October 15, 2023


Tough love is an expression that usually refers to loved ones drawing a line in the sand that says enough is enough with someone in their lives. Most of the times it is used to describe taking a hard stand with loved ones addicted to drugs and/or alcohol. It usually means cutting all ties with the users and sending them on their way. But beware, tough love needs to be chosen carefully and is a tough choice!

The decision to use tough love usually comes after all other interventions have failed and loved ones are tired of being lied to, stolen from, abused, and victimized by their loved one’s drug and alcohol abuse. I wanted to take a closer look at this stance in this blog and raise a red flag, or at least a pause button for those who are considering tough love.

With substance abusers, tough love usually means a loved one will no longer tolerate the abuse they have received from the drug and alcohol abuser. But when should you use such an extreme intervention as “tough love”? And once you decide, then what?

Most of the time tough love means putting your loved ones out of your house and environment, in other words, your loved one is considered dead. Many times, they will be homeless and no longer receiving any monies or loved one’s support. It will also mean you have reached the limit on what you will do for them. Or have you? That is the million-dollar question.

There is no going back once you have started on the tough love road. Well, let me clarify. Once an ultimatum is given and tough love is initiated, going back will mean losing any hope of setting and holding boundaries in the future. The loved ones will now know they can always win you back and get what they want, alcohol and/or drugs! I am in no way saying that you should hold or not hold the line. This is a very personal choice. What I am saying in this post is never use “tough love” without knowing you are now capable of cutting all ties and accepting the possible outcomes.

What are the possible outcomes of “tough love”? I have counseled many friends and families regarding the use of “tough love.” I have also employed it with one of my loved ones. I have simplified what the choice will mean. I asked them the question, are you ready to receive a phone call stating your loved one has died? If not, do not use this approach. I know it sounds harsh, but it is the reality of “tough love.” To once again be clear, I am saying know the possible outcomes of this approach and make the decision based on your situations and being able to own the outcome without it crippling you for the rest of your lives.

You must recognize that your addicted loved one is already dead in your world! That their lives are in the hands of the demons of alcohol and drugs, and that continuing to enable them will lead to death anyway. It also means saving the loved ones who were and are being victimized by the users. If you can receive that phone call, then you have probably reached the end of your rope and will now turn your attention to the family and friends that the users have hurt. It means suffering the loss of a loved one and being able to handle all the second guessing that you may experience.

I have seen firsthand the anguish suffered by families that continuously bounce back and forth with “tough love.” I also understand the dilemma that they face and the heavy guilt that is so prevalent in these cases. I would also be remis not to point out the rare occasions when I have seen the back and forth of “tough love” reach a happier ending. It does happen, but much less likely than not. The successful cases I have witnessed involved the abuser being arrested and serving some jail time, another version of tough love before finally waking up and getting sober.

My point with this blog is just to share my experiences and try to help those families trying to decide what to do with a loved one who has continuously victimized them.

Tough love is a tough choice to make. It is a choice that carries a large burden of guilt and shame. Loved ones contemplating it need to recognize these burdens and that it is okay to feel these emotions and still move forward. Guilt and shame will always be there whether you use tough love or just keep allowing the addict behaviors to go unchecked.

But where do you go from here? What is the end goal of tough love? More important questions for you to answer before moving forward.

Remember, tough love does not mean you will not help your loved one when they are ready. Although you have basically disowned them, you have not totally abandoned them when the time may come that they are ready for treatment. It just means you will no longer allow them to victimize you and the rest of the family. It will mean they will not be able to depend on you enabling them any further. If your goal is to cut off your loved one until they recognize they have a problem, then have a plan of action when they may be ready. But remember, that action plan is to direct them to a helpful resource that is already in place and not just to allow them back into your lives.

A good action plan will include a targeted residential facility ready to accept your loved one. It means getting your loved one on the first transport to that facility and not bringing them home to wait until a place is found. This may only cause a delay and a relapse back to old ways.

Are you ready to deal with the outcomes of tough love? If not, then do not try it. Using the tough love approach can and will backfire if you are not committed 100% to the follow through. In fact, using such an extreme measure and not being ready to follow through can result in the ultimate enabling tactic and leave you more frustrated and depressed.

I will leave you all with this final note. You are NOT ALONE! There are many free resources to help you with this addiction problem. Below I have listed a great place to start getting information and resources. Make sure you are well informed before using any radical interventions such as “tough love.” The more educated you are, the greater chance you will feel better about the choices you may make. https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline

Mind, Body, Spirit…Balance!

Vinnie Strumolo, CEO, CCO, LMF