Most individuals who have experienced a family crisis, interpersonal conflict, or relationship issue in the church community have heard the phrase “tough love” thrown around. This artificial virtue is invoked every time we cut off contact with someone, kick someone out of our home, sever someone from support, or give someone an ultimatum. The idea behind it is that sometimes people need to experience pain or discomfort to change, and so causing someone pain can be in their own best interest. However, “tough love” is misused and should not be a part of Christian counseling.
“Tough Love” Implies the Lie of Individual Isolation
“They need to take responsibility for their actions.” This phrase is always uttered to the tune of nodding heads and applause, it just sounds right. However, it is not. The true expression is, “We need to take responsibility for our actions.” What’s the difference? The second acknowledges that we call have an effect on each other, the first implies we are all isolated individuals.
It is just common sense to realize that growing up in an abusive home will hinder a person’s development. That common sense should lead us to understand that our communities, friends, environments, and family life all influence our mental health and spiritual well-being. When we are having a conflict with someone, we need to be aware that while they may be making bad decisions, we are also probably be contributing in some way to their struggles.
“Tough Love” Implies that We Are Being Loving
Love is not something we show, or do, it is something we practice. It is an active and ongoing struggle. What we think may be “loving” may be wanting someone to conform to our expectations. Maybe we are wanting them to make us feel better. Perhaps, we are even imposing our own fears and insecurities on them. Learning to love is part of the journey of life, it comes with maturity, to think we are ever truly loving is the greatest arrogance of all.
Our True Motives: We Don't Want to Admit That We Failed
The “tough love” deception can put us in the scenario where we think we show "love" to another and then conclude "it doesn't work." And if our love didn't work, then we grow resentful and assume someone is "bad." We do this because we don't want to believe the alternative: that we failed. The truth is that sometimes we don’t have enough love, patience, understanding, or resources to help someone.
I can’t help everyone, I can’t, it just isn’t possible. That doesn’t mean they are bad, it just means I can’t. Maybe I can’t because I can’t relate to or understand them. Maybe I can’t because my own problems take too much of my time at the moment. Whatever the reason, I will inevitably fail those I love, because I am human. My job isn’t to justify it, but to work to grow get better at loving those around me.
There Is Always More Than Two - Don't Take It Personally
When people we love fall into addictions or destructive behaviors, it is all the easier to make them into the villains. It hurts us deeply when we can’t seem to be enough for someone, as if our love doesn’t matter. But people often end up with scars and baggage that has nothing to do with us, even if it is being taken out on us at the moment. Whatever issues a person has, they will manifest the most in their closest relationships, but the cause if often larger than two people.
Let’s Part Ways Gracefully
We will have times in our lives where we have to part ways with people we love. Perhaps neither of us have the maturity to see through our problems. Perhaps our relationship is too toxic and we need to take time to heal. Perhaps we have too much prejudice and misunderstanding from our backgrounds to work through. Just because we can’t get along doesn’t mean one of us has to be good, and one of us has to be bad. We may very well have to part ways, but let’s say “see you later” and not “good riddance.”
Let’s Replace “Tough Love” With Humility
A casual stroll through a local bookstore and it is easy to find lots of books on relationships, handling conflict, and communication. The truth is that our whole society is trying to learn how to love, be loved, and show love. In the meantime, we are still pretty bad at it. What we really need is humility to know that our love can never fill the needs of another. Isn't that the whole point of needing Jesus Christ in the first place?
Our love is not perfect, and therefore we should not use it as a measuring stick for others. We must always keep practicing. When we fail, we need to have grace for ourselves, and grace for those we cannot help. Someday, if we keep growing, we may just get another chance.