In this article, I am discussing delivering Love—tough or tender—to a recipient who may be your MLCer, your mentee or some other person in your life. This is not strictly about an MLCer-LBS dynamic or relationship. Tough Love is a term with a variety of ideas and connotations, so I will begin with some definitions of the phrase. Wikipedia’s Tough Love article says it is an expression used when someone treats another person harshly or sternly with the intent to help them in the long run.

Let me be very clear. Though being stern can be acceptable, I do not consider harshness to be an aspect of Tough Love. To be stern is to be firm or strict, but harsh and Tough Love? Seriously? Personally, I find the pairing shocking and oxymoronic. Here are a few definitions for harsh:

  • Cruel or severe
  • Excessively critical or negative
  • Having an unpleasant or harmful effect because of great strength or force

What comes to mind for me is the Hippocratic Oath invocation to do no harm. That seems important for everyone—not just physicians. Shouldn’t doing no harm be a prime tenet of love of any style? Yet a style of love uses the term harsh as part of its definition and the word harsh itself includes harm as part if it’s definition. This is just head shaking to me. So let me be very clear: the definition listed in Wikipedia is not what The Hero’s Spouse is meaning when we discuss Tough Love.

What about Tough Love types of therapy—like wilderness camps for teenagers? In these programs Tough Love is something that is brutal or harsh; Tough Love therapy is an attempt at change through confrontation. I want to again be very clear: this idea of Tough Love is not supported by The Hero’s Spouse.

Until considering the above ideas of Tough Love, I admit I found the debate or dissension with many being so against Tough Love perplexing.

Differences have been made between what has been referred to as Tough Love vs. Love ‘Em Back. I’m going to rename things a bit. Love is love is love, so let’s put a Big Heading of Love over the two styles—it’s all Love! Then let’s call what has been called Love ‘Em Back Tender Love instead. Why? Because that Big Heading is Loving Them Back and that must include the Tough Love as well as the Tender Love. This is not a formula or strategy; it’s love! Love thy neighbor, love thyself, love everyone and everything. What it is not is Eros; this love is Agapé. It distills to the Unconditionals—though Forgiveness is a bigger process. It’s about being gracious and kind because those are good things to do and be in all situations. Kindness can be tough and strong, it’s not always soft and conciliatory and the two ways are not mutually exclusive.

Tough Love Vs. Emotional Abuse

Love, whether tough or tender, builds up; emotional abuse diminishes a person’s sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth.

Tough Love is not…

  • Intimidating
  • Bullying
  • An A$$ Kicking
  • Shaming
  • Belittling
  • Humiliating
  • Harassing
  • Threatening
  • Demeaning
  • Abusive

Unfortunately, some people and systems consider these behaviors part of the Tough Love toolbox. This is unacceptable! It is also important that we understand and accept that feeling demeaned, harassed, abused, humiliated… is also a choice and thus a person may feel these things when the giver was not doing those things; we cannot control how another person may feel and how they may twist intentions or be over sensitized—though it helps if we know their sensitivities and thus what will not work with them. Tough Love, or any love, is not a punishment.

But Tough Love May Include

  • Painful Truths
  • Honest, but painful observations
  • Difficult Tasks
  • Persistent Encouragement

Brutal Honesty Vs. Painful Truths
Love may be tough in that it may involve communicating difficult or painful truths, but such things do not need to be delivered with brutality. They are already difficult for both the giver and recipient, but they can be delivered with love, tenderness and grace. Love may also be tough in what it sometimes takes to hold someone accountable. We need accountability and consequences and it’s not only MLCers who want to avoid what is hard or face our mistakes and make amends. We are often resistant to Tough Love motivation even when it is a style that works for us—and it may not be a style that works for everyone. Tough Love shows us the mirror and forces us to face our flaws and sins along with our beauty.

horse no waterTough Love may be painful, but not because the giver intends to hurt the recipient. Tough Love challenges the recipient to change in ways intended to lead to greater success and stability, but the path to get there may be difficult and even painful for various reasons and it is still true that the horse you lead to the water may still choose not to take a drink.

Think about whether your methods—with your spouse or in other personal relationships or with those you advise—leads the recipient to feeling better or worse about themselves. Of course, a person can choose to interpret praises negatively and so you are not in control of making them feel anything, even so, Tough Love should help build up, not tear down, it moves a person forward on the path to what they need. What can you do and are you doing to not only make your horse thirsty, but to make them look forward to drinking?

Accountability: No Excuses, No Bullshit

Loving someone is about helping them to become their best self. This entails supporting them, believing in them and cheering them on, but it also includes holding them accountable. Believing in someone cannot be separated from holding them accountable when it is necessary because to not hold them accountable is to take control which is a form of not trusting in their abilities—not believing in them. Tough Love is about accountability. But is there a gracious method for holding someone accountable? The dynamics will vary based on the relationship—MLCer-LBS, mentor-mentee, friend-friend, manager-employee… We want to enable a person to be accountable because it is what they want for themselves, not to please us or get a reward. We also want to do it in a way that is kind, compassionate as well as steady and firm. Start with Grace and Agape or rather G.R.A.C.E & A.G.A.P.E.

