal.

Be respectful. Be consistent. Be compassionate.

Written by Ward Blanchard, Founder & CEO of The Blanchard Institute