The concept of “tough love” was made popular in 1968 by Bill Milliken in his book, Tough Love, in which you take a brutally harsh stand with someone you love for their own good. The “loved one” is denied something essential in an attempt to motivate them to change their negative behaviors into positive ones. A parent who cuts off financial help to their drug-addicted child until they enter into rehab. A wife who takes the kids and moves in with her parents until her husband quits drinking. A teacher who wants their students to stretch their talents by grading harshly and imposing stringent, exhausting standards. It requires drastic measures, but the parties work together to get through it. Yet, lately the practice appears to be degrading into more of a self-serving shortcut and power trip than a difficult act of compassion.
The “tough” in tough love was meant to reflect how difficult it was for both parties to experience, the one getting the tough love, but also the one giving it. It is a tactic of last resort between people who love or care for each other, and who recognize a destructive pattern of behavior that is causing harm for them both. One person has been weak and the other has made it easier for them to be weak, has enabled the behavior out of blind compassion. The goal is to break the pattern and eventually correct the destructive behavior so that the parties can rebuild their lives and their relationship in healthier ways.
Yet, the main component of tough love–the harsh treatment or withholding of something essential–has been taken out of context and is becoming a handy short cut for manipulating a weaker, more vulnerable person “for their own good.” Television has a parade of examples of this distortion. Personal trainers who shout at, insult, and taunt clients. Dance teachers who rage, curse, and brawl with students and their mothers. Wealthy privileged “real” housewives of wherever, who are “friends,” yet routinely shut one another out of social engagements or give the silent treatment if one of them doesn’t act the way they’re expected. Tough love is meant to help a person correct self-destructive behaviors, however, not to manipulate a person into being what and who you think they should be and punishing them if they aren’t.
When you want to exert some tough love, are you really, honestly, thinking tough love or tough noogies? Are you trying to help strengthen someone you care about, or judge and bully them with a too bad for you kind of attitude? Self-destructive behaviors originate from self-hatred, feelings of worthlessness, and cruelties done to you in your past. Tough love comes from compassion and a willingness to communicate with a person, be there and support them as they confront the painful issues at the root of their self-destructive ways. Tough noogies, on the other hand, is when you impose harsh consequences, because you’re not interested in doing the work with someone and just want an easy out for you.
How can you say you love someone, and, because you love them, you’re going to cause them pain and leave them hanging? You’re going to cut them off, never speak to them, make them “dead to you,” and they’re on their own to fix themselves. Again, this isn’t tough love; it’s tough noogies. It’s telling someone they’re no good, they don’t measure up, and using fear and humiliation to force them to change with the threat of cutting them out if they don’t comply. It may get results, but for all the wrong reasons.
Cutting someone off is the cruelest thing one human being can do to another. Studies have proven that the act of deliberately cutting someone off from contact or association leaves deep psychological scars. Being cut out when there has been no chance to discuss why or perhaps work things through is devastating. It’s been characterized as silent bullying. Emotional blackmail. It renders the target helpless and in pain, with no prospect of restoring the relationship. A tough noogies attitude employs this type of emotional bullying as a short cut to forcing a person to change.
Tough love starts with an intervention to explain how what a person is doing is hurting others, because the subject is in denial about the impact they’re having. Most people hurting themselves or others, when asked why they do it will say, “I don’t know.” Tough love involves taking the time to explain the impact of a loved one’s destructive behaviors, and spelling out consequences of the new steps you are going to take so that they may have a choice to either continue the negative pattern or be motivated to change for the better. Tough love gives a person options, a plan, and hope for a healthier future. Tough noogies is imposing consequences without options, without discussion, without giving a person the chance to make amends, then rubbing salt in their wounds by saying it’s for their own good.
The next time you’re tempted to impose a little tough love on someone you care about, ask yourself if you’re doing this for them or for you. Is it tough love, or have you lost patience and just want quick results? Tough love, or you’re offended they didn’t take your advice? Tough love or just making yourself feel superior by tearing them down?
Don’t think naked when you’re about to inflict pain on someone else for their own good. Ask yourself, are you willing to really work together, or are you just looking for an easy out?