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There Is No Such Love as Tough Love

The ancient Greek philosophers identified eight types of love, from the passion of Eros to the selflessness of Agape love. Nowhere in their work is there any mention of “tough love”. Tough love is a contemporary concept first introduced to us in 1968 when Bill Milliken, an at-risk youth advocate, published a book by that name. It has since evolved into two distinct and often radical strategies: the procedure of intervention used in psychotherapy, and the practice of self-respect exercised in personal growth.

Therapeutically, tough love was initially designed as a coercive intervention delivered in the wrappings of love. “I’m doing this because I love you,” is the mantra for tough love. For parents struggling with an out-of-control teen, it provided a way to take an “affirmative position in aiding their kids in taking on accountability for their actions." (ToughLove International) Tough love solutions are intended to stop enabling the destructive behaviors. In theory, we deprive our loved ones of the opportunities to learn, grow, and change their ways when we shelter them from the consequences of their own destructive actions. The methodology has been highly controversial, and requires the close direction of a qualified therapist or physician.

Although proponents of the treatment advocate its success, there has been mounting opposition. The National Institutes of Health reported that "get tough treatments do not work and there is some evidence that they may make the problem worse." (“Youth Violence Prevention”, 2004) In "Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential-- And Endangered", co-author and former drug addict, Maia Szalavitz, notes that in some cases cutting off all contact with our loved ones as an act of "tough love" can result in acceleration of the undesirable behavior and the death of the addict. Neuroscientists have found that excessive secretion of the stress hormone cortisol, which is released when someone feels abandoned or attacked, is toxic to brain development in infants (Leach, 1999) and leads to anxiety and depression in adolescents and adults. (Hormone Health Network, 2018) Animal trainers have learned that the violent “tough love” methods of canine behavior modification like choke, prong, and electronic collars have lasting, adverse effects, including unnecessary pain, anxiety, and increased aggression. Horses who are “broken” instead of “gentled” can develop the same insecurity and trust issues as we humans do under such drastic circumstances. Zoos and circuses have been scrutinized for their brutal methods of controlling animals. In far too many cases, human and animal, “tough love” becomes an excuse for cruel and inhumane management of another being.

Spiritually, we practice tough love when we need to assert our personal boundaries in order to maintain self-respect and care in our relationships, including the relationship with ourselves. The cheating spouse, the friend who betrays our trust, the colleague who steals our work, or perhaps the impulse to binge-watch television through the night are opportunities for us to take a stand for defining what is acceptable for our well-being. The conversation may be uncomfortable and difficult, but it can be loving nonetheless if the intention is one of love and not authority.

All experiences of challenging the status quo in our relationships can be characterized by the underlying intention. Are we truly seeking to help a loved one change course for their highest good, or are we seeking to control someone else to satisfy our own needs, including our ideas of what we think the highest good is? Are we using “tough love” as a euphemism to be self-serving and unkind?

A minister who assumed he would be the next elected senior minister at a spiritual center felt he was wronged by the acting senior minister when she objected to his application because of his questionable background and suspect behavior that surfaced during the vetting process. Instead of addressing his own behavior or having a conversation with her, he filed a formal ethics complaint against her with false accusations, intent on destroying her career. Throughout the complaint, he repeatedly stated he was seeking severe punishment (revocation of her license and excommunication) out of “tough love”, so that she could never cause such hurt to another minister again.

In this actual case, there was no prior relationship between the two, let alone a foundation of love upon which to then exercise "tough love". At the core, the first minister did not get what he wanted and sought revenge through the guise of administering "tough love". Regardless of the therapeutic or spiritual need for boundaries, “tough love” is never justification for speaking or acting in ways that intentionally cause harm, shame, or humiliation to another. We lose sight of our place in the process, and assume an authority we do not have. Most of our faith traditions teach of a loving Creator or Universal power that is able to orchestrate the right circumstances and consequences for every word and action. It is the Divine Authority of cause and effect that administers the love needed so that our behavior is congruent with our spiritual identity.

Most importantly, at the center of these experiences is the consciousness of love itself. And a key component of all forms of love is empathy. When we are able to appreciate the struggles of another without enabling them and maintain our own sense of well-being. we employ love. And when we release the illusion that we can control another, we are free to engage in our relationships in a way that is healthier for everyone. This may mean altering how we express love at particular times. Setting boundaries, most often with a “no” statement, shows that ability to be in relationship while creating opportunities for everyone to heal and grow.

Ideally, spiritual and emotional maturity infers that we do better when we know better. For some reason, however, too many people continue to cling to this outdated and distorted concept of love in action. It is through familial love, storge, like the care between parent and child that we desire the best for one another. And it is an act of self-love, philautia, to establish healthy, personal boundaries. Whatever path leads us to those uncomfortable but very necessary defining moments in our relationships, there is never a requirement for the message to be unkind. Whatever the situation we may find ourselves in, the right path always begins…and ends, with love.


© Nancy Noack and Mighty Oak Ministries International, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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