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Tough Love vs. Abuse

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Feb. 18, 2023

Tough love is so cool, eh? It's going to magic the “whining” right out of you, won't it? You just need to stick out through the harshness, and then when you reap the benefits, you'll realize your tough loving benefactor had the right idea. You'll be grateful once you realize how much they loved you. In the end. After the fact.

Isn't that the idea of tough love?

Especially when it comes to movies and comics, when tough love is part of a trainer or mentor, they will come across as harsh taskmasters that are belittling and give tongue-lashings, they drive the (usually main character) to tears or despair, but in the end… they are the ones that yield a kick ass fighter.

And everything in the story is set up to present this as awesome. Here are a couple of such ‘tough love’ characters if they haven't already sprung up to mind:

Pei Mei from Kill Bill

Terence Fletcher from Whiplash

Now, you might say that at least in Whiplash the teacher's ‘tough love’ isn't glorified, but I'd say it is, if nothing else by the final couple scenes. And in Kill Bill it's shown that a rapport is built between teacher and student, and in the end she avenges him, but Kill Bill has comic book physics and logic, and we sort of give it a pass. Or at least I do.

Bottom line is though, that this type of tough love, is not tough love. It's abuse. And though it should be really easy to tell apart what is tough love and what is abuse, people treat it like it's really blurry or really thin.

So it's a great premise to explore, if you're into that sort of thing, and you can have antagonists or villains or even protagonists that have a “tough love that is actually abuse” pattern bounce off actual tough love.

So what is tough love? It's always good to start with a definition. The dictionary gives a definition that I personally find at best incomplete, misleading, or even wrong. However, it does have some elements that can give us a starting point into defining tough love. I'm pasting the definition below. I've underlined the good parts of the definition that we can work with:

"deliberately not showing too much kindness to a person who has a problem so that the person will start to solve their own problem"

“Deliberately” implies doing something with a plan or goal in mind. It implies the person applying tough love has a concrete plan and willfulness and isn't simply emotionally reacting to a negative stimulus.

“Person who has a problem” implies that tough love is usually for problem-solving. That means it's about helping the person on the receiving end to deal/handle an issue.

“Start to solve their own problem” implies that the goal of tough love is emancipation through problem-solving. The receiver of the tough love approach is expected to emerge from it empowered and with more skills than before the tough love.

Unfortunately, there are some bad elements to the definition that throws everything off. In fact, just one element:

not showing too much kindness

artistic representation of my reaction to the above definition

Not showing kindness (let's be real, who will pay attention to ‘too much’) implies there will be cruelty involved. Something unkind. Something unkind is scarring, emotionally and often physically. This is the doorway to conflating abuse with tough love, and masking abuse as tough love (often the case with people/characters who are manipulative and gaslighting).

So what would be a definition for tough love that I'd feel ok with? It would go something like this:

Tough love is offering support and guidance to an individual struggling with a problem without indulging in enabling behaviors that exacerbate that problem.

Like Anne Sullivan to Helen Keller

LouAnne Johnson from Dangerous Minds

Mr. Miyagi from Karate Kid

There. That's tough love. Why is it tough?

It's tough on BOTH people (or sides) involved: it's tough on the one giving the love, because it's hard work to not enable bad behaviors/habits and to watch a person you love be in pain/ discomfort/ struggle when you don't enable them into their comfort zone (which, however, is detrimental to them). Even if they don't mind the recipient's struggle, having the patience to constantly put in the work and the commitment to see through the project with a frequently recalcitrant person is tough. Very tough.

It's tough on the one receiving the love, because it's painful to change habits. If these habits are related to addiction, or are manifestations of defense mechanisms that are maladaptive, or are in some way compelling the person to engage in them due to physical or psychological reasons, they are 1000 times harder to break, and breaking them often is very distressing (initially).

It doesn't need to be dramatic. Those who smoke know how hard it is to give up smoking, especially when you're not motivated to do it and someone else tries to make you do it to save you from illness or death.

Why is it love? Because the person that gives it is motivated solely by a desire to protect or empower (or both). There is no other reason for doing what they do except to genuinely help the receiver. Any pain that happens (as in ‘growing pains’, not frigging torture) is burdensome, not a bragging point for the one offering tough love. That is to say they don't get off on causing pain or enjoy themselves by watching the one they “love” suffer.

Often, tough love doesn't push to painful levels. Tough love is simply adhering to discipline by being unyielding and patient and not by yelling and/or physical abuse . So a teacher that patiently waits out a student who is crying and yelling they won't do their homework, then helps that student realize that doing their homework isn't negotiable, is offering tough love. A teacher that screams and terrorizes their student into doing their homework because the student is afraid of what the teacher will do to them if they don't, is offering abuse, not tough love.

One could say that tough love is like the ‘healthy pain’ in your muscles after a good workout. Abuse is the ‘bad pain’ that signals you're injuring something, and you should immediately stop.

So with the concept of tough love, you got two types of characters you could design: a villain (or antagonist) who masks abuse with the label of tough love, or a character that does offer tough love to the main character (or is the main character offering it to someone else).

Both are designs that are likely to resonate with your audience, because we've all had experiences with both, directly or indirectly.

And that brings me to the final part of this toxicity series: how can abuse be subtle, and toxicity powerful but nearly undetectable?

Well, that's what I'll post next time, and wrap things up ;)

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kawaiidaigakusei at 5:00PM, Feb. 23, 2023

Excellent article, Tantz. I especially liked the gif examples—I laughed out loud.

