“Tough Love”


I’ve always been intrigued, in a negative way, by the concept of “tough love.”  The practice apparently traces its roots to Bill Milliken’s 1968 book by the same name. Its premise seems to be that if those who care the most about the object of the “tough love” simply withhold their affection long enough or, more specifically, make the giving of it conditional on their loved one’s strict compliance with various unilaterally-imposed terms eventually the one relegated to leper status will “see the light” and begin behaving in precisely the way and manner their loved ones deem appropriate and/or acceptable. I’m quite certain there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the wisdom and effectiveness of this practice, though, candidly, I’ve never been entirely sure how one goes about pinpointing the true impetus for change in the complex emotional, medical and psychological circumstances where “tough love” customarily is employed. However, I’m equally certain there are just as many instances where those on “tough love’s” receiving end have quite literally gone to their graves feeling even more isolated and alone than they were when their struggles began.

The truth is, I don’t put much stock in “tough love.” Instead, I believe the Guy hanging on the Cross dedicated his life to trying to convince us, in word and action, that the purest form of love, the love all of us should aspire to and seek to emulate, the love that has the greatest power to transform, is love that is unconditional and sacrificial.  Frankly, from where I’m sitting, that kind of love is “tough” enough without our having to find ways to make it even tougher.  If that weren’t the case (i.e., if what He came to advocate was “tough love”), I’m pretty confident He never would have found his way to the Cross and that most, if not all of us, given our own imperfections, would still be waiting to experience, rather than basking in the warmth of His unconditional and merciful love.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s extremely difficult (perhaps even impossible) to love this way, particularly when the person we are called to love is in a place that seemingly won’t allow love in.  But, in my mind, the answer is not to withdraw our love, to make it conditional, to wash our hands of the situation or, worse yet, to give up on our loved one completely – all under the guise of “tough love.” Rather, I believe it is to re-double our efforts and love more.

Eventually, that kind of love either will prevail or it won’t.  If it doesn’t, the likelihood is there was no way of prevailing.  Either way, however, the lover will be at peace in the knowledge that they did everything they could and everything they were called to do for their lovee – and that’s at least where I want to be at the end of the day.


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