Tough Love? Really?

Allies in Recovery, AiR, Dominique Simon-Levine, dsl, Craft, addiction recovery, recovery, drug abuse, drug use, Annie Highwater, Tough love, Smart love, family support, addicted loved one, Shame, connection

“You have to give tough love.”

When it came to managing life around my addicted loved ones, some of the earliest advice I was given seemed to always center around the term “Tough Love.” As if it were simple. As if it weren’t tough already. But I’d fought so hard with the situation by then that I was running out of energy and ideas. Tough love, I was told, was the only hope I had left.

The advice always hit my heart like a hot brick. I hadn’t exactly been giving the situation soft love, or easy love. I’d been in this battle a long time, and was pretty much just trying to make it through each day without my heart exploding. I wasn’t given precise direction, just the concept. So my thoughts were, “What exactly is tough love? What does it mean?” I wanted to understand how we go about being tough and loving to a family member as they are spiraling.

The advice given to me was to cut off contact, close the doors, turn my back. I was desperate and willing to do whatever I had to if it would make the situation better. So, I tried it and things got worse. I hated it. More important, it didn’t work. Not for us anyway. I began to question the tough love concept even more. Considering the fact that we’ve heard tough love preached for more than twenty years, surely if it worked, we wouldn’t be in an epidemic…?

No more tough love, it’s time for smart love

I have come to believe that we have to love our sons and daughters (and other loved ones) who struggle with addiction differently. But not necessarily with harsh, tough love. We need to learn to navigate the relationships with wisdom, not inappropriate helping and codependency (which is always more about us and our need to feel in control, safe, or at ease). So instead of tough love, I developed a personal strategy that I called Smart Love.

What does smart love look like?

It means becoming educated and developing new ways of interacting with our suffering loved one. Most of us are used to loving our family members a certain way. Showing love has meant helping, getting involved, being self-less, etc. But similar to our child crossing the threshold from childhood to adulthood, once substance use has entered a family, we need to learn new ways of navigating the relationships.

Rules, needs, expectations and situations have all changed. There are so many available resources to help us in the process. Support groups, online family groups, books, therapy, therapy workbooks, etc. If we are willing, guidance is available. It just takes time and effort.

Learning new ways to respond is actually tough love, it’s tough for us!

Smart love doesn’t mean putting a loved one completely or permanently out of our lives. Some may choose to do that for their own peace and safety, but it’s also okay not to! There is no one-size-fits-all approach to addiction in a family.

Cultivate the positive

Smart love builds up instead of tearing down. It also doesn’t shame a person for having a chemical struggle.

Jason, a recovering heroin addict with 4 years recovery, explained to me that when one of his parents came at him with condemning criticism, even when it was the truth, he heard them like one hears the teachers on Charlie Brown: Waaaa waaah waaaa waaa waaa waaa.” 

They already know they’ve crossed lines with ethics, morals, loyalty and family. They already know what they should be doing. Reminding someone of the shameful parts of themselves will not speed anyone toward treatment. Instead, it shuts them down. Loved ones need to hear that they are better than all the bad stuff… that their lives are worth salvaging. They need to know we haven’t forgotten that they had plans, goals, dreams once! Those things still matter and so do they.

We can and absolutely should protect ourselves from manipulation and must maintain our bounderies. We can do this while still letting our loved one know that we are in their corner, and that we will love them along the journey, rain or shine.

How the family can work at this

Smart love gives room for ownership. Allowing an adult to face the consequences of their actions is a tough, but necessary, part of a process that we’ve all struggled with from time to time.

Smart love means we will do the self-work to modify our decisions, responses, and interactions. The whole family needs to roll up their sleeves and do the hard, introspective work to heal. Untreated family disease is the cause of so much of the mess we are in.

It may require us to accept space and separation in order to give our struggling addicted person the dignity to seek help and accomplishment for themselves, instead of participating in problems, conflict, and chaos. Doing our own work is crucial. While doing another person’s work is where craziness happens.

We can reach a place of balance 

We can give love, kindness, mercy and support to someone active in their addiction—without being trampled upon, or being militant and condemning. This is where our work lies. I believe connection and love heal addiction. Smart, wise love. Healthy love.

On the one hand I see loving, wise support from a group of family, friends, those who see the humanity of an addicted person with a kind, positive regard. On the other hand are those doing the deep introspective work to recover from life situations themselves, alongside their addicted loved one. That is the formula that I have personally experienced and believe in; one that leads to healing from addiction.

For everyone.

It’s a family disease.

Still learning,


Learn Smart Love techniques through Allies in Recovery’s online program for families. Since 2003, Allies in Recovery has addressed substance abuse by providing a method for the family to change the conversation about addiction and guide their loved ones toward treatment. We use Community Reinforcement & Family Training (CRAFT), an approach proven to help the family unblock and advance the relationship towards sobriety and recovery. Learn about member benefits by following this link. Read what members are saying here.