PaulEberhardt at 10:02AM, Feb. 18, 2023

My biggest role model for classroom discipline is actually none of my former teachers but a sports coach (whose day job was in construction). To an outside observer some things he said and made us do might have looked positively wicked, but somehow we never saw it that way, because we knew that it was all part of the game, that it brought results we could be proud of and most importantly of all that we could trust him to be on our side no matter what. I guess this absolute (and warranted!) trust and the ability to build it up is the other key factor in telling tough love from abuse. And if I seem to have forgotten about leading by example, let me add that I think of that as a fundamental premise for everything else I talked about.

PaulEberhardt at 10:02AM, Feb. 18, 2023

Great post! The thin line between tough love and abuse is hazy and frightfully easy to cross sometimes. I think it boils down to a lot of empathy and instinct which allow you to reach the exact level of toughness that is not yet emotionally scarring but makes a lasting impression. As a teacher I often see myself as a sparring partner more than anything else, and then the crucial difference between tough love and bullying is whether students know they have a fair chance to win each round, provided they put in enough effort. And putting some fun parts in between to make it feel more like a game, because kids know as well as everyone that the best games are always the challenging ones that you can win only by acting as if they were the most serious thing in the world. That way of seeing it also makes it more bearable for me in those moments when I have to be strict. If anyone thinks I enjoy it, it's only because I did my acting homework and have the self-discipline to apply it.

usedbooks at 7:25AM, Feb. 18, 2023

I remember the most touching scene in Moana, when the spirit of her grandmother (or great grandmother?) appears and tells her that she was given an unfair task, and if she continues, the spirit will be there for her, but when she's ready to go home, they'll be there for that too. It was such a meaningful scene because it broke that "tough love" trope with such emotional force. Acknowledging that love exists even in defeat and that those who love you support you in weakness too. (Also, knowing the support was there gave her the strength to keep going.)

usedbooks at 7:19AM, Feb. 18, 2023

Tough love is allowing a child/student to struggle so they can discover hw to be successful. Abuse is actively causing strife whether or not to teach a lesson. A mentor/parent knows when to step in, what the student/child's limits are, and how to help. They won't do the assignment for them but might say, "Let's take a break and come back to that later." Then go for some encouragement and kindness before setting them on the challenge again. Abuse is telling the student what a huge disappointment/failure they are and they should just give up.

bravo1102 at 7:13AM, Feb. 18, 2023

I love it when people talk about this as toxic masculinity. It's neither male or female. It's survival. A woman fighting for her children shows a lot more "masculinity " than the big muscle bound hero. Why do you think I write about female characters? There's a strength there I've seen in few men but envy in so many women. Tough love can also come from a mother teaching her loved ones to survive in a cold cruel world. Yeah, I could go on about this forever, but enough out of this tired old sergeant. Now give me a big hoo-rah and move out. You believe in yourself because you were torn up and rebuilt and that hoo-rah is about making it through whatever comes your way. Make it happen.

bravo1102 at 4:05AM, Feb. 18, 2023

Tough love as abuse and tough love to bring out the best despite the trainee's nature is a big thing in war movies. All leadership classes go over it. All kinds of manuals and training because as any veteran will tell you. You can't fix stupid. And make something idiot proof and they will produce a better idiot. Leave a soldier in a bare room with an anvil and a hammer, come back five minutes later and the anvil will be broken, the hammer missing and the soldier will know nothing about it. Tough love all right. The leader is Sisyphus pushing up that rock and the stupid he's up against the rock comes rolling back down again at the end of the day. You try explaining it to civilians and they just look at you with a blank expression at how mean you are. Talk to another veteran and you're best buddies and swopping stories because they've been there. Tough love? Being a constant pain in the ass so you can prevent stupid from killing himself and half his unit rather than the enemy.

bravo1102 at 3:55AM, Feb. 18, 2023

You have no idea how realistic R. Lee Ermy was. He had actually played a DI before in Boys in Company C where he was also the technical advisor. Thing is the character in Full Metal Jacket wasn't good or evil. He was actually neutral. Almost disinterested with a constant flat instructor tone. Praise when they earn it (private Joker) and ride them when they need it (private Pyle) But sometimes the trainee snaps. Tear them down to build them up again and there's just nothing there to build on. Pyle needed some counseling but the military wasn't good at it. None of the uniformed services were good at it back in the 1960s. It was one of the lessons of Vietnam that you couldn't tear down so thoroughly without giving the trainee something to build back up with. There were tons of movies with evil NCOs and troubled soldiers. See From Here to Eternity among others. Its a whole war movie trope about the stern NCO, the nice NCO and the troubled soldier. Platoon is another one.

marcorossi at 1:47AM, Feb. 18, 2023

I think in many cases, and often in movies, tough love is linked to traditional ideas of masculinity: because the one giving out the love is a sort of father figure who also teaches by example, and teaches to be tough, se he has to he tough while teaching. This is partly the case in Karate Kid; an example of 'bar' though love is the guy in Full Metal Jacket, but then this kind of characters are appreciated so for example Heartbreak Ridge is the same kind of character than Full Metal Jacket but represented as good. The Full Metal Jacket was a real life military trainer, Kubrick hired him to show the actor what to do but then he was better than the actor o Kubrick made him act instead, so I assume it was a realistic character.

bravo1102 at 12:25AM, Feb. 18, 2023

Great post and very well put. Who sees more abuse versus "tough love" than a soldier? It's the whole ethos of the drill sergeant. Indeed it's part of leadership. And sometimes you go.tgrough the motions of tough love and there really is no love there. It's just lip service to make the student feel better about the process.

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