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3 Reasons Tough Love Fails to Help Addicts Successfully Recover

3 Reasons Tough Love Fails to Help Addicts Successfully Recover

Dealing with addiction in your family or close circle of friends can be utterly overwhelming and seem impossible to handle. When it becomes painfully clear that our loved ones, friends or even children have reached a critical point and the signs of a heavy drinking problem are obvious, it is time to take action.

The first obstacle you might face is that the person you love dearly doesn’t even want your help and seems hell bent on a path of destruction.

It can make you feel helpless and confused and even though there are now hundreds of treatment and therapy options in every state across the country, getting that person to identify they have an addiction is not as simple as telling them they have a problem.

Addiction is a horrible beast that consumes the addict and if the person you care about is on a self-destructive path they might not want to be helped. How do you help someone if they don’t believe they have a problem?

Some say that tough love is the only way to get through to a person in the grip of addiction that you have to be cruel to be kind. But is that really the right way to approach addiction?

In this article I will explain what tough love is and 3 reasons why it does not work to help addicts on the path to recovery.

What Is Tough Love?

The idea of tough love somehow feels like an oxymoron. Love is usually a positive feeling towards someone to show how much they mean to you, but tough love is to show you care through being harsh and hurtful. You have to be cruel to be kind.

You might have experienced tough love yourself growing up with parents or family members who always seemed angry with you or rarely showed you typical outward signs of affection. The usual motivation behind this is to promote good behavior, and develop character, not to be mean.

Deep down the love is there but somehow on a psychological level tough love can feel like unfair treatment and can really affect how you interact with the world. Now imagine tough love with an addict. Someone who has already turned to substance abuse to hide from their problems and is on very shaky ground psychologically speaking.

Tough love may seem like the right approach to take in order to get them to realize how destructive they are being, but it might just be making the situation worse and push them deeper into their addiction.

Some examples of a tough love approach with an addict can involve:

  • Refusing to allow the addict to manipulate you
  • Demanding an ultimatum; the family or addiction?
  • Cutting them off financially
  • Refusing to let them into your home
  • Not including them in family plans and activities
  • Refusing to listen to their excuses and problems

Despite the fact that some addicts do respond to use of tough love, because the path to recovery is not the same for everyone, more and more therapists agree that tough love is not the most effective approach. Here are 3 reasons why.

1. Tough Love Can Further Fuel The Cause Of Addiction

Distancing yourself and removing contact with an addict only means you allow them to deal with the consequences of their addiction alone. In some cases when left to their own devices, an addict can scare themselves into realizing they have a serious problem, but this can be temporary and once the fear subsides the addiction continues.

If the trigger for substance abuse came from broken relationships or problems related to depression and low self-esteem, then tough love can only add yet another failed relationship to the addict’s life. It just creates another excuse to turn to addiction for comfort and escape.

2. Tough Love Doesn’t Contribute to The Addict’s Self-Awareness

In his book psychologist and author Daniel Goleman described the effect of positive reinforcement in stimulating the brain with “information processing, creative thinking and cognitive flexibility” that can allow someone with an addiction to become self-aware of their condition.

Tough love focuses on the addict’s flaws and negative faults which can only increase their feelings of anxiety and low self-worth which are huge triggers for substance abuse. Negative treatment can only reinforce an addict’s reason why they drink in the first place to avoid stress, anxiety and feelings of self-hatred and rejection from people around them.

3. Tough Love Can Sometimes Come From Lack of Empathy

For some, tough love might be the last resort after trying other ways to connect to the addict without result. When you see a loved one suffering the torments of addiction you are more willing to try anything. In this case it may be worth testing the water to see if you get a positive result.

However, a lot of the time tough love is the first response after people realize the addict is getting lost in their addiction. Think of the way soldiers are pushed to their limits to make them tough, resilient people who follow orders.

Many people believe tough love works because it will make the addict a stronger person in the long run to be able to fight addiction by themselves. Unfortunately, these types of people can’t empathize the reasons why someone has an addiction.

They believe addiction is a sign of weakness and the addict only needs to be pushed and challenged to “get over it” but the result is that the addict may feel bullied and either become more vulnerable, or more defiant against being pushed so hard.

What Can Be Done Instead?

There are numerous ways to approach addiction recovery and methods to help the addict come to terms with their addictions and the causes behind them. There are specialized rehabilitation centers and programs with options to suit every type of addiction case.

You might imagine that rehabilitation only means living at a clinic for months with other addicts getting therapy and being under a microscope. There are now alternative programs like the IOP (Intensive Outpatient Program) where addicts can continue a regular life living at home while getting the help they need.

Positive reinforcement approaches and mindfulness are also therapeutic methods that hold numerous benefits to people in recovery, no matter the phase they find themselves in.

Finding the appropriate course of action to help your loved one battle their addiction is vital and staying clear from tough love can really make the difference. By giving unconditional support and real love you can help them understand how precious their sobriety is and get them walking the path of successful recovery.

We’d love to hear your side of the story. Do you have experience with the negative results of tough love? What do you think is a more effective way to help someone you love deal with addiction? Leave us a comment below.

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This is a guest post by Andy.  Andy is a drug addict/alcoholic. He was born in Bogota, Colombia, but raised in Southern California. I spend my time helping others with their recovery and growing my business.

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