Take “Tough Love” and Shove It

by Joshua Hoe

out and about in Ann Arbor
Out and about in Ann Arbor

Tough Love approaches are cruel and have not been proved to induce any more recovery than other approaches to addiction.

If I have learned one thing in recovery it is this:

People recover for many different reasons.

Some recover because they hit rock bottom.

Some recover just because it is Tuesday and they find that it is time.

Some work hard and relapse many times while some never relapse.

Addiction is not a moral failing. It is a condition.

That does not mean people are not responsible for the immoral things they do while acting-out (If anyone understands that, I do).

So, it is time to stop deferring to the “tough love” narrative of recovery.

Why Tough Love’s Logic Isn’t Very Logical

The premise of “tough love” approaches is that addicts would never be addicts if they had not been coddled and had their addictions endorsed by “enablers.”

I absolutely agree that the partners of addicts, friends of addicts, and or family of addicts should set clear boundaries.

I absolutely agree that addicts should face the consequences of the damage that they cause.

I do NOT believe that forcing consequences on addicts has a linear, or even predictable relationship to finding recovery.

I also believe that by using this method, you often punish and traumatize recovering addicts who are making real progress.

I, for instance, did have a rock bottom experience. I did recover after hitting rock bottom. But, there were a TON of rocks I hit before hitting rock bottom.

If consequences = recovery, why didn’t I turn around immediately after hitting my first serious rock?

Why did I need to hit twenty years of rocks before recovering?

Addiction Is Generated By Trauma

If you take “tough love” approaches to their logical conclusion, once you found out someone was an addict, you would just beat them down until they found recovery.

For a pretty sizable percentage of addicts, addiction starts at exactly this point – from early punishment or trauma.

Many addicts become convinced very young that there is something wrong with them and that they will never be acceptable or lovable.

They run into fantasy worlds, they withdraw into themselves, and they get relief from acting out using different substances or behaviors.

How in the world does is piling more shame and punishment and trauma on addicts anything other than a trigger?

Again, I am not arguing for addicts to be immune from the consequences of their actions, I am arguing that allies do not have an affirmative duty to punish addicts or treat them cruelly.

In fact, I challenge you to produce any reputable research that suggests that treating addicts harshly is more successful than treating them like human beings.

Truth is, despite all we know about addiction, nobody really knows why people recover.

So What Is Really At Play

I think “tough love” is really more about the person related to the addict than it is about the addict.

Over time, people get so frustrated with being the support systems for addicts – often through incredibly traumatic times – that they have a TON of anger and resentment built up.

Tough Love is a way of actualizing all of that frustration, resentment, and anger.

And it also is a pretty great way of erasing any guilt someone might feel about their treatment of that addict.

How easy is it to just say, the best way I can help is by helping them on their road toward the bottom.

A better approach, I think, is to set clear boundaries. Not boundaries of addict behaviors, boundaries of what you can/will accept.

For instance, I will talk to my struggling addict friends, sponsees, and acquaintances at virtually any time (even late at night).

But, if I know you are looking for money to score, I won’t give you money. I will give you as much love, experience, strength, and hope as you can bear.

I will feed you, sit with you, drink coffee with you, but I won’t loan you money.

I will drive you to treatment or rehab. I will go with you to a meeting.

But, I will not loan you money.

Boundaries, not cruelty. Empathy, not tough love.

What do you think about tough love methods? Do you disagree with what I am saying? Feel free to let me know, leave a comment!


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