Love is one of those words that we overuse. I love hamburgers, sunsets, movies, music…if I like it a lot I’ve probably said that I love whatever it is at the time that I’m enjoying it. How does that compare to love between married couples, within a family or among friends? When we have to discipline a child how can we call that a love that is tough?
Love is a complex, multi-faceted emotion. It is also a decision when we love unconditionally…especially when we do not particularly like the person or their behaviors. In John 15:13 Jesus tells us that no one loves more than the one who chooses to lay down his or her life for friends. In verse 14 He declares that those who follow His teachings are His friends.
One of the real challenges of parenting is learning how to distinguish between a love that is accepting and forgiving in contrast to a love that is tough and that resists enabling bad behaviors. The expression ‘tough love‘ is another term that is thrown around quite a bit that, on its face, seems to be a contradiction in terms. Yet, while we have a general idea of what is being stated there is a dimension that tempers our implementation of the term with our children.
For example, for the child addicted to drugs a parent who exercises tough love must consider the possible consequence. Interventions designed to help the child discontinue the self-destructive behavior may not bring about the desired changes. Indeed, the child may choose to ignore or react to the intervention and make even worse choices that lead to other problems that could be life-threatening.
In Marriage and Family Therapy we understand that the challenge of designing interventions to bring about positive changes in a family member may also be taking on great risks. The goal, of course, it to attempt to bias the intervention for the best possible reaction but, also, at the same time, to weigh the potential consequences should the intervention have the opposite effect. When a family member is already on a self-destructive course and the ultimate negative consequence is obvious the risk of an intervention becomes less of a deterrent. The desire to save someone makes the risks worth attempting.
Implementing tough love comes naturally for some. For others of us it is particularly difficult because of the difficulty of making the distinction between unconditional love and a love the confronts and disciplines for a greater good. Recovery groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Celebrate Recovery can be helpful.