On tough love

After spending a week thinking about love, and thinking about how expressions of love can be twisted or broken, I found myself thinking about the idea of tough love. The term was supposedly coined by Bill Milliken, in his seminal work, “Tough Love.” The appropriately named text, published in 1970, extolled Milliken’s personal, if evangelical, philosophy that love is good and arises from a deftly authoritarian place. This concept of love sits upon the hardened idea that love exists to better others, so that they, themselves, can become good.

This idea of love, and specifically of tough love, galvanizes another maxim: love is always good. This second idea is more commonly thought of in the Disney phrase, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” Besides the shaky emotional and relational precepts, as well as the iffy understanding of morality, this combination of toughness and love is reductive of relationships, emotions, and love itself. From my perspective, tough love occurs when we choose to rename the feelings of hate and anger that can occur in our relationships, so that we can self identify as good and loving when acting out of hatred; love, then, remains unsullied and glossy white.

The idea that love is always nice and good, has an equally shiny counterpoint: saying you hate someone isn’t love and isn’t nice at all. This idea is a much more insidious idea, because it condones painful actions if they are done in the name of love, and because it buttresses an unrealistic expectation of the goodness of love. The idea of tough love, therefore, includes the follow through notion that when we love another person and yell, punch, wound, or sling invective towards them, then it is from a place of love and not from an actual feeling of hate or anger. If we allowed ourselves the possibility of not thinking in terms of tough love, we would still have to address our hostile actions in relationships. We would be more able, however, to better accept our feelings of hatred and hostility if these two ideas of love, that it is always good, and that it can be tough, weren’t as deeply embedded in our sense of love and relationships. However, I understand the desire to want a clear definition of what is love and how to act, even when that desire seeks to put on another coat of stale white paint to cover any hue of hate, so that love remains starkly good and nice.

I do consider it natural to feel hatred in close relationships. In close relationships emotions will run the gamut, and they will do so because our feelings naturally evolve along with our own sense of self. Forcing only one emotion, or only one kind of emotional expression, reduces a relationship into habitual roles, procedural rules, and a sanitized sham of a thing. We should feel all of our emotions, and feel free to express our emotions to our partners and loved ones if we are ever to accept ourselves as we are or to accept other people as they are. What do we do, then, when we feel hatred in our relationships? I think that the first thing that we can do is admit that we have those feelings, even if to ourselves.

Being honest with oneself about the totality of one’s feelings is a step towards a gentler understanding, and expression of love. As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “The man of knowledge must be able not only to love his enemies, but also to hate his friends” (XXII, Bestowing virtue, 3, ¶4). I agree with Nietzsche, that an understanding of emotions requires an ability to be honest with oneself about one’s emotion and to admit to feelings that may not seem acceptable or nice. What is love if not a gentle acceptance of ourselves as we are and others as they are? Moments of love and of hate come up in relationships, but we are, after all, not required to cover-up our emotions with either black or white paint. We can let our feelings breathe, uncoated and gently.

About the Author


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I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.

BradyOn tough love

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