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How Tough Love Almost Destroyed My Chances for Long-Term Recovery

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tough love in recovery

Tough love is a tricky way to support a loved one in recovery. Many experts feel that tough love is an outdated ideology that favors cutting someone off as a way to push them towards abstinence.

When discussing the topic of tough love in recovery, researcher and writer William White says, “It’s time to accept that the harsh confrontational practices of the past are generally ineffective, potentially harmful, and professionally inappropriate.”

Tough love can backfire, pushing your loved one deeper into their addiction. And sometimes this can have potentially fatal consequences.

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What Is Tough Love?

tough love in recoveryThe phrase “tough love” was coined in the book, Tough Love by Bill Milliken in the 1970s. It is most commonly used within addiction treatment communities, like the 12-step fellowship Al-Anon, which is for partners, friends, and family members of those with addiction.

The belief behind tough love is that a person with addiction needs to be treated firmly—almost punitively—to coerce them into improving their behavior. Tough love can also include the imposition of strong, potentially harmful, boundaries.

Tough love proponents support the idea that showing kindness to someone with addiction, like lending money or offering them a place to stay, is enabling.

And that those enabling behaviors are thought to cause the addicted loved to constantly come back to the enabler seeking support for their addiction, as opposed to seeking help.

Advocates for tough love also believe that the addicted individual needs to hit a rock bottom before they are ready to get help.

One of the ways that Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) may not support the needs of everyone with addiction is that the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous literature supports this ideology:

Why all this insistence that every A.A. must hit bottom first? The answer is that very few people will sincerely try to practice the A.A. program unless they have hit bottom.

The literature continues to suggest that those who haven’t reached a rock bottom are too self-centered to do the work that’s required to achieve recovery.

For practicing AA’s, the remaining eleven Steps means the adoption of attitudes and actions that almost no alcoholic who is still drinking can dream of taking. Who wishes to be rigorously honest and tolerant? Who wants to confess his faults to another and make restitution for harm done? Who cares anything for a Higher Power, let alone meditation and prayer? Who wants to sacrifice time and energy in trying to carry A.A.’s message to the next sufferer? No, the average alcoholic, self-centered in the extreme, doesn’t care for this prospect—unless he has to do these things in order to stay alive himself.

-The Big Book (Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Many Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism)

What Does Tough Love in Recovery Look Like?

Examples of tough love include:

  • Forcing someone into treatment as an ultimatum
  • Compulsory drug treatment versus prison time for an alcohol or drug-related offense
  • Locking a person in a room to detox without medical supervision or assistance
  • Confronting a person for their addiction in an unhelpful or humiliating way
  • Constantly punishing someone for their addiction or their relapses
  • Verbally belittling or humiliating a loved one for failing to find recovery

The Problem With Tough Love in Recovery

Tough love can be demeaning, humiliating, and shame-inducing. It also demonstrates the belief that an addicted person is incapable of achieving or maintaining sobriety. And it can also imply that love is conditional (you will only love them if they go to rehab).

Tough love also creates a power dynamic whereby the loved one with addiction is in a position of weakness and is somewhat controlled by the authoritarian figure, like a parent.

Researcher William White explains that authority-based relationships increase the risk of abuse and harm. He contends, “Four decades of research have failed to yield a single clinical trial showing efficacy of confrontational counseling, whereas a number have documented harmful effects, particularly for more vulnerable populations.”

A person struggling with addiction will already feel an immense amount of shame about their drug and alcohol use. Adding more shame is likely to push them deeper into their addiction.

How Tough Love Nearly Killed Me

When I was deep into my addiction, my parents tried to practice tough love. They cut me off financially if I needed help paying rent or getting food. When I failed to meet their demands to attend AA and stop drinking, they stopped speaking to me.

My family’s tough love pushed me further away from people and deeper into my addiction. By that point, I’d stopped going to bars. I drank at home instead. That meant I could drink significantly more because I wouldn’t have to stagger home.

Unfortunately, my alcohol consumption reached drastic levels. I was really sick. I also spiraled into more debt and lost my job. But my family didn’t know any of this because they’d cut off contact with me.

I did eventually reach a rock bottom that included alcohol poisoning. I had no one to call, so I ended up detoxing on my bathroom floor for two days—a dangerous and potentially fatal thing to do.

Fortunately, I made it. But I took a huge risk in getting there. Had I received more support and compassion, I may not have sunk so low into my addiction.

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What’s the Alternative to Tough Love in Recovery?

tough love in recoveryResearch shows that, while compulsory treatment may not be effective, empathetic, supportive, and approaches are better at getting a loved one into treatment than tough love in recovery.

Supporting a loved one empathetically could include include:

  • Apply a Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT) approach
  • Educate yourself about addiction and effective treatment methods
  • Talk to your loved one and listen to their concerns, withholding moral judgement
  • Set boundaries in a loving way, asking your loved one to contribute ideas for solutions instead of trying to solve their problems yourself
  • If they ask for help, be knowledgeable about potential treatment solutions

One of the best ways to help an addicted loved one is to educate yourself about the signs of overdose, the process of detox, and the types of treatment they may need.

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