You don’t have to be cruel to be kind
By Michele Provenzano, Staff Writer
The term “tough love” isn’t a catch-all that can be used to justify being an asshole.
Generally used to indicate stern behaviour towards someone that will benefit them in the long run, the phrase can be broken down into two parts. There’s the “toughness”—the harsh treatment of or strict boundary enforced toward a person, and there’s the “love”—the intention of wanting the best for that person.
This method can be a useful tool for dealing with a person in your life who perpetuates unhealthy behaviours that harm themselves and others. However, as the almost oxymoronic quality of the term indicates, tough love requires balance. It’s a slippery slope: at a certain point, “tough love” becomes too tough to be considered love at all.
The familiarity of the phrase is dangerous—it makes it an accessible excuse. It’s too easy to hurl verbal weapons at a person then think that slapping the band-aid of the “tough love” label on the wound makes it okay.
“Tough love” hinges on the presence of, well, love. Bill Milliken, whose book of the same name is thought of as the origin of the phrase, insists that “tough love” can only exist in a genuinely caring and loving relationship, and that this love must be communicated clearly. If someone claims their actions are an expression of “tough love,” but you never really feel the “love” part of things, it isn’t tough love, it’s just shitty behaviour.
“Tough love” means wanting the best for someone. This is what makes the phrase tricky: it refers to one’s intention, which is an invisible thing. No one can ever truly know another’s intentions. You can tell a person your intentions were good, but they’re not obligated to believe you. Intention must be demonstrated and interpreted. If a person interprets your behaviour as all tough, you can’t just pin the word love onto it and expect to be exonerated.
“Awww, your constant belittling of my interests and the people I surround myself with were tough love? You just want what’s best for me? Why didn’t you say so sooner, sweetie?” Said no one ever.
The Oxford English Dictionary definition of the term shows that “tough love” especially applies to the treatment of children, addicts, or criminals. And tough love may be valid in dealing with these relationships. But if you’re using “tough love” to justify the treatment of a friend, peer, or partner who doesn’t come close to falling into one of these categories, these connotations perhaps suggest an inherent power imbalance or demonization of the other person. Surely, these are not ingredients for healthy relationships.
Sometimes, what you might think of as “tough love” is really just unnecessary harshness, mistreatment, or abuse. True “tough love” is probably rarer than we think. Often, the term is overused when it’s not warranted. It romanticizes situations that are simply toxic.
When calling out a person’s habit of guilt tripping their significant other into thinking everything is their fault, the person may claim, “tough love is just how I am in a relationship.” No, Jeff, you’re just emotionally abusive.