Tough Love ?

When it came to managing life around my addicted Loved Ones, some of the earliest advice I was given seemed to always center around the term “Tough Love.”

“You have to give tough love.”

As if it were simple.  As if it wasn’t tough already.  But I’d fought so hard with the situation by then that I was running out of energy and ideas.

Tough love, I was told, was the only hope I had left.

The advice always hit my heart like a hot brick.  I hadn’t exactly been giving the situation soft love, or easy love.  I’d been in this battle a long time, and was pretty much just trying to make it through each day without my heart exploding.

I wasn’t given precise direction, just the concept.  So my thoughts were, “What exactly is it?  What does tough love mean?”

I wanted to understand how we go about being tough and loving to a family member as they are spiraling.

The advice given to me was to cut off contact, close the doors, turn my back.

I was desperate and willing to do whatever I had to if it would make the situation better.

So, I tried it.  Things got worse. I hated it.

More important, it didn’t work. Not for us anyway.

I began to question the tough love concept even more.

Considering the fact that we’ve heard tough love preached for more than twenty years, surely if it worked, we wouldn’t be in an epidemic…?

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I have come to believe that we have to love our sons and daughters (and other loved ones) who struggle with addiction differently.  But not necessarily with harsh, tough love.

We need to learn to navigate the relationships with wisdom, versus inappropriate helping and codependent involvement (which is always more about us and our need feel in control, safe, or at ease.).

I developed a personal strategy that I called Smart Love, instead of tough love.

So, what does Smart Love look like?

Smart love means becoming educated and developing new ways of interacting with our suffering Loved One.

Most of us are used to loving our family members a certain way.  Showing love has meant helping, getting involved, being self-less, etc.  But similar to our child crossing the threshold from minor to adult, once substance use has entered a family, we need to learn new ways of navigating the relationships.

Rules, needs, expectations and situations have all changed.

There are so many available resources to help us in the process.  Support groups, online family groups, books, therapy, therapy workbooks, etc.   If we are willing, guidance is available.  It just takes time and effort.

Learning new ways to respond is tough love, it’s tough for us!

Smart love doesn’t mean putting them completely or permanently out of our lives.

Some may choose to do that for their own peace and safety, but it’s okay for those who do not.

Bottom-line: there is no one-size-fits-all approach to addiction in a family.

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Smart love builds up instead of tearing down.

Smart love doesn’t shame a person for having a chemical struggle.

Jason, a recovering heroin addict with 4 years recovery, explained to me that when one of his parents came at him with condemning criticism, even when it was the truth, he heard them like one hears the teachers on Charlie Brown: “Waaaa waaah waaaa waaa waaa waaa.” 

They already know they’ve crossed lines with ethics, morals, loyalty and family.

They already know what they should be doing.

Reminding someone of the shameful parts of themselves will not speed anyone toward treatment.

It shuts people down.

People need to hear they are more than all the bad, that their lives are worth salvaging.  That they had plans, goals, dreams once!

And that those things still matter.  They are a person who matters.

We can absolutely guard the areas violated, and protect our vulnerability to having things stolen, manipulated etc.  While still letting our person know that we are in their corner, and will love them along the journey, rain or shine.

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Smart love gives room for ownership.

Allowing an adult to face their consequences is a tough, but necessary  part of the process that we’ve all struggled with from time to time.

Smart love means we will do self-work to modify our decisions, responses, and involvements.

The whole family needs to roll their sleeves up and do hard, introspective work to heal.  Untreated family disease is the cause of so much of the mess we are in.

It may require space and separation; in order to give our struggling addicted person the dignity to seek help and accomplishment for themselves.  Versus participating in problems, conflict, chaos or consequences.

Doing our own work is crucial.

Doing another person’s work is where craziness happens.

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There is a place of balance we can come to. 

We can give love, kindness, mercy and support to someone active in their addiction; without being trampled upon, or being militant and condemning.

This is where our work lies.

I believe connection and love heal addiction.  Smart, wise love.

Healthy love.

Loving, wise support given by a group of family, friends, or others who esteem the humanity of an addicted person with kind, positive regard.

A group of people who are also doing deep introspective work to recover from life situations themselves, alongside their addicted loved one.

That’s a formula that I have come to personally experience and believe—leads to healing from addiction.

For everyone.

It’s a family disease.

Still learning,


Author of Unhooked  and  Unbroken, Navigating the Madness of Family Dysfunction, Addiction, Alcoholism and Heartache

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For information, comfort, encouragement and support:

Codependents Anonymous

Parent Support – TAPU

Family Recovery Support