Last month we started our discussion of “tough love” and its origins. This month we’ll continue this look at this well-known and used concept to see if it really works and is the most effective strategy for families who love someone who misuses drugs.
We’ve discussed Synanon and its use of harsh confrontation and “tough love” in treating drug use problems. We’ve looked at Al-Anon and its concept of “letting go with love” and seen that what that often looks like is anything but love – though setting limits is important, too. Also, we’ve discussed how this concept of “tough love” isn’t just bad for helping drug users make changes but also bad for loving family members. We also talked about the difference between gaining or giving approval versus love. Finally, we looked at what more pain does for drug users: encourages them to use more, not less. So, let’s pick up the conversation here, starting with more on harsh confrontation.
You may have questions by now and I’m going to try to guess what some of them are and provide answers here. 1) Is tough love the same as harsh confrontation? The answer is yes! 2) I thought we needed to break through an addict’s denial in treatment? The answer is no, that’s actually more likely to harm clients especially those with other underlying mental illnesses including trauma. 3) Don’t people who use drugs problematically need to be shown what a mess their lives are and how they’ve hurt others, such as their families? Again, the answer is no, they’re fully aware already and are usually extremely ashamed of their lives and behaviors even though families may not see this.
By the way, these are all reasonable questions to ask. Let me suggest, as many experts in the field do, that we look at how we treat other chronic medical conditions. Let’s take diabetes for example: when one has diabetes and is reliant on medication, do we complain that they are “addicted” to insulin? Of course not. We’re happy that there is a medication that can help them live a more full and healthy life. But with medication-assisted treatments (MAT) we hear negative comments (Narcotics Anonymous, or NA, has made their views clear in their official pamphlet on MAT. See https://www.na.org/admin/include/spaw2/uploads/pdf/pr/2306_NA_PRMAT_1021.pd) such as how folks are just trading one drug for another; that they aren’t really “clean”. Here in California, our Department of Health Care Services has informed treatment providers that they expect us not to ask clients to engage in activities that we wouldn’t ask of those with other chronic health conditions such as diabetes. So, for instance, would we ask someone with diabetes to list their character defects which may have led to their illness? Of course not. Would we ask them to hold hands in prayer around a circle? No again (while any individual may find this helpful, we wouldn’t consider this professional treatment). We certainly wouldn’t put a toilet seat around their necks and tell loved ones to throw them out of the house for eating less healthy foods! But these are all deemed reasonable treatment approaches to addiction to many in our profession even today. (This calls for a lengthier discussion on addiction which I’ll do in another installment)
As I often do, I got out the dictionary to view some definitions of these 2 words as I prepared to write. Using the online version of Merriam-Webster’s (M-W) dictionary, I found “tough” means durable, strong, resilient, sturdy, rugged, solid, stout (I couldn’t resist!), long-lasting, heavy-duty, industrial-strength, well built, made to last. And what of love? “Love” is defined by M-W as “unselfish, loyal and benevolent; concern for the good of another.” Love is further defined as “an assurance of affection.” An assurance of affection. Wow. In my experience with “tough love”, there was absolutely none of that. In fact, withholding affection/love is at the crux of “tough love.”
So if these 2 words are polar opposites, how did they come to occupy the same space in our heads and in our common lexicon? As stated previously, the phrase “tough love” was originally used by therapeutic community programs such as the former Walden House in San Francisco and DayTop Village and Phoenix House in NYC and continues to be used frequently today (just Google it to see for yourself). Using this concept of tough love, parents were encouraged to check their troubled teens into wilderness camps and behavior modification programs to deal with their kids increasingly frustrating and sometimes dangerous behaviors. And parents absolutely mean/t well; they were at a loss as to how to control their “out of control” teens. Plus they were listening to the so-called experts tell them, “you have to stop coddling your kids; you need to get tough with them – show them who’s boss.”
