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Tough Love in Relationships

author image David Carnes
David Carnes has been a full-time writer since 1998 and has published two full-length novels. He spends much of his time in various Asian countries and is fluent in Mandarin Chinese. He earned a Juris Doctorate from the University of Kentucky College of Law.
Tough Love in Relationships
Husband and wife talking things out on their couch. Photo Credit JackF/iStock/Getty Images

"Tough love" can refer to two distinct processes. One is the process of maintaining your personal boundaries and dignity in the context of a relationship in order to maintain your self-respect and ensure that your partner respects you. The other process is therapeutic, often coercive intervention in the life of a loved one caught in the grip of addictive or destructive behavior. Both can be applied to romantic relationships.


"Enabling" is a term that was made popular by 12-step recovery programs for alcoholism, sex addiction and other addictive behavior. It refers to the practices of a relative or friend of the addict who habitually rescues the addict, thereby shielding him from the destructive consequences of his own behavior and thereby perpetuating the addiction. Used more loosely, it can refer to a partner in a relationship who voluntarily tolerates abusive or disrespectful behavior, thereby perpetuating the undesirable behavior.

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The Passion Paradox

Romantic relationships often resemble an emotional see-saw. When this process becomes a pattern, one partner pursues the other with great abandon, resulting in a paradoxical loss of interest on the part of the other partner, the distancer. If you are the pursuer, "tough love" for both you and your partner means seeking respect first and love second, while the distancer must respect the other partner by resisting the temptation to avoid. To do otherwise is to encourage your partner to treat you with disrespect.

Tough Love Dating Tips

"Tough love" in the context of dating means maintaining equal status with respect to your partner. Dobson advises lovers to "take it one step at a time" so that solid foundations can be built for long-term happiness. Don't call too often or otherwise give your lover the chance to get sick of you. Above all, set fair expectations of treatment from your partner and be willing to permanently walk away from the relationship if you don't get it, no matter how much it hurts.

Therapeutic Intervention

In some cases a romantic partner will fall into addictive or other destructive behavior. In such cases you may have to choose between your partner's love and his well-being, because if you intervene, he may hate you for it. Intervention means that you must forcefully confront your lover, ideally in the presence of a licensed therapist, advises Carlin Flora, Senior Editor for Psychology Today Magazine. You must not mince words when you describe how your lover's behavior has been hurting others, and you must insist on being heard. If you have been engaging on any enabling behavior, you must make it clear that it will no longer continue. Finally, you must insist that your lover accept appropriate treatment.


There comes a time when tough love must yield to empathy. Addicts may despise their own behavior yet feel powerless to change it. Former cocaine and heroin addict Maia Szalavitz, co-author of "Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential-- And Endangered" notes that in some cases cutting off all contact with your loved one as an act of "tough love" can result in acceleration of the undesirable behavior and the death of the addict.

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