The Myth of Tough Love

Tough love is one of those expressions that has crept into the vocabulary of mental health and 12-step recovery in recent years.

It sort of implies that an action or directive is being given or taken which may on the surface seem a bit tough, but is being done from a place of love, for the benefit of the individual concerned even if they are unable to see it.

A couple of examples.

A family intervention to get someone into rehab is often talked about as being an act of tough love. It is a form of intense pressure to force a person to do something they are probably not ready to do. It runs the huge danger of making someone tear down a mask before they are ready to.

In 12 step recovery, sponsorship is a sort of buddy system, where help works on a one-to-one basis. Sometimes a sponsor will sack a sponsee and tell them it is for their benefit. In truth, it is normally because they are not doing something the sponsor wanted them to do.

Both the above examples have very little to do with love. In many ways they are simply acts of bullying, using the guise of people’s vulnerability as a way of exploiting their inability to fight back.

Trying to define love is a very difficult if not impossible thing to do.

It is easier in a way to show what love is not. Any type of loving an individual must at its core have a sense of respect for the integrity and life of the other person. When people are in any way exploited, such respect or love is non-existent.

Last Resort

Looking at the case of an intervention in more detail, an intervention is often talked about as being something that is used as a last resort and is often done because people say “that things simply cannot go on the way they are”.

Looking at it logically, an intervention is a getting together of people who care about the individual, who try to force that individual into agreeing to go into rehab or seek treatment to deal with their alcoholism or addiction.

The mindset behind an intervention is often that the sense of pressure from the family will make the individual see sense and do what he should have done some time ago.

What it fails to take into account is the mindset of the person who is the alcoholic or addict and their relationship with alcohol. This is because most alcoholics, at some point in their drinking, will come to believe that alcohol is the only thing holding them together, and losing it is their worst fear.



What an intervention does is pressure them into a situation that they possibly cannot handle, it presents them with a false choice about their future. Whilst many will go into rehab following an intervention, some may get sober, some may not.

What people never really see is the emotional damage that may be done to an alcoholic by way of the intervention making them feel trapped, and forcing them to do something against their will.

The reason this matters so much is that an alcoholic will see their relationship with alcohol differently from people who are not alcoholics.

The external chaos is real for everyone to see. But other people cannot see inside the mind of the alcoholic.

An alcoholic needs to drink until they get to a place where they are willing to let go of it. That willingness has to come from within and is a fairly complicated process.

Tough but not Love

In the context of tough love, an intervention as understood in 12-step recovery is not an act of love at all.

Normally a much better act of love would be to advise the family to go to Al-Anon and begin their recovery in the context of the other person’s drinking.

Tough love is a phrase that seems quite comforting because it can provide a degree of certainty and harshness, under the impression that it is the loving thing that has been done.

Great care should be taken when anyone talks about tough love, as it normally relates to an action that is not particularly loving, even if the motives of the person doing it are coming from the right place.