How to Practice Tough Love with a Loved One That You Care About

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Tough love, popularized by teen boot camps and confrontational reality TV interventions, is often considered the best way to get help for someone who is abusing drugs or otherwise spiraling into dangerous behaviors. However, these measures are only a small and extreme portion of what tough love can mean. Setting personal boundaries, refusing to enable bad behaviors and allowing your loved one to reap the natural consequences of her actions are less dramatic variations on tough love.


Empathy is a crucial part of any love relationship. Defined as the ability to understand another person’s emotions from her perspective, empathy is at the heart of true tough love. No matter how dangerous, wrong, unethical or immoral your loved one’s behavior seems to you, it may make sense when considered in the context of her worldview and experiences. Seeking to punish or hurt someone, or put him in his place, is not tough love. It is vindictive, anger-driven and damaging. Let your empathy and love for the person guide your decisions on how to handle unacceptable behaviors.


Healthy boundaries are important in every relationship. Setting boundaries with a needy or damaged loved one is a necessary form of tough love. It preserves your health and sanity while requiring the other person to take responsibility for himself. In an interview for PsychCentral, psychologist Dana Gionta discusses ways of creating and maintaining personal boundaries. Pay attention to your emotions, past experiences and current needs. Let go of guilt, fear and resentment. Decide which behaviors are unacceptable and which are negotiable. Communicate your boundaries clearly, directly and assertively. When your loved one crosses a boundary, gently remind her of your limit, but refuse to engage in a confrontation.


Enabling refers to the behaviors that loved ones use to support a relative’s bad behavior. Originally linked specifically to substance abuse, enabling has become a buzzword in 12-step programs and support resources for families struggling with all sorts of problems. According to the University of Pennsylvania Health System, common enabling behaviors include denial, justification, minimizing, avoiding and self-blame. Enabling actually encourages your loved one to continue current behavior patterns. Ending your enabling behaviors is a type of tough love, as it takes away the support structure for your loved one's behavior.


Therapeutic intervention is the type of confrontation you often see on television. It is most often used when dealing with substance abuse or other addictions, but is sometimes used in Scared Straight-type programs for adolescents. In an intervention, family members and loved ones gather to make an impassioned plea for their loved one to seek help. Although televised interventions are often highly emotionally charged, that style works only in specific circumstances. Depending on your loved one’s emotional state and personality, a confrontation could actually make things worse. Never try to stage a therapeutic intervention on your own. Consider it only as a last resort with guidance from a qualified mental health professional.