How Tough Should Love Be?

Everyone’s heard of tough love. It’s touted in interventions, employed by therapists and pondered by parents. It means: harsh or stern behavior, often thought cruel by the recipient, with the end goal of their higher good. (That’s my own definition, but it sounds official, doesn’t it?)


A parent shuts and locks the door behind their 17-year-old son who has been using drugs. Tough love demands that they withdraw support until he humbles himself to accept help.


A mild version of tough love is grounding – withholding something of need or value until the tantrum-tossing-two-year-old obediently quiets. Another example, a coach who pushes his players to near exhaustion in order to bring out their very best.


It is another tough love scenario that I am curious about. Is tough love biblical in marriage?


Many Christian counselors advocate tough love toward a habitually sinning spouse: a husband involved in pornography, a plastic-crazed wife who has driven the family into debt, an alcoholic husband or an unfaithful wife.


In those cases, what does real love do? Counselors often suggest that the offended spouse leave the situation. Divorce is not the end goal, but hopefully separation will force the spouse to “hit rock bottom.”


One psychologist explained it in terms that made obvious sense, “The offender will not stop the behavior until the pain of continuing is greater than the pain, shame or embarrassment, of change.”


When I hear this logic, I emphatically agree. As an addict myself (formerly addicted to many anorexic behaviors) I know that it is essential to hit “rock bottom.” So pack your bags, scribble a note or confront them head-on and head out. Right?

Such drastic behavior will undoubtedly force a drastic response. Right?


I was firmly persuaded until last week. I read 1 Corinthians 12 and 13, and Psalm 15:4, and 130. First Corinthians 12, espouses the body of Christ’s correct behavior. Paul admonishes the church to respect each other’s differences, honor one another, weep and rejoice with each other. All of these behaviors are designed to produce harmony and effectiveness in the body of Christ. Then it seems, if all these fail to establish and keep peace, Paul trumps them with, “But I will show you a still more excellent way.”


Enter, The Love Chapter. Can I possibly “bear all things,” if I leave my spouse when I get too uncomfortable? Can I possibly “believe all things,” if I refuse to attend when my spouse tries to explain their side of the story? Can I possibly hope and endure all things, when at some point, I walk away, leaving the future dangling between us?


I have been memorizing Romans 12. In verse nine, Paul begins a long definition of genuine love. His insistence, “Outdo one another in showing honor,” echos over and over in the halls of my mind. How can leaving show honor, in any way?


There are two final passages that block the doorway when I consider the tough love method. One is 1 Peter 3:1, “Likewise, wives, be subject to your husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives.”


And 1 Corinthians 7:13-14, “And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send her husband away. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy.”


Finally, a godly counselor of a different persuasion, recently encouraged a spouse feeling led to stay in a difficult situation. He insisted that there is no shame in staying, quoting Psalm 15:1,4, “O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill?”…”[he] who swears to his own hurt and does not change;”.


So, this week I want to explore the concept of Tough Love. Is it true and biblical? Is it a lie that we tell ourselves, or that the culture offers to hurting people for an excuse?


I am reading Dr. James Dobson’s book, “Love Must Be Tough,” and a Bible study called, “Enhancing Your Marriage,” by Judy Rossi. I will offer my gleanings from these two resources. Also, I earnestly ask for your thoughts and experiences.


Relationships, especially family relationships, and especially marriages are in dire jeopardy. Let’s discover and discuss God’s truth that brings healing.

Jesus said that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Let’s pursue Him!

2 thoughts on “How Tough Should Love Be?

  1. Regarding whether to abide in a troubled relationship or not, I almost always side with sticking it out. Be an example; show the spouse the godly way; be the light in the darkness of those confusing teen years. However, abusive relationships are not to be tolerated. I was in one for 8 years and nothing worked, except getting beaten up. Divorce was the smart course of action.

    Nice topic and well worth discussion. Looking forward to your thoughts.

  2. ooo- thought provoking!

    Some thoughts:

    1. “Tough Love” can be a cop-out for not doing the hard work of loving.
    2. Abuse shouldn’t be tolerated, and saying “no” to abuse may actually be the most loving thing to do, and is truly “tough”. A person in an abusive relationship needs a tremendous amount of courage and strength to cope and/or leave.
    3.The danger of “tough love” is that it becomes easy to block compassion in our hearts. Because we can be tough and forget the love
    4. The only example of love to study and implement in our lives is that of Jesus, who more often than not had compassion on people. That is from the Holy Spirit.
    5. Jesus also left people to be alone and pray. And he is the Son of God. How much more do we, sinful people, need to do that? And yes, that might mean for a lifetime.
    6. Loving does not mean ignoring the truth of circumstances, and this is where it becomes tough. How do I confront someone in love? How do I forgive? Can I and another person ever restore our relationship? Can I love myself?
    7. Maybe what makes love tough is that there is pain involved in doing the right, most loving thing, and taking positive, proactive steps to change.

    There are clear standards of how to live in the Bible- consider the 10 commandments. But there are a lot of grey circumstances in our lives, and we need to be much in prayer. God will show us what to do so that we feel convinced that we are doing the right thing and have a clear conscience before him (even if it does not make sense to others).

    Another book to study is Hosea- commanded by God to marry a prostitute. Talk about tough!

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