GETTING TOUGH ON “TOUGH LOVE” What Partners, Parents & People Need to Know … Before It’s Too Late!

Tough love. One of the most misunderstood terms in the history of psychology!

What is tough love? It has been defined as:

“When someone treats another person harshly or sternly with the intent to help them.”

What an oxymoron the words “tough love” are! 

This historical definition of love continues to be the one most often adopted and referred to.


  • Cares more for others than for oneself
  • Patiently accepts all things
  • Always trusts
  • Is always hopeful
  • Always endures through every circumstance
  • Always looks for the best in others
  • Does not demand its own way
  • Is not irritable
  • Does not keep record of being wronged
  • Isn’t always “me first”
  • Doesn’t fly off the handle
  • Does not keep score of the wrongs of others
  • Never looks back
  • Is not jealous
  • Is not boastful
  • Is never rude
  • Is not selfish
  • Does not get upset with others
  • Does not count up wrongs that have been done

Love does not:

  • Give up
  • Want what it does not have

Love is:

  • Patient
  • Kind

Certainly there is nothing about harshness in the definition. As a matter of fact, it appears that it always looks for the best in others. Not for opportunities to use stern or harsh methods.

I believe the first time I ever heard the phrase used was in youth group. The youth pastor came in and said that tonight they were going to practice some “tough love.“ Then he invited the youth to begin to share with others present how they had wronged them, or acted in ungodly ways.

I think this falls into the category of “how to make sure that young people never return to your youth group!” Thank God I did not know many of the kids there, so my wrongs/mistakes/sins did not get highlighted. I know I certainly never returned to that particular youth group. Not only did the experience make my usual youth group look much more attractive, but I learned immediately to ditch the phrase “tough love.”

Little did I know how many people would be dragged into my inpatient and outpatient treatment centers, and into my practice of over 20 years … shamed, wounded and broken, all in the name of “tough love.”

I’m not saying that parents do not need to discipline their children. I’m not insinuating that partners in relationships should not process disagreements and hurts. And I’m not suggesting that other people in your life be allowed to treat you poorly.

However, when we resort to the use of harshness and sternness, we are no longer in a position of loving the person. We can speak directly about issues with kindness and respect. It’s no surprise that research has shown that the use of harshness and sternness in any relationship breaks trust and respect. 

I remember years ago, I was in a relationship where my wrongs/sins were rehearsed regularly; where honest mistakes were treated as a crime; and harsh words were used regularly to tell me things such as:

  • “You’ll never change.”
  • “You always do this …”
  • “You never change …”

After a number of years, while trying to turn myself into someone who was “lovable” and twisting my life up like a pretzel, I realized that I no longer trusted nor respected the person.

I recall one specific night when my wrongs were being rehearsed with great disgust, as if I were being tried for being an ax murderer. In desperation, I remember saying, “I wish for once that you would come alongside me, and tell me that you really loved me and wanted to help me. Then tell me some good things about me, and from that place challenge me to come up higher … with love.”

I was so shamed, wounded and broken from that kind of “tough love,” that I never really knew if I would recover and feel worthy or lovable again. 

I hope there’s two groups of people that will hear me in this:

1. Those who have practiced tough love
2. Those who have been shamed or wounded by tough love

To Those Who Have Practiced Tough Love
I find there are usually one of two reasons why people practice tough love:

  1. Because it is familiar, and someone has practiced tough love on them. Sometimes tough love does have some positive benefits to it, and those who practice it normally focus on the positive. However, they fail to realize that tough love deeply wounds other people. In addition, it does great damage to the relationship.
  2. Because of their own insecurities that they go to great lengths to hide, and this is one of the ways they do so. I have also seen it used as a means of controlling the relationship, because of the fear of losing it.

Regardless of the reason, please understand that it damages relationships. It damages people. It may take some time and effort, but you can heal damage done, and restore a healthy relationship. I know this is what you would want to do, and I hope that you will exercise courage in honoring relationships differently. Speak of problems and challenges as an ally of your partner, not as a boxer planning to win a round by knocking them out!

If you are not certain whether your handling of things is toxic or emotionally abusive, you might want to download my Free Guide to help you evaluate yourself on this. It also offers some suggestions on your journey to coming up higher.

Click here to get your FREE Guide.

I truly believe you want to be the best that you can be and honor your relationships. I admire you for having the courage to evaluate yourselfT

To Those Who Have Practiced Tough Love

I want to encourage you to press pause and begin to examine why you allow someone to continue to speak with you this way. Usually, as was true in my case, I did not value myself, and thus believed I was worthy of the tough love. 

How did this happen?  As is often the case, generational damage was at the root of my lack of self-worth.  My father, whom I loved dearly, had raised me with tough love. Although I had a wonderful opportunity later in life to heal the damage done, getting to that healing was a process.

I came to realize that I had allowed the tough love treatment later in my life because not only was it familiar, but also because my sense of self-worth had been damaged when I was young.  The first major task in this healing process was to list the things that identified who I was on a daily basis. Then I listed all the hard work I had done over the years to make myself a more loving, productive person. The awareness that I was a valuable person gave me the freedom to push forward with confidence.

However, it started with making lists daily of who I was that was worthy and valuable, and the things I had done that day that evidenced my worth.

I want you to begin the same process. Soon you will begin to see that although perfectly imperfect, you are a very worthy human being!

Secondly, you must learn to respectfully request that the person practicing tough love with you stop the behavior. Many times, this requires some counseling or coaching. However, one of the skills often taught by counselors and coaches is “learning to vote with your feet.”

Now this does not mean to pack up and leave. This means that when the tough love session begins, to make a respectful request that the other person speak with you differently. If they refuse, with great compassion, kindness, and respect, say something like, “I’m not in a good place at this moment to have this conversation. I’m going to go for a walk (or check the mail, or get on the treadmill, or run to the grocery store), and then perhaps we can continue the conversation in a different manner.” No accusations, no whining.

Things may not improve immediately, but you must learn to do it calmly, patiently, and consistently. If you are wondering if it has crossed the line to toxic dumping or emotional abuse, you might want to download my free guide to this topic by clicking here.

Click here to get your FREE Guide.

A Word to Parents
You may be thinking that I am suggesting that you allow your children to run recklessly all over you. That is certainly not the case! However, I am challenging you about being stern or harsh with your children. You can accomplish everything that you need to accomplish from a place of love, confidence, compassion, and respect.

You may argue that your children are well behaved, diligent students, and high achievers, so it’s obviously effective. I think that is awesome that your kids are great kids! But I believe beyond any doubt, and have seen it proven out in my practice as I have worked with parents for over 20 years… if you are using harshness and sternness to accomplish this, your children may be perfectly behaved and compliant, but their respect for you is, at the very least, damaged.

It is not too late to turn that around. Teach them the same lessons, issue the same consequences, but do it from a different place. Research says that they will respond even better, and that your relationship with them will be restored.

Tough love? There is no such thing! 

Courageous and compassionate love? I believe that’s how you truly want to regard those in your life. It’s not too late. Not too much damage has been done. Come up higher and be the best that you can be! I know it’s in you! Let’s ditch tough love and replace it with courageous and compassionate love!