When Cupid’s Arrows Stray – “Tough Love”



When I was thinking about love during this week before Valentine’s Day, I visualized the greeting card aisle with its many categories. A card for every kind of love.

Sweet cards for child from parent. Sentimental cards to send to grandparents. Romantic cards for new loves. Sexy cards for not-so-sure-we are-in-love-yet loves. Clever cards for the long married. Even valentines for your aunt, your teacher or your best pal.

There is another different kind of love for which no valentines exist. Some of us who are parents may know it as “Tough Love”.

When I first heard about the concept of “Tough Love”, it ran counter to all of my Mom instincts. Rare is the parent that doesn’t want to protect and provide for her child. For as long as you can. And if your child colors within the lines and follows all the rules that society sets, you won’t have to stop protecting your child and providing for him or her until it’s time to leave the nest. All grown up and ready to seek their own loves.

But what if you have a child who not only doesn’t color within the lines but doesn’t believe that those lines apply? And when it comes to rules, decides that flouting them is better than following them? Up to a certain point, independent behavior is to be applauded but when it evolves into the land of out-of-control, then you, the parent, start asking yourself – is the love you are giving the answer or part of the problem?

And that is about when someone told my husband and me about “Tough Love.”

The name sounds like an oxymoron. Love, in the most ideal sense of it, should come easily and feel good. And if and when love becomes too difficult, that is when relationships fall apart and lovers part ways.

But you can’t part ways with your child. While marriage may not be forever, parenthood is. So when positive parenting falls off a cliff, you might have to turn, as we did, to “Tough Love.”

To demonstrate love to your oppositional, willful, non-compliant – you pick the descriptor – young adult, the experts told us, you have to set boundaries. Be firm (but be empathetic.) Stay united and consistent as parents. (Good luck with that one.) Definitely stop solving (or trying to solve) their problems.

And the big one, the first commandment of  “Tough Love”? Let them make their own choices – and, incredibly hard to do, let them learn from those choices or suffer the consequences, no matter the emotional or physical cost.

We tried. It worked some, didn’t work, then did again. Looking back at that period of time, those watchful days and worried-out-of-our-minds nights,  I can’t believe we got through it.

For if “Tough Love” is hard to apply to your own child, it is even harder upon a marriage.

One person in a marriage is always more of the tender sort, the other more able to harden his or her heart as necessary. One person in a marriage says “let’s give in just this once”, while the other says “no, we can’t help with that, we have to be consistent.”  One person in a marriage says “the hell with consistency, this is our child we are talking about” and the other person says “I know, that is why have to set limits.”

So we argued often, pushed and pulled, our marriage had many rocky days and certainly as a couple we won no awards for “most consistent application of the principles of  “Tough Love.”

Yet very slowly and very incrementally, it got better. Our lives now aren’t perfect. Far from it. But this Valentine’s Day, how ironic is that for timing, I am now able to reflect that we are in a better place. We have reached some semblance of stability. Our marriage is strong, our child’s life is more settled, all our lives have calmed down.

Still we are on the rollercoaster of parenting a young adult child who has a fiercely independent spirit – but the rollercoaster is now the kiddie kind, with lesser hills and smaller valleys. And when the bumps come, as they do, and always will, we know how to ride them out.

That is our love. No longer as “tough” as it once was but firm, we have stuck to that. The empathy part, also a daily principle. It isn’t romantic or easy or exhilarating.

But we have gotten through this tunnel of  “Tough Love” and have come out the other end. Intact. Still in love with each other and still in love with our child. What better Valentine’s Day gift is there than that?





Filed under Adult Kids, Family, Marriage, Midlife, Moms, Parenting, Raising Kids, Relationships, Women, Young Adult Mental Health

7 responses to “When Cupid’s Arrows Stray – “Tough Love”

  1. Belinha

    Well said. Dispensing tough love is a hard journey but potentially an incredibly rewarding one!


  2. Love this. Thank you! Best, Mo Ganey


  3. I have a disability and I’m sure no I know for certain that at times my parents would have loved a tough love program for me. Fortunately there weren’t any and they let me go my way as I did turn out well–and with my kind of disability a tough love program would have broken me. I couldn’t do so many things right and I know most of those programs stress the very things that made me crazy and guilty–very guilty.
    I know people who went to them–and when they have my disability–I can always tell as there’s something so broken, black & white (which most of us tend to be) and rules following. There has to be a time to break rules. The trick is knowing which rules are safe to break.
    I know programs have worked for many people and am glad it helped your child.


  4. Sandy Dettis

    We call it “Bold Love”!



  5. Tanya

    I’ve recently started receiving your email updates and find your words to be full of love, support, understanding, and humor. My husband and I thought we were the only ones with these struggles – it feels good to know we are not alone. You give us hope and laughter, two very powerful antidotes to the stresses of parenting a young adult like our beloved (and willful) son. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences with the rest of us. This “tough love” posting was especially insightful! Happy Valentine’s Day


  6. Betsey Grady

    Great piece; felt like I was reading about my life. I would be the partner able to harden my heart when necessary, while my husband consistently reverts to ” but he’s our child, we can’t do that.” I try to remind myself regularly that “this” is temporary; we all just need to tie a knot at the end of the rope and hang on. Your words reinforce my hope that we will all survive if we just keep hanging on…thank you for that.


  7. Vic

    This is exactly what I needed to read this evening. Thank you. Here’s to hoping that it will get better- all of it.


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