It’s a simple solution to a very complicated problem. It often comes from someone who shares no emotional attachment to the person of concern. When you love someone suffering from excessive drinking or drug use, why do most of the solutions sound like “Tough Love”?
You’ve tried everything. You’ve tried talking and were met with false promises to quit. You’ve tried bribery and consequences which only had a temporary effect. You’ve tried doctors and support groups and reading every piece of information you could on the subject and yet, you remain desperate and scared; helpless to find a solution that brings you any peace.
No matter what advice you employ it seems that each attempt at finding your loved one recovery only ends in new problems and more complicated hurdles you hadn’t anticipated before.
What is tough love?
Tough love is the blunt version of what we now refer to in clinical circles as “detaching with love” or “setting healthy boundaries.” What this means is that we limit our aid to a narrow scope of predetermined actions and support. These actions will ultimately lead our loved ones to recovery. We also work to address any potential codependency issues.
What is Codependency?
Codependency is an attachment or relationship with someone which can sometimes limit our ability to recognize the relationship as detrimental to ourselves or the other person. In situations of substance abuse, we tend to see our role in the relationship as a savior or protector. We think it is our sole responsibility to help our loved one avoid the consequences of addiction.
Codependent relationships with addicts and alcoholics can look like:
- Offering to pay bills or legal expenses
- Providing groceries or gas
- Providing shelter
- Covering for absences or creating alibis
- Avoiding confrontation
Codependency is historically rooted in fear and is born of genuine love and a need to protect the other person. Codependency is worse among those who love someone struggling with substance abuse. When a person is struggling with substance abuse the consequences can be anything from legal troubles or health issues. Other consequences may include institutions or even death. When we love the individual facing those consequences it is easy for the line between caring and enabling to become blurred. This is obscured by the potential dangers of unchecked substance abuse.
When the lines have been blurred how can we help our addicted loved ones without causing more harm? The answer is boundaries. Although boundaries can be difficult to set and stick to these rules of engagement are created to help our loved ones and protect ourselves and our families.
Healthy boundaries can look like:
- I will not give you any more money
- I won’t tell lies or cover for you
- I’m not going to get your car out of impound
- I will not allow you to sleep on my couch
- If you steal money or items from me I will press charges
- If you become abusive mentally or physically I will obtain a restraining order
- If you are too intoxicated to care for your children or pets I will have them removed
Setting Boundaries with a person caught in the grips of addiction can be scary. When your loved one realizes you will no longer enable their substance use, they will likely become angry or hostile. They may resort to accusations of blame or threats of abandonment.
It is important to remember this anger is a fear response created to protect their addiction. When someone is addicted to drugs or alcohol, they feel a survival-based dependence on that substance. When the source of that substance is threatened, addicted individuals may respond as though they will be deprived of food or oxygen.
What are your options?
Setting boundaries and detaching with love may seem like tall orders when dealing with someone who is actively engaged in addictive behaviors. It is tempting to see their callousness or anger as a sign that tough love has been ineffective, however, consistency and follow-through are the keys. If your loved one believes they can manipulate or convince you to compromise your boundaries then they will pull out all the stops.
Manipulative responses to boundaries include:
- If you won’t help me then you’ll never see me again
- You’ll regret this when I’m dead
- What about everything I’ve ever done for you
- If you don’t give me money I’ll find a way to get it illegally
- You obviously don’t love/care about me anymore
- You want something bad to happen to me
- I wouldn’t be in this position if you had/hadn’t ….
Giving in to these manipulations allows the addicted person to guilt or shame you away from boundaries. They will keep you engaged in the cycle of codependency that directly benefits their continued use. If weakness or flexibility is offered in your boundaries the addict or alcoholic will use this to avoid the accountability those boundaries would have provided.
Does Tough Love Work?
Tough love still seems a little too punitive for our liking. Setting boundaries and providing your loved one with restrictions to help keep them safe and limit their ability to excessive use without consequence feels more like a technique of intervention we’d endorse.
For more ideas on how to best help your loved one find recovery, contact Mississippi Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center to speak with one of our trained addiction professionals.