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?