My own parents tried to do this with me when I was 15 or 16 (it backfired. I filed for legal emancipation and won. However, my relationship with my parents and siblings was forever damaged as was I). It would seem that the concept of tough love is really about control. And when did control become synonymous with loving?
“Tough love” is also often associated with criminal activity or with children. In other words, if you’re a person who uses drugs problematically - or a criminal or a child – our society says using tough love is acceptable. The thinking is that in any of these 3 instances the person you’re using “tough love” with is incapable of learning any other way; their behavior must be controlled for their own good. In fact, the definition according to an old book we used to use in addiction treatment and studies called “Ad.dic.tion.ary” (by Judy and Jan Wilson, 1992; Hazelden) “tough love is a phrase that describes behavior to stop enabling addiction. When you refuse to cover up for an addict, to rescue them, or to prevent them from experiencing consequences of their addiction, that is tough love. It is loving of the person but tough on the disease.” But is this true? And is this the most effective treatment modality? Perhaps the best question is whom does the concept of tough love harm? I’d argue that tough love harms everyone involved – and that often once used, it damages relationships beyond repair.
But it works sometimes, right? I guess that depends on your definition of “works.” Can you get your loved one to behave or not behave in a way that’s acceptable to you? Probably, with enough threatening and coercion. But again, that’s not love. And it usually isn’t helpful for those of us diagnosed with a mental illness or substance use disorder (or chronic pain condition). In fact, Johann Hari, in his book “Lost Connections” argues that disconnecting from loved ones (as parents and partners are often told to do) who are “misbehaving” is typically the worst thing a parent or partner can do; losing connections to love – friendships, enjoyable activities such as sports, pets, and more - is often the exact scenario that is ripe for addictive behavior and other mental illnesses to thrive in, to fill the void left by the withholding of love and affectional bonds. I know I can definitely relate to this.
Now let’s be clear here: I’m not saying that limit setting is unnecessary. Of course, it’s necessary. Limit setting is part of being a responsible parent and, sometimes, a loving partner. But the most important piece is that when you set limits with someone, you do so with unconditional love and appreciation for the other person. You listen to their ideas, negotiate, and you have this conversation (this is crucial) when you’re not emotional. Once again, the time for limit setting is BEFORE the undesired behavior occurs, not afterwards (when limit setting is done after the behavior occurs, it’s called ‘punishment’). There are exceptions which again each family must work out for themselves (this is the work of family or couples treatment/therapy). Bottom line, when dealing with the problematic drug-use of a loved one, yelling, screaming, throwing out their alcohol or other drugs, etc, isn’t helpful to anyone. And it certainly isn’t loving behavior.
OK so what about the idea that “addicts” must be shown what a mess their lives are and take responsibility? Well, I can tell you that I was aware every moment that my life was a mess when I had a substance use disorder as we now term the condition. There was no need to show me how bad things were. In fact, whenever I got a glimpse of the mess that was my life, I wound up using more to cover the pain and the shame. This is a typical response we see in many problem drug users. Lastly, let’s look at how tough love confronts personal responsibility. The tough love that my family of origin gave me did two things: 1) made me more ashamed and reluctant to try to change (if it’s my fault and I’m such a fuck up, why bother trying to change?) and 2) ruined any chance of a healthy family system because my family couldn’t look at what they may have contributed to my life of addiction (no I don’t blame them). Most of the “mess” or “unmanageability” as 12-Step would describe it, are problem behaviors of illicit drug users due to the illegality of most drugs of misuse. When drugs are illegal, drug users must go to places to get drugs where they are likely to be put in danger, risking rape and other physical harms, as well as jeopardizing their freedom by being caught by police with the results often being arrest/jail/prison, especially if you happen to be black or brown. Plus, drug users tend to use more in these circumstances than they would in safer locations, and they overdose more often. More on this in future segments.