Gracious Accountability-2 Goals
Set clearly defined goals.

What resources does the person need to meet their goals?

What are the person’s abilities? Work within their abilities and within what abilities they can acquire.

What are the consequences for not meeting goals? These may be specific and actionable in MLCer-LBS or manager-employee relationships. But in a mentor or coaching situation, this may be more about discussing possible consequences—those applied external to the relationship.

Provide feedback along with a standard of measurement for evaluating progress toward goals.


Define actions necessary to meet the goals

Be open and available as guidance without enabling reliance on you; instill self-reliance.

Appreciation before Criticism
The Gottman Ratio is 5:1 for positive to negative interactions; think of that as 5 praises equaling a single criticism—even those delivered with constructive kindness. Start with praise and give more of it.

Progress, not Perfection
Focus on the milestones achieved or even each small step closer to achieving the milestones.

Be their cheering section. Encouragement motivates.

Tough Love Vs. Enabling

It is possible to be both a person who loves and a person who enables. Not good, but possible and even common. Tough Love is in direct opposition to enabling. Sometimes failure is the best lesson and a necessity for success, but so often someone comes along to prevent the failure of a person they love. Then they prevent it again and again. They prevent consequences and they cripple the person they love. When you prevent a person from failing, you also prevent them from succeeding because you prevent the lesson they might have learned from their failure. They may survive, but they will fail to thrive. One of the best gifts we can give is to step back and let a person rescue themselves. When they fail, stay back and encourage them to try again. Sometimes the best way to give a hand is by clapping.

When is it okay to step in and help? There’s gotta be a situation where it is better to step in, right? Sure. Here’s how I think of it: If your MLCer calls you at 2:00 am because their car broke down on the freeway and they need help, help them by going to them or calling assistance for them or maybe just talking to them while they wait for help. If your MLCer calls you from jail requesting you bail them out, this may be a situation where they need to experience the consequences of their actions rather than get rescued.

Secret-Keeping Enables
elephant under the rug
Let’s just sweep that under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist. Sometimes it’s dust that gets swept under, but in MLC situations people often try to fit the elephant under there too. Hint: it doesn’t fit. Rug-sweeping is one of the most damaging ways you can enable.

I’ve talked about Lingy a few times, so I may be repeating myself. Lingy and I met in an online chat support group for MLC Standers. We lived relatively close to each other and became much more than friends. Her MLCer had initially moved out, but returned home a few months later and remained at home for the next few years of his MLC. The alienator lived a few blocks away from them and sometimes Lingy would see her in the neighborhood. Both Lingy and her MLCer spent most of the time avoiding the elephant in the room, while aware that the other knew what was going on—he knew she knew. So the affair was not a secret between them and it was not a situation where she accepted it as a one-way open marriage. He would sneak out and make up the dumbest lies about it i.e. camping and skiing with a known male friend for the weekend—and sadly sometimes that was true as the male friend and his wife regularly went ski-camping with the MLCer and alienator. The two would cycle and every few months there would be a big blow-up where she would bring up the affair and scream at him with accusations, he would promise to end it and sometimes he would take her away on a trip. Then within 2 – 4 weeks the sneaking around either began again or became obvious again.

What may be difficult to understand is that technically there were no secrets. Lingy’s friends and family knew about the affair, the secret was a pretend one between Lingy and her husband, wherein both pretended nothing was wrong. But it was a constant in-your-face affair for a about 5 years and the sneaking around crossed well over the line of absurd. On one occasion her MLCer was planning a weekend away with the alienator and wanting to avoid being caught packing, he tossed his bag out the second floor window. Lingy was in the kitchen and watched the bag drop past the window where she was standing.

Lingy was frozen. She was so afraid of losing him that she refused to risk Tough Love because the consequences were painful to her and some were unknown. Was it easier for her to pretend? As the ear on the other end of the phone (we often spoke multiple times a day and for a few hours) I have trouble believing it was easier, but the risk of the unknown is more frightening than a wayward spouse who continues to live at home, interact and pay the bills—and who became upset and even enraged at the mention of Lingy dating as this was a reassurance that he did love her.

