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Employing Tough Love is a Mistake: Learn How You Can Help Your Addicted Loved One

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In 1990 my mother was at her wits’ end with me. I was drinking heavily and wreaking havoc in her home. At 22 years old, I was certainly old enough to go out on my own. While I had failed out of college after my third year, I always managed to work hard and hold a job in spite of my daily, heavy drinking. Her friends told her emphatically to kick me out as they listened to story after story of my antics. They said that being suddenly homeless would force me to stop drinking and get my act together. But I was her eldest daughter, and I was an overly emotional basket case much of the time. I know she worried that may actually push me over the edge, and send me into a deeper depression with heavier use or worse. I also know that a part of her felt responsible for my struggles, though none of it was her fault. In the end, she rejected their advice, and did exactly what she thought was best; that was to love and care for me until I found my way and got my life on track.

There are tens of thousands of parents in that same situation right now, and the advice they are given today from not only well-meaning friends and family, but from addiction and mental health professionals is much the same as my mother got in 1990. It used to be called “tough love” but now that terminology seems to be passé with many addiction professionals acknowledging it may not be the best course of action. However, instead of changing the actual advice contained in the terminology, they seem to have just thrown out the name recommending the same course of action which is to put someone out of your house, withhold financial help, and basically withdraw any kind of support.

The very idea of “tough love” is problematic, not just in the advice given to families, but in the intent and motivation behind it. The reason the advice is wrong, is not so much because kicking someone out or cutting them off financially is inherently a bad idea, it’s because the goal for doing so is to change the substance user’s behavior. It’s to manipulate them into doing what you want them to do. It’s the idea that you can somehow save them from themselves using rewards and punishment.

Anyone who has raised even one child has seen that sometimes rewards and punishments work with a young child, and sometimes they don’t work at all. And as that child ages, that kind of discipline becomes less and less effective. That’s because all people are completely autonomous. This means that you can’t control what another person thinks, how they feel, what they like and dislike, and what they feel is important to them. Certainly as a parent you can model behaviors you would like your child to emulate, but you can’t control them.

This leaves the conundrum, what can you do when you are watching someone you love self-destruct before your eyes? What can you do when their behaviors create turmoil in your home and your life? The key to figuring that out is to first figure out what you want for your own life. I know this sounds trite, but it’s crucial to keep in mind the reality that the only person you can control is yourself. Making your personal happiness in life contingent on the behaviors of someone else is a recipe for certain misery. Once you have a vision in your mind of what you want for your life, and you’ve accepted the reality that you have no control whatsoever over what your loved one will do, then you can begin to take the steps you need to have the life you want. What this means is that if continuing to help your loved one in certain ways fits with your desires for your happiest life, then do it; and if it doesn’t then don’t do it. It’s a mistake to use your love, money, home, and other ways you care for your loved one, as a tool to try and make them stop their substance use. This usually ends with both parties becoming frustrated, angry, and further apart.

To be in a position to help your loved one, you must first ensure you are living the life you want, irrespective of your loved one’s behaviors. As adults, you owe each other nothing — including personal happiness. Your personal happiness is your responsibility and your loved one’s personal happiness is his responsibility.

All people are searching for happiness in their lives. And as such, all people will choose to do what they perceive will make them happier in any given moment. This includes people struggling with addictions. The great news is, the vast majority of people, (over 90%), get over their addictions fully as a function of age.

Michelle Dunbar is the co-author of The Freedom Model for Addictions: Escape the Treatment and Recovery Trap and The Freedom Model for the Family. She is the Executive Director of the Saint Jude Retreat. If you or someone you know is struggling with a substance use problem, there is an empowering solution that has proven to be three times more effective than addiction treatment and twelve times more effective than 12 step meetings. Go to for more information or call 888-424-2626.

For more information about The Freedom Model go to


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