To the faint hearted, the phrase “tough-love” sounds like an oxymoron – a figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction, like bitter-sweet – and perhaps it is.
As Gaborone Clinical Psychologist and founder of Mental Health Alive Initiative Tshepiso Teseletso puts it, “there is a thin line between tough love and emotional abuse. The line is so blurred that the victim and other people around them may be unaware and thus unable to seek for help.”
The idea of tough love legitimized verbal abuse as a tool for changing people and their behaviors; it has been hailed as a motivational tool. But is it? Being cautious or meagre with praise is one thing, but name-calling is another. Telling another person that they are stupid, or a loser or worse doesn’t qualify as tough love. It is plain hurtful and can have a devastating effect on the receiver’s psyche. Treating someone with contempt will likely never lead to the desired outcome. This includes hurtful, sarcastic remarks, making derogatory comments, or treating the other person with arrogance and apathy. Tough love calls for a certain level of severity, but never for a lack of humanity or empathy. There are different philosophies about how to change behavior. Many in past generations encouraged a “tough love” approach.
Teseletso points out that, “ sadly, emotional abuse is very prevalent in our society today with many suffering the consequences without knowing, thus not seeking help. This type of abuse messes with the mind of the victim. Emotional abuse can be found in marriages, romantic and non-romantic relationships between dating couples, friends, co-workers, boss and subordinate, families etc. It is super important to understand what tough love is so that you can recognize it in your relationship and take it in stride. But, it is just as important to understand what is not tough love and what is instead control or manipulation. Tough love can easily turn into patronizing, controlling behavior if it is not coming from the right place. Like we said before, tough love is about love, which means that you show your partner tough love to help them improve or make positive changes in their life. If a partner is being overly critical, too honest or trying to get you to change your behavior based on their preferences (not what is best for YOU) then this is an example of controlling, manipulative behavior and should not be confused with tough love.”
Other than the “sticks and stones” rhyme and the human propensity to justify and rationalize bad behaviors, no single cultural idea has contributed more to the flourishing of verbal abuse than the concept of “tough love. Rationalizing verbal abuse as a form of discipline or tamping down ego or pride in relationships helped ease its way. The term is defined as love or affectionate concern expressed in a stern or unsentimental manner (as through discipline) especially to promote responsible behavior. The word “tough” combined with the word “love” is enough to set a rational mind spinning. Despite that, the concept of improvement or correction linked with an improbable combination of shaming and revelation supposedly inspired by love filtered down through the culture in myriad ways. Positive narratives of tough love have not only coursed through communities but have also become a staple for television shows for decades, despite the fact that there is no evidence—and never has been—that what is called tough love works in any context, including addiction.
Tapiwa Pheto, a representative from the Botswana Gender Based Violence Prevention & Support Centre says, “The phrase “tough love” often brings up memories of your parents taking away your phone as a teenager or a friend refusing to let you have another drink during a night out. But what does tough love mean in a romantic relationship? It means looking out for one another’s physical well-being. It also means that you are looking out for your partner’s emotional well-being. Tough love can be difficult to dish and it can be even more difficult to take, but it’s important to remember that at the end of the day, tough love is a form of love. Not all love can be supportive and gushing, especially if there is a problem in the relationship or if someone has done something that hurt their partner.”
Tough Love can be used by parents to discipline their children, by friends for each other, and even as an act of self-discipline. It is often seen as being hurtful and manipulative and is a form of abuse that can be difficult to detect but has lasting effects on the victim. Tough love relationships are abusive in nature and often go undetected because they do not fit the typical definition of abuse. The abuser in some severer cases of this type of abuse will make sure that their victim does not have any support system or connection outside of them, which will make it harder for them to leave should they feel like they have reached their wits end. Tough love also harbors a sense of resentment between those who are stuck in the cycle which can cause irreparable damage and a sense of permanent anger towards those who gave the recipient tough love to begin with. The most awful trend about tough love is that the children of those parents who use this method know no other way of displaying their emotions and sadly carry it on with them when they go onto have their own children. It’s all a mirror effect.
Tough-love succeeded in part because mental anguish is often seen as “weakness” or “whining” so its effects were discounted as character flaws. Cultural tropes influence how we assess and label both good behaviors and abusive ones.