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The Real Problem With "Tough Love"

Recognizing verbal abuse is hard enough without it.

Key points

  • Cultural tropes influence how we assess and label both good behaviors and abusive ones.
  • "Tough love" was a singularly damaging concept but it flourished nonetheless for decades, reinforcing verbal abuse.
  • It succeeded in part because mental anguish is often seen as "weakness" or "whining" so its effects were discounted as character flaws.
Photograph by Leah Hetteberg. Copyright free. Unsplash
Source: Photograph by Leah Hetteberg. Copyright free. Unsplash

Other than the “sticks and stones” rhyme and the human propensity to justify and rationalize bad behaviors, I believe that no single cultural idea has contributed more to the flourishing of verbal abuse than the concept of “tough love.” I suspect that rationalizing verbal abuse as a form of discipline or tamping down ego or pride in children by parents helped ease its way. But make no mistake: What is called "tough love" is often just verbal abuse.

Merriam-Webster defines the term like this:” Love or affectionate concern expressed in a stern or unsentimental manner (as through discipline) especially to promote responsible behavior.” Of course, the word “tough” combined with the word “love” is enough to set a rational mind spinning. But despite that, the concept of improvement or correction linked with an improbable combination of shaming and revelation supposedly inspired by love filtered down through the culture in myriad ways, providing nutrients for subcultures of verbal abuse and abusers in positions of power, who often hid in plain sight.

In recent years, what was called "tough love" has been unmasked as abusive in many sports, most famously gymnastics and elsewhere—but it had a fifty-year and largely unchallenged run. Positive narratives of tough love not only coursed through communities but also became a staple for television shows for decades, despite the fact that there is no evidence—and never has been—that what is called tough love works in any context, including addiction.

The idea of tough love legitimized verbal abuse as a tool for changing people and their behaviors; it was hailed as a motivational tool. It was not. But how did it ever catch on?

It Started with a Book but Picked Up Speed

The book that started it all—published in 1967 when I was 18—was Tough Love, written by Bill Milliken with Char Meredith, and for a book that had outsize influence, I find it remarkably dull in many ways except for Milliken’s belief that he was not just destined to find Christ but also that his own work with the “ghetto people” (his words) of New York City’s Lower East Side was ordained by Christ himself. Skim-reading this book 50 years later, it is impossible not to recognize that it is more like the books and letters written by the 19th-century imperialist European colonizers of the Indian and African continents than not; the smug superiority of the two white guys, Milliken and his colleague, bringing the “light” to the less fortunate brethren in the slums is patriarchal in spirit.

But his message resonated somehow, reinforcing the idea of hurting someone, stripping him or her down, so that he or she hits rock bottom and can be redeemed by new choices and, yes, love. And it was all served up with a heaping side of Christianity and Jesus as the Redeemer.

The cultural ripple effects were enormous, despite the fact that “tough love” wasn’t and isn’t founded in any psychological principles that actually work. The idea picked up even more steam as the concept of the intervention, popularized by Dr. Vernon Johnson, a recovering alcoholic and Episcopal priest, entered the mainstream. Claire D. Clark, a historian of medicine, wrote a scholarly article called “Tough Love: A Brief Cultural History of the Addiction Intervention,” which sheds even more light on the phenomenon and its effects, with a fascinating discussion of how the intervention (and tough love), revised and revived in a dramatic format, became a staple of both the media and the cultural imagination.

In Clark’s analysis, it was former first lady Betty Ford’s story of intervention in April of 1973 that launched it; she was confronted by her husband, her two adult children, and a Navy doctor about her use of alcohol and her dependence on prescription drugs. Mind you, there was nothing mean or sensational about this confrontation, as was revealed in Ford’s 1978 autobiography—but "intervention" became a buzzword not just because of her stature as the wife of a president and vice president but also because she was a respected figure for having already gone public about her battle with breast cancer and her mastectomy; her honesty was rare for the times. The story of her intervention gained even more traction when it became the subject of a made-for-television movie. In time, her name became synonymous both with addiction and successful treatment.

As Clark notes, the intervention (and tough love) became staples of television shows in the 1980s, replacing the sitcoms that had dominated the 1970s, and continued to thrive into the 1990s and the new century as the bread and butter of reality television. Mind you, this wasn’t the compassionate intervention as imagined by Vernon Johnson or experienced by Betty Ford but as a mano-a-mano confrontation on shows like "Ricki Lake," "Jerry Springer," "Geraldo," and "Sally Jessy Raphael." As Clark notes, the formula used by these shows “encouraged participants to cross-examine, question, even ridicule each other about their personal behavior patterns.” There was shouting and tears, humiliation and anger.

In the 2000s, shows such as Dr. Drew Pinsky’s "Celebrity Rehab" and A&E’s "Intervention," which has been running pretty much since 2005, cemented the appeal of watching either the formerly famous or ordinary folk with outsize problems struggle on camera. What began as tough love and intervention with a side of Christianity ended up as a sideshow with a helping of schadenfreude.

In the real world, the tough love/intervention model spawned an entire industry that preyed on anxious parents who couldn’t deal with kids who smoked pot, had addictions, acted out, or who were just not willing to go along to get along and who could, with the wave of a check or a credit card, send their kids to a boot-camp retreat modeled on “tough love” environments that promised results. (I actually knew teenagers who were awakened in the middle of the night and whisked off by strangers to one of these places. No, they weren’t “cured,” but they were angry and terrified even when they got home.) Just because these kinds of interventions are known by psychologists to be damaging doesn’t mean they no longer happen, either.

You don’t need to be a scientist to see how familiar patterns of verbal abuse—ridiculing and shaming, ignoring boundaries, violating privacy, and more—gained credibility in the eyes of the public since they were supposedly being used for a higher good. Again, this isn’t altogether different from the rationalizations verbally abusive parents tell themselves, but it happened on a cultural level when all eyes shifted to the ultimate prize, rather than the pathway through which that prize might be acquired. Alas, in terms of recovery, this path was a dead end, but the culture didn’t pay that any mind.

The Take-Away

Tough love found cultural acceptance in swimming pools, gyms, ballet studios, locker rooms, and anywhere young people were mentored and trained to achieve new heights. Until, finally, the targets of abuse spoke up and people began to listen. It’s a cautionary tale that should remind us all that the end doesn’t justify the means.

Copyright © 2022, 2023 by Peg Streep

This post is adapted from my book, Verbal Abuse: Recognizing, Dealing, Reacting, and Recovering.

Facebook image: DimaBerlin/Shutterstock


Clark Claire D. Tough love: A Brief Cultural History of the Addiction Intervention. History of Psychology, 2012, vol. 15(3), pp. 233-246.

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