Lingy enabled her MLCer to continue his affair. She did this by silently agreeing to pretend it was not happening, but that may be the obvious enabling behavior. What may not be as obvious is that she also enabled him by refusing to take risks and detach. That may sound harsh; did she refuse or was she incapable? Lingy was my best friend and though 22 years my senior, she was like a little sister to me. She was a vivacious social butterfly who loved to throw parties with elaborate decorations. Had she posted at the boards (she was more of a lurker) she would have come across as sad, lonely, desperate and stuck and yet in person she was not that way at all. I think she was scared, but not incapable of risk-taking. Unfortunately, her health suffered from her own poor choices—she returned to smoking after Bomb Drop—and the MLC situation. In 2009 Lingy was having medical issues and was under supervision with extra doctor appointments. She went into the hospital and suffered a coma during surgery and never woke; she died a few days before Christmas. Lingy knew her health was suffering and still she remained frozen in fear. I loved her dearly and I don’t want any of you to be so petrified that you let your own health suffer to the point that you die.

Giving Tough Love is Tough

Though it may feel kind, avoiding stating difficult truths is not kindness, it’s just that it’s not directly or overtly harsh or mean. It is an avoidance of what may be difficult and painful to face, but not facing the truth can have negative consequences, the difference is that they are not typically an immediate consequence so there is a space of relief where pain or challenge is not felt. The eventual pains or challenges may be different—an addict may live on the streets and may steal or pay for things through dangerous and/or illegal methods, but sometimes these challenges are already part of what the person is facing— better the devil you know than unknown challenges or personal shames hidden in the mirror.

Tough Love is often painful to both the giver and the receiver. Letting a loved one fail comes with risks and could backfire. Consider the pain of denying your addicted adult child house room when they are homeless and living on the street. Such a refusal does not guarantee the recipient would even attempt to put an end to their destructive choices and behaviors. The example of an addict is easily generalized for understanding, but this site is about marriage in midlife crisis and infidelity, not addiction, so consider the pain and consequences of not rescuing your MLCer. There is a fight with the live-in alienator and your spouse wants to come home. Tough Love says no. Where does your MLCer go? Does Monster show up—good chance! But let’s think deeper to the other victims. What about your children? Older or adult children may want you to be Tough Love and dump your MLCer for good, but young children just want Mommy or Daddy home and it is hard to be the Tough Lover and hold your MLCer at a distance even if that is best for their recovery with or without marital reconciliation. Young children are experts at living in the present—we could learn from them in that aspect, but we also have the benefit of the ability to anticipate the future and young children may not understand why we act as we do.

Tough Love and Detachment are not mutually exclusive. Tough Love is not a solution to your problems—it is not going to fix the other person. An addict does not automatically decide to stop using when a formerly enabling parent or spouse kicks them out and cuts off funding. It doesn’t work that way. If you are applying Tough Love as a manipulative tactic and thus expect the recipient to respond how you want and change their mind and life, you are misdirected and acting from a position of attachment. Apply Tough Love because it is healthier for you than allowing yourself to be sucked into the spinning vortex of the other person’s issues and because it gives them the opportunity to overcome and heal independently.

Tough Love gives the recipient the chance to solve their problem themselves; this is a form of respect and shows a confidence and belief in their ability to overcome and solve their problems in the way they feel is best. Enabling is a form of control and shows a lack of confidence; you do not believe the person can or will overcome their problems or solve them in the manner you feel is best. Tough Love also understands and accepts that the recipient may fail a few or many times before succeeding and thus it accepts the risks that come with failure because the risks of enabling are greater.

Tough Love is not just tough because is about letting go and allowing a person to succeed or fail on their own. It’s tough because of the connections and attachments we feel. It hurts the person giving it because it hurts to watch someone suffer through failures and pain and sometimes it feels easier to just help a little because in the moment the person’s suffering appears to be relieved. But that is a quick fix that can make the problem worse over time.

If there is no guarantee, then why Tough Love?
There are no guarantees period. Giving your addicted child money to sleep in a motel instead of the streets may save their life tonight or maybe tonight they would have been cold, but thankfully alive in the morning. Refusing to give them money could mean they are hurt or even die on the street tonight or not and maybe eventually they get to a point where they do not want to live another minute like that and they are motivated to change—whereas they did not always have to live another minute like that if you continue to even occasionally provide them funds for a motel. It’s all a risk. Which action will save their life tonight or destroy it next year? Maybe the same action now will do both.

Where is the balance of being firm with your MLCer while showing them empathy, kindness and forgiveness? When my kindness was more emphasized than the boundaries I was trying to maintain, Chuck’s hopes would soar and he expected I was letting the boundaries down and he could come home—or something else depending on the boundary and situation.

When you first use Tough Love, an MLCer may use Monster to try and break you. Hold your ground. This part gets easier as your MLCer tests you and you do not break. If you continue to not break as they escalate their attempts, they may stop and find someone else for Monstering and projection. Tough Love isn’t just hard to apply because of the pain of watching a loved one suffer, the ripples spread beyond you and your MLCer and beyond the present moment.


Tough Love is about boundaries and respect—for you as well as the recipient. It is a refusal to coddle; it’s about and detachment and even acceptance. It understands and accepts the risks involved and is tough anyway. Tough Love is a love strong enough to take risks.



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