Addiction Recovery Blog

How Tough Love Affects Addicts

[fa icon="calendar"] Oct 15, 2021 / by Russ Kallina

Russ Kallina

What is the best way to show support to an addicted loved one? Some believe that tough love is the only way to get addicts “back on track,” while others enable their loved one in hopes that this will help them curb their addiction.

Fortunately, there are other ways to support your loved one that will not only be beneficial for them, but also for you. 

What is Tough Love?

Tough love is when someone treats another person harshly or sternly, with the belief that they are doing what’s best for the other person in the long run.

Tough love often means withholding certain things from a person or cutting yourself off from them as a consequence for their negative actions.

Tough Love vs. Enabling in Treating Addiction

Some family members are so afraid of enabling their addicted loved one that they take the opposite approach of tough love. However, it’s important to note that there is a difference between being supportive and being enabling.

Enabling someone is when you do things for them that they should be able to do on their own. If you keep doing it for them, or excusing their poor behavior, they will never learn how to improve. 

Supporting your loved one can include aspects of tough love, since it means refusing to excuse their negative behavior, and being honest with them, even if it might not be what they want to hear.

Being supportive also means being empathetic towards your loved one, and seeking to understand their illness and why they act the way they do. 

Tough love can be controlling if you are using threatening or guilting language to get the addict to change, such as, “How could you do this, after everything I’ve done for you?” or, “If you don’t quit, you’re never welcome back here!” 

Tough love can not only be toxic for the person receiving it, but also for the person giving it, because it puts the needs of the addict above the needs of the other person. The giver thinks that they know what’s best for their loved one, so they try to put the addict’s best interests first, but they end up hurting themselves and the addict in the process.

How Tough Love Makes Addicts Feel

When you treat your addicted loved one with tough love, they will likely become more reserved and closed off towards you. They will feel reluctant to be honest with you about their recovery and relapses out of fear of being faced with scolding or disappointment. 

Addiction is usually a result of emotional pain and trauma, which is why shutting out people who already feel ashamed and damaged will only fuel their addiction more. They will feel the need to continue in their addiction as a way of coping with their situation and how they feel about themselves. 

distressed man

Addiction alters the person, and is a very controlling disease, but addicts are still human, and they need to be reminded that they deserve love and comfort, and tough love usually does not give them what they need. 

The effectiveness of tough love is dependent on the situation, but it can often do more harm than good, and end up destroying your relationship with the addict. If implemented, it should be with the help of an addiction specialist.

How to Support an Addicted Loved One

Educate yourself on addiction. Understanding why your loved one has developed an addiction, and how it affects their brain can be highly beneficial in learning to support them. 

Acknowledge that addiction is a disease, not a moral weakness. Addiction alters the structure of the brain, and the addict becomes dependent on a substance for dopamine.

Your loved one’s addiction is not a personal attack on you - they are not continuing in their addiction to spite you or disappoint you. Addiction is very complex and difficult to quit.

Seek help from a professional addiction specialist, who can guide you in how to best talk to your loved one. There are certain unique cases that may require an intervention, but this should be orchestrated by a professional.

Don’t help them more than you need to. Don’t become an enabler by doing things for your loved one that they can do themselves. Learn to say “no” and stand up for yourself. Sometimes they need a push in the right direction .

Don’t neglect yourself and your needs. When you have a loved one struggling with addiction, it’s easy to get caught up in their needs, and how you can best help them. But it’s important to put yourself first at times, and keep your mental health in check. 

Setting Healthy Boundaries

There is a difference between tough love and setting healthy boundaries between you and your addicted loved one. While boundaries are meant to be mutually beneficial and respectful, they are ultimately about putting yourself and your needs first, rather than the addict’s. 

If you choose that you do not want addictive substances in your house, because you don’t want to be around harmful substances, then you are allowed to establish that boundary.

If you say that they are not allowed addictive substances in the house because it’s killing them, that is a controlling tactic. They are allowed to indulge in substances if they wish to do that, but not in your home. 

Make your boundaries clear to your loved one, so that they know where you stand, and what you are not willing to put up with. Explain to them that it is necessary for you to implement these boundaries for both of your benefits, and that if these boundaries are not respected, there will be consequences. 

man and woman hugging

Healthy boundaries may include:

  • Refusing to loan them money
  • Refusing to lie on their behalf
  • Not allowing drugs or alcohol in your home
  • Letting them stay with you only for a set amount of time
  • Not putting up with abusive or manipulative behavior
  • Refusing to drive them if their license is suspended

If your loved one becomes angered by the boundaries that you set in place, or they try to make you feel guilty, don’t back down. Their response shows that the boundaries you set were necessary.

If they break one of your boundaries, that is an indication that you need to distance yourself from them, and follow through on the consequences that you outlined previously. 

Support for Loved Ones

Addiction does not only affect the addicted individual - it affects the whole family. Ultimately, you cannot force your loved one to recover from their addiction - they have to want to recover. You are not responsible for their recovery. 

Aquila Recovery not only provides support for addicts, but also for their family members. We work with family members to educate them about addiction, and to guide them on how to best support their loved one.

Reach out to our experienced staff to find out more about how we can support you in this difficult situation. 

Addiction and loved ones


Topics: Addiction, For Family Members

Russ Kallina

Written by Russ Kallina

Russ Kallina is Aquila Recovery of Virginia's Program Director of Operations.

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