I have to mentally buckle up when I hear these words. Until recently, I've translated this phrase to mean: "Get ready. I'm about to be a jerk." But licensed clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD, tells me that this kind of advice is effective with the proper time, venue, and audience.
"Tough love can definitely have a place, but it's not always a good first move," she says. "If you see red flags for abuse, or there's some other emergency, then yes. Maybe. If it's less urgent, try something more cooperative, like pointing out what's bothering you and talking about how the problem can be solved." In other words, this stinging form of adoration works best in severe situations—not when you need to inform your bestie that her bangs are all wrong for her face shape or tell a coworker they've been slacking on their responsibilities.
"The problem with tough love is that it feels really good to deliver, but if it's too harsh, it won't work."
Dr. Daramus confirms my suspicions that—all too often—the impetus for tough love is one's desire to be "right" over the feelings of others. "The problem with tough love is that it feels really good to deliver, but if it's too harsh, it won't work," she warns. Even worse, the tone that accompanies tough love often becomes confrontational. You can end up causing a full-blown argument when your original intention stemmed out of, well, love.
Dr. Daramus does say that a few personalities can handle prickly forms of feedback. Namely, the people in your life who are most direct with you will probably expect a similar form of communication in return. "Some people respond well to being direct and straightforward, but others respond to more emotional language or to a gentler way of discussing [issues]," she explains.
Before you decide to dispense tough love, check in with yourself and your motivations. If a bad day has inspired your bluntness, take a step back until your mood returns to neutral. Then, if you're still ready to doll out a heaping serving of FYI to your friend, partner, or colleague, be aware of the consequences. "Tough love is about taking action, not talking about it over and over," says Dr. Daramus. "If you're refusing to marry someone until they change a bad habit, what will you do if they arrive with a gorgeous diamond engagement ring but no changes in their behavior? To use tough love, you have to believe their actions, not their words."
As with every conversation, the other side really, really matters. Every one of us should have the same objective: To deliver our message as clearly and kindly as possible. If you have to scratch the "tough" before "love" to do that, then so be it.
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