Tough Love vs. Unconditional Love

Navigating Loves Roles in Addiction
Donna Marston – CRSW

Addiction Is a word that sounds heavy and mysterious, it’s when someone gets stuck doing something, even if it’s harmful to them. It’s like being caught in quicksand, you try to escape, but it pulls you back in.  When people use substances such as drugs or alcohol, their brains get a special feeling, it’s like a secret code that says, “This is fun!” Addiction is basically a game of chance; It seems like people are playing Russian Roulette, some people get caught in the depths of the Cycle of Addiction, while others don’t.

Addiction doesn’t discriminate. It sneaks into the lives of the all-Star high school athlete, the valedictorian of a senior class, the super-rich, the middle class, the young, the old, people who live in rural areas, urban areas, and the suburbs. It doesn’t care about your job title, your family background, or your dreams. The ‘who’ of addiction takes on anyone who crosses its path, willingly or unwillingly.

No one is immune from addiction; it afflicts people of all ages, races, classes and professions.
Patrick J. Kennedy
Mental health advocate & retired politician

Love guides our emotional journey, and when dealing with addiction in the family, two clear paths emerge: Tough Love and Unconditional Love. Each carries its own weight, and its own wisdom.

I dance the dance between tough love and unconditional love. While I will always love him, I am honestly not sure which one helps, and I need to temporarily put him down until I have the strength to pick him up.
Tracy Brachert, member of Families Sharing With Out Shame.
member of Families Sharing With Out Shame.

Think of tough love as a strict teacher in the school of life. Teachers don’t just hand out A’s because you showed up, they set boundaries, they require results and push their students to grow emotionally.  Tough love isn’t always a warm-and-fuzzy conversation, but they are conversations deeply rooted because the teacher cares.

Tough love steps in when parents hit their “enough of watching” and participating in the chaos, consequences and self-destructive behaviors of their addicted teen or adult child. Tough love means, no more bail outs, it means boundaries, it means holding the person in active addiction accountable. Family members, partners or friends may say “I love you, but I won’t tolerate being disrespected anymore.”

Imagine addiction as a stormy sea, the waves are crashing and swirling around, your loved one is drowning, instead of diving headfirst into the chaos, tough love is knowing when to step back, it’s knowing when to throw out a life preserver and offer support, it isn’t being heartless, it’s basically saying “It’s ok for you to swim in the stormy sea, and it’s also up to you to ask for help when you’re ready to get out of it.”  

Unconditional love is like a warm hug, it accepts flaws, missteps, it forgives and is vulnerable. It’s the mother who loves her child even when he or she is imprisoned for horrible acts. Unconditional love weathers the rage of the storm, she stays no matter what with her arms wide open, without judgement, in her mind, she is the lighthouse to keep her child safe, no matter how old they are.

Unconditional love often intersects with unhealthy helping, it’s when we extend a helping hand, we shape not only others’ lives but also our own.  Unhealthy helping can stunt a person’s emotional growth and instill dysfunction. Unhealthy helping can create dependence. It whispers, “I’ll fix it for you,” and “Let me do it, I can do it better than you can.” Unhealthy helping robs our loved ones of their chance to learn and grow. Unhealthy helping sacrifices a parent’s well-being, which can leave them emotionally drowning and resentful.

To rescue people from the natural consequences of their behavior, is to render them powerless
Henry Cloud

It’s important for loved ones to pause and reflect, examine their thoughts, ask themselves why are they helping, is it because they genuinely care or is it the need to feel needed?

Tread mindfully. When do you tighten the reins, and when do you loosen them? Perhaps the answer lies in balance, a blend of tough love’s firmness and unconditional love’s grace.

Learn to navigate with an open heart, embracing both tough and unconditional love, because within this dance of life, we find resilience, healing, and the map to love’s truest form.

Love is a tapestry woven from both light and shadow.

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