If you’ve ever been in a relationship with a romantic partner, you’ve probably experienced tough love in one-way, shape, or form. And if you’ve been on the receiving end, it most-likely felt undesirable. The phrase “tough love” is believed to have originated with a book of the same title authored by Bill Milliken and published in 1968. Oxford Languages defines tough love as promoting a person’s welfare, especially that of an addict, child, or criminal, by enforcing certain constraints on them or requiring them to take responsibility for their actions. The basic concept of tough love is to treat someone harshly to help them in the long run. As human beings, we are naturally wired to crave love and intimacy, which fosters a connection between two individuals to make a relationship. The expression of love and affection is one of the joys of a romantic relationship. When compromised with the mainstream concept of tough love, it can become shaky, and patterns of an unhealthy relationship or ‘red flags’ become more likely to occur. 

When tough love goes wrong.

There is a popular saying that you never quite ‘meet’ your partner until later in the relationship, which couldn’t be far from the truth. When we meet new potential partners, we’re meeting their best selves or ‘representatives,’ and it is quite normal to put your best foot forward. As the new relationship energy begins to fade and you both get more comfortable, differences that weren’t obvious at the start of the relationship become more noticeable. You might not relate to certain lifestyle choices they make or their philosophy on certain topics. In an attempt to redirect a partner’s actions, one might implore the use of tough love, whether it be consciously or unconsciously. Tough love shows up in subtle ways like being passive-aggressive, using silent treatments, acting hot and cold, being avoidant or confrontational, making threats to end the relationship, withholding affection, and many other tactics that do more harm than good in a relationship.  

Should tough love be used in a romantic relationship?

While the true intended concept of tough love can apply to various types of relationships, one shouldn’t use it in a romantic relationship in the mainstream way it is perceived. A partner is not meant to be raised, coerced, or redirected as you would a child. While tough love methods like grounding or taking away certain privileges might be effective in parental relationships, they have no place in a romantic dynamic. Tough love is not disrespecting or invalidating a partner. Tough love is not a one size fits all approach. Tough love is not a self-help tool to repair your relationship. Tough love shouldn’t hurt or harm. Tough love is not about persuasion, manipulation, or control. Tough love is not made out of punishment or revenge. 

What to do instead.

According to relationship experts, a successful relationship is built on communication, trust, honesty, and mutual respect. With these pillars effectively in place and developed by you and your partner, the mainstream perception of ‘tough love’ doesn’t need to be implemented. It is also important to acknowledge that no romantic relationship is perfect. Whether it be in long or short-term relationships, we all experience ups and downs, and not everything can be addressed with ‘just trying.’ Sometimes our partners might not respond to our efforts or meet us halfway, and it doesn’t necessarily mean the relationship is doomed to fail. The next resort should not be to hurt their feelings in return using tough love, hoping they will somehow change. Not only is this ineffective and damaging to the relationship, but it can also set a precedent for a toxic dynamic with your partner. This is when it is vital to seek a qualified professional’s intervention for counseling or relationship coaching. With the help and support of an unbiased third party, the appropriate methods can then be utilized to address the issues you might currently be facing with your partner.