I’ve never liked that term, tough love. It’s like when someone says they’re honest when they really mean they’re a dick. It’s a high minded excuse to put their negativity out in the world. That being said, there is something to the concept of tough love.
The hamfisted way to illustrate this is with an extreme example. When someone is suffering from a damaging addiction their loved ones need to step in. Enabling their behaviour will only prolong their suffering and could lead to their death. Tough love means stepping in to stop their self destructive actions. It may mean ignoring their autonomy. Getting them away from the thing they are addicted to can allow them the freedom to clear their head.
This is a morally challenging thing to do (and often not legal). Adults have the right to make mistakes. Individual autonomy means that we must respect the right to make choices, whether good or bad.
Addiction isn’t just about substances because there’s many actions which can trigger similar brain reactions. In my completely uneducated opinion, it seems they all are shortcuts to various evolved behaviours. As animals with brains rooted in evolution, our actions and behaviours are guided by hormonal and chemical triggers within our brain. Reward and punishment. We’re clever enough to have figured out ways to bypass the intended actions (eating, sex, hunting, etc, etc) to get at the reward (drugs, masturbation, gambling, theft, dangerous sports). It’s not that those are necessarily wrong, in and of themselves, but they’re easy access to powerful feelings. Its harmful because the shortcut is easier than living a reasonable, balanced life. The necessities become unnecessary. Until the parts of your life that have been eroding collapse. Then you can only get positive feelings from your addiction. Why bother with the rest of life now?
So we come back to tough love. The people who care about you have to step in. Break the shortcut, get your life back into something mildly functional, and hope that your willpower is strong enough.
That’s the extreme example. Tough love can come in many milder forms. Maybe a friend has started dating someone you think is bad for them. Maybe they’re about to make a decision that you think will hurt them a lot in the long term. Or maybe you think they’re walking that path towards addiction.
The thing is, you can’t give up on their autonomy. You can give them advice and try to persuade them, but you can’t take away their ability to choose. It’s simply not ethical. Furthermore, to say that you love someone, but you don’t believe they can make adult decisions in their life, is an indication you don’t actually love them. You’re loving the person you want them to be, not who they are. You must respect their right to choose.
So you do that. You argue with them; you try to convince them that they’re making a mistake. But who are you to do this? I don’t mean this in the general sense, like “who dares to feel so entitled”, but in the specific sense. Who’s the right person to bring the tough love?
Maybe friends? They’re not close enough, they may not see the bigger picture and understand the real ramifications of a decision. They could easily be mistaken and become tough without actually helping. This damages a friendship without any benefit.
So maybe a best friend; the friend you have the deepest/longest bond with? They should be the one that has the most facts so they’re less likely to make mistakes. A similar relationship is the partner/spouse. The difference between the two varies significantly from person to person, so I have trouble making specific statements differentiating them. The way I see a partner compared to a best friend could be radically different from the norm (I’m not exactly an average person emotionally). So this last part is more purely conjecture than most of what I write.
It must be said that the separation of the two is a differentiation of roles and not of people. You can have a single person take on both roles. It’s just rare. The best friend role triggers less potent of an emotional reaction but a more consistent one. This is why it’s common to stick with them through many partners. You have to sacrifice a good deal of emotional intensity for it to last. This is why it’s challenging for one person to fill both roles.
So with that defined we can discuss who’s better to serve you some tough love. I think it’s the best friend and not the partner.
There’s a dichotomy between being supportive and tough. When you make a decision that’s bad in the longer term, but overall a relatively minor one, it can be good to be supported in your decision. It doesn’t matter that you make a mistake, having a loved ones support helps build your confidence and self esteem. It can also keep your bond strong for those times it may be tested. Most people can’t do both, their either supportive or tough.
A spouse/partner is comfort. They’re your rock, your solid support that stops you from falling too far. Like the quote from Palahniuk at the top of the page, tough love polishes you. It’s rough and coarse and painful, but it helps you. Your support should be the carrot and not the stick. Someone must be the stick though and it needs to be someone who doesn’t feel they’ll be cut out easily. They must feel confident in their relationship with you. So it should be your best friend.