How Tough Should “Tough Love” Be?

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As noted last week, I have mild autism (Asperger’s syndrome)–and it’s caused more than a few financial and vocational problems. Not to dwell on the past or blame anyone for anything, but sometimes I wish my family and friends had been less generous in automatically saying “Yes” to requests for financial help. We “Aspies” aren’t lazy, but we’re particularly averse to stepping outside familiar comfort zones–including current living situations, leisure hours, spending habits, and work/work-seeking habits (or lack thereof). A few “earn your own money” kicks in the pants might have done me some good.

Special needs aside, many parents fret over the question, “What can I do about my adult child who’s still living under my roof letting me do his cleaning and cooking? What’s the alternative–tossing my kid out on the street to starve?”

The standard answer is, You’ll have to risk the “tough love” approach–withdrawing all support and letting him take the consequences–or be stuck in this situation forever. But the best approach doesn’t necessarily follow a script. Remember the prodigal son? His father let him experience the consequences of irresponsibility–but only after giving him everything he initially demanded. And, when the son came back begging for help meeting his basic needs, the father gave him more than he asked, without a word of “Promise me you’ll never do that again.”

Whether it’s your adult child with one foot still in dependence, your friend who “needs to talk” for hours, or your spouse battling alcoholism–how can you find the line between genuinely helping them and simply enabling them to continue in irresponsibility?

Does This Person Have Legitimate Special Needs?

These include any diagnosable physical or mental disability, including chemical addiction. It’s best if you go to therapy with your loved one: you’ll be too emotionally involved to judge how much responsibility the other party can and should handle. Under a counselor’s guidance, reach a solid agreement on what will be expected on both sides. Then hold firm to your side of the agreement (which may require both saying painful “no’s” and inconveniencing yourself for legitimate needs).

Are They Even Aware of What They’re Doing?

If someone has no special needs confirmed by an objective third party, but is simply in the habit of asking for “help” the moment things get challenging, sometimes all that’s needed is a frank person-to-person discussion. If you genuinely try to understand your loved one’s concerns, and if you encourage them to explore what’s needed to achieve their real dreams, you may be able to reach an effective agreement on new boundaries and mutual accountability. And your relationship will be stronger for it.

Are They Unwilling to Learn Any Way But the Hard Way?

If, after giving your loved one every chance to share their point of view, they refuse to consider any option except “I tell you what I need and you give it to me” (or if they agree to boundaries which they then repeatedly violate), then it’s time to get tough with your love. Tell them clearly what you won’t do anymore: no more cash on demand, no more taking calls between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. Then, hold firm throughout the inevitable period of “just this once” and “I thought you cared” pleading.

You’ll probably need help yourself to ride out this transition, especially if your loved one is heading into serious trouble. Parents, in particular, feel morally bound to save their “baby,” even if “baby” is fifty-five years old and milking them dry to support illegal activities. Enlist support and prayers from trusted friends. Get qualified counseling. Confirm, as often as necessary, that you are doing the right thing.

Above all else (this applies however extreme or manageable your situation), commit your loved one to God and trust Him to work it all out for good. He’s the only One Who can handle any situation and Who loves everyone in perfect wisdom.

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Don’t Understand Yourself?

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I don’t understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I can’t. I do what I don’t want to—what I hate. I know perfectly well that what I am doing is wrong, and my bad conscience proves that I agree with these laws I am breaking. But I can’t help myself because I’m no longer doing it. It is sin inside me that is stronger than I am that makes me do these evil things.       –Paul, Romans 7:15-17, THE LIVING BIBLE

Everyone has times of crying, “Why did I do that?” But those of us inclined to perfectionism are particularly likely to moan with Paul, “I don’t understand myself!” We don’t just want to get things right: we’re desperate to get things as right as they can possibly be. Yet we still manage not only to get things wrong with painful frequency, but to do the wrong things almost against our will. It’s as though we were robots programmed to go off course.

I know I am rotten through and through so far as my old sinful nature is concerned. No matter which way I turn I can’t make myself do right. I want to but I can’t. When I want to do good, I don’t; and when I try not to do wrong, I do it anyway. Now if I am doing what I don’t want to, it is plain where the trouble is: sin still has me in its evil grasp.       -Romans 7:18-20

We want to believe we can “reprogram” ourselves by sheer willpower, but it’s not that easy. There are enough good intentions in this world to create a thousand utopias–and after centuries of trying, the world hasn’t even come close.

It seems to be a fact of life that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love to do God’s will so far as my new nature is concerned; but there is something else deep within me, in my lower nature, that is at war with my mind and wins the fight and makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. In my mind I want to be God’s willing servant, but instead I find myself still enslaved to sin.     -Romans 7:21-23a

Even among Christians, good intentions are a weak defense against the pull of our inborn selfishness and pride. It’s only natural that we get frustrated with ourselves. Even when obvious change for the better is happening overall, perfectionists tend to be impatient to get everything exactly right, and we continue to be hard on ourselves for not becoming much better much sooner.

So you see how it is: my new life tells me to do right, but the old nature that is still inside me loves to sin. Oh, what a terrible predicament I’m in! Who will free me from my slavery to this deadly lower nature? Thank God! It has been done by Jesus Christ our Lord. He has set me free.   -Romans 7:23b-25

Sometimes, even when we recognize God as the real Change Agent, we grumble at Him–or wonder if He’s forgotten us–because He seems to be taking His time in the process. Why He doesn’t save a lot of pain all around by perfecting us instantly, I can’t say for sure. But even human craftspeople and do-it-yourselfers would agree that without painstaking, bit-by-bit attention to detail, there just isn’t the same level of joy in the finished product.

In this life, we will always do things we regret and don’t understand. The real question is, do we accept that God still loves us, and won’t give up on us no matter what? And are we confident in, and grateful for, that assurance?

  • For naturally melancholy Christians tired of being told to "snap out of it"; for Christians who struggle with mental-health issues and long for assurance God delights in them nonetheless; and for naturally optimistic Christians who want to understand their "gloomy" loved ones.

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  • About Me

    I am the go-to writer for people with tough stress issues and special emotional needs—and for those who love them, organizations that serve them, and anyone who just wants to better understand the world of mental/emotional struggles. Or who just wants to pick up some good stress-management tips! Visit my main website at www.PositiveContentFactory.com.

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    Bible quotes used in this blog are from the New Living Translation or the New International Version (1984). See http://www.biblegateway.com/ for copyright details.
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