10 Truths About “Tough Love” In a Romantic Relationship

The phrase “tough love” often brings up memories of your parents taking away your phone as a teenager or a friend refusing to let you have another drink during a night out. But what does tough love mean in a romantic relationship? It means looking out for one another’s physical wellbeing. It also means that you are looking out for your partner’s emotional wellbeing. Tough love can be difficult to dish and it can be even more difficult to take, but it’s important to remember that at the end of the day, tough love is a form of love. Not all love can be supportive and gushing, especially if there is a problem in the relationship or if someone has done something that hurt their partner.

Here are ten truths about tough love that you can help you embrace tough love in your relationship:

It shows respect and self worth

If your partner draws up the courage to show you some tough love, try and reframe it as a sign of their respect for you. Tough love is often about holding people accountable to standards, and while it may feel difficult in the moment, it attests to their respect for you and their view of your self worth. If someone is not being the best version of themselves, it often takes a little tough love for them to snap out of it and hold themselves to higher standards. Showing tough love in this case encourages accountability.

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It puts your love to the test

Relationships are not all fun and games and neither is love. After the honeymoon phase of a relationship, when everything is lighthearted and feels perfect, the reality of the relationship often sets in, and with it will come some tough love. If you and your partner are able to make it out of the honeymoon phase and then survive the power struggle phase (which is often characterized by disagreements and conflicts), it’s a true test of your love for one another. After all, it’s easy to love someone when you are seeing them and your relationship through rose colored glasses, it’s much more special to know that you still love someone after learning their flaws and having disagreements. Tough love is about overcoming challenges as a couple, and growing stronger through adversity.

It’s about open communication

Anyone that knows anything about relationships will tell you that communication is a key part to any relationship. And sometimes communication involves a little tough love. In a relationship, you need to be able to tell your partner if something is wrong or if they have done something to hurt your feelings. This often means a little tough love in the form of a reality check or just letting them know how you feel.

It’s about honesty

While good communication and honesty SHOULD go hand in hand, that is not always the case, so it’s worth spelling out that honesty is a form of tough love. It is important that you are able to be honest about your feelings and your needs, even if it hurts your partner’s feelings a little bit. This of course is not permission to hurt your partner’s feelings on purpose, just an acknowledgement that sometimes hard conversations do have to happen and these are often instances of tough love. People have hard conversations in hopes of improving relationships and staying together. So while honesty can sometimes be brutal, it is a testament to how much your partner loves you and how much they want the relationship to work.

It’s about setting and understanding boundaries

A huge part of open communication in relationships is related to setting and understanding boundaries. Boundaries are the standards we set in a relationship related to things like our time, possessions, personal space and physical and sexual intimacy. Setting boundaries in a relationship is often a form of tough love, especially if partners are not on the same about things like sharing personal possessions or the amount of time that you spend together as a couple. Standing up for your boundaries, saying things like, ‘No, you can’t borrow my car’ or ‘I need some time and space to myself’ may feel harsh or unloving, but it is quite the opposite. Establishing boundaries in a relationship and respecting these boundaries establishes trust that actually causes couples to become closer. While it can be difficult to establish these boundaries in the first place, tough love is ultimately a form of love and your relationship and your partner will grow if you are able to set and understand boundaries in your relationship.

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It’s about destructive behaviors

As we discussed before, sometimes tough love is about accountability, including accountability for destructive behaviors. This is often what we think about when we hear the phrase tough love. We think about parents confiscating phones or people taking drinks away. Doing things that protect us from ourselves. Sometimes we don’t know what’s best for ourselves, which means that other people have to step in (occasionally in an authoritative manner) to prevent us from doing things that destroy our well being or our relationships.

It helps self improvement

A lot of people have blind spots about their own behavior and how it affects the people in their life. Some of the time, the only way to correct these blind spots is to point them out to your partner. Doing so is actually an act of tough love, because you are helping your partner become more self aware (and hopefully) helping them become a better version of themselves.

It is not about control or manipulation

As we have demonstrated, it’s super important to understand what tough love is so that you can recognize it in your relationship and take it in stride. But, it is just as important to understand what is not tough love and what is instead control or manipulation. Tough love can easily turn into patronizing, controlling behavior if it is not coming from the right place. Like we said before, tough love is about love, which means that you show your partner tough love to help them improve or make positive changes in their life. If a partner is being overly critical, too honest or trying to get you to change your behavior based on their preferences (not what is best for YOU) then this is an example of controlling, manipulative behavior and should not be confused with tough love!

It is not about punishment

Just like tough love is not about control or manipulation, it’s also not about punishment. A partner should not ignore you, avoid you, or retaliate against you as a response to your actions. Tough love is not about punishing a partner for doing something wrong or doing something that you don’t agree with. Tough love is about creating boundaries and expectations and holding your partner to them so that they can grow. If your partner is only honest with you or only holds you accountable for your actions when they are upset with you, then this is not a sign of tough love.

It shows unconditional love

Tough love is an example of unconditional love for your partner. Tough love is about recognizing faults, overcoming them as a couple, and growing stronger together through honest communication about boundaries and standards. It is often much easier to take the path of least resistance in relationships and let things slide where they shouldn’t or let things go unsaid when they should be addressed. Tough love is about confronting challenges and problematic behavior head on so that you and your partner can both improve as individuals and as partners.

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