So here we are at the end of this discussion on “tough love”. And I hope I’ve shown that tough love doesn’t look much like love at all. Instead the concept appears to be all “tough” with “control” at its core. Think of it this way: with positive reinforcement (think BF Skinner and others), I reward you for positive behavior (coming home on time) by giving you something you want (perhaps an extended curfew on one night) and set limits regarding less positive behaviors (think staying out after curfew) but I do this BEFORE you are late. And I do this when I’m not emotionally raw. If I wait and give you “consequences” for your undesired behavior, then I’ve punished you. That does not lead to positive behavior change. It leads to controlling with fear. Also, too often we fail to couple “consequences” with any kind of reward for the positive behavior. And when that consequence is withholding love and affection, well, can you see where this could lead to increased drug use? Not what anyone wants. But now we’re “woke” and can see while it isn’t what I wanted, it is expected. This denial of love and affection leads more people to have a (another?) traumatic experience and we know trauma and addiction – and other mental illnesses – tend to feed off each other. I am sure that this is not the outcome that any parent – or partner or loved one – wants for their child/partner/loved one.
So what have I learned – and what do I hope I’ve shared with you all here on this topic of “tough love?” Here are my Top 4 “Take Aways” from this discussion: 1) perhaps the most important take away is this: I hope I’ve made the case that we as a culture need to stop treating the concept of “tough love” as something positive and healthy. I’m optimistic that I’ve shown how inaccurate and horribly damaging to individuals and families tough love actually is, too; 2) that the concept of tough love really means that this concept is tough on all of us: drug users and loved ones/families alike. Like my own unrepaired family of origin, I have seen so many that will never recover from this so called “treatment intervention/sign of love.” Nothing could be further from the truth; 3) that what we really need instead is a concept let’s call “love AND limits,” meaning there is no limit on our love – ever - and (not “but”) we human beings have limits, too: on our time, our resources, our finances, and more. That’s called life and should always be negotiable and honest. Finally, take away 4) we can no longer afford to use a tired, inaccurate, corrosive concept such as “tough love” to (hang in here with me ok?) “excuse” us from the task having difficult conversations about hard topics with people that we love, what I’m calling “Compassionate Conversations.” What do I mean by this? I mean we must begin the work of having conversations that are about deep, profound, empathetic listening to one another, conversations that seek to really understand. Today it seems that the conversations we typically have with loved ones – especially with drug users – are ones with agendas to get them to stop using. So, what’s the worst that could happen if we could truly let go of our old agendas and just listened? And just for the record, I’m not suggesting that we should agree with how our loved ones view something or how they behave right now, but rather I’m suggesting that our conversational goals change from getting-them-to-do-something-I/we-want to one of astonishing appreciation: of their views, their perspectives, their reasons for using/behaving in less than healthy ways. Let us decide that gaining compassion will be our attending agendas in these conversations.
Our world today is filled with rhetoric (with few real conversations) that is siloed and dishonest, cut off from reality, and full of prejudgments and predetermined agendas. Sadly, when we act from these values, we do so from fear: fear of losing power, fear of not being accepted, fear of losing our place in the world, fear of losing our loved ones to drug use and more. But when we push forward incorporating these fears rather than fighting them and force ourselves to see what is and become “woke” as the modern vernacular states, we have opportunities galore to change our relationships to ourselves, to our loved ones, and to the world. We learn how to say things like, “I love you more than anything AND I’m uncomfortable/unhappy/it’s difficult being around you when you’re loaded/high/under the influence. But when you’ve come down/sobered up/are able to moderate, let’s have lunch/dinner/go to that movie we’ve talked about.” Or how about, “I really love spending time with you when you’re emotionally available to me/us/the family/yourself.” I realize these “compassionate conversations” aren’t dramatic so they won’t make for good “reality” television, however they do make for good, healthy, strong relationships in real life. Plus research shows us these types of conversations are also more likely to help encourage positive changes toward healthier behaviors for everyone. So, let’s tip “tough love” into the collective trash can and from our collective vocabulary. Instead let’s work towards an agenda/belief of “love and limits” through “compassionate conversations.” Frankly, after all the pain caused to us all from using “tough love”, just how much harder can this new way of being really be?