Practicing Tough Love in Relationships

By Amy Tilley, PsyD
Desert Star Addiction Recovery Center

During February a lot of attention is on emotions, relationships, and love. It is also a good month to take care of yourself and practice self-care and self-love. Sometimes this comes in the form of practicing tough love in your relationships: familial, friendships, and/or romantic.


What is tough love?

It’s when one partner recognizes their loved one has a significant problem that is detrimental to their well-being. These behaviors can be related to substance use, behavioral   or co-dependency issues. The partner who recognizes the issue can share the behavior(s) that are taking place, and how it is affecting the relationship.

It is important for the partner employing tough love to set clear boundaries stating they will not tolerate or enable any unhealthy behaviors. Clear communication between couples is paramount, sharing how they can be supportive of their partner’s recovery; but if any destructive behaviors continue the relationship will end.

Tough love may seem harsh; but it is for the mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being of both partners. If the receiving partner hears the tough love as supportive, it can foster growth in the relationship and help lead to healing. This is not about hurting or neglecting your partner. But it is about taking care of yourself first, while supporting your partner and their recovery journey.

A few tips when navigating tough love with your loved ones:

Set clear boundaries

Communicate clearly: be honest and direct 

Focus on your partner’s behavior, not their character

Be genuine: show care, concern, and empathy for your partner

Don’t enable or rescue your partner: you are not responsible for their choices and actions

Hold your partner accountable for their actions

Practice your own self-care: get your own help with a therapist, attend Al-Anon meetings and call your sponsor.