"Tough love" is a phrase that has become slick with overuse. Many people dealing with chemically-addicted individuals, particularly in various 12-step programs, interpret it to their own convenience. Often these people practicing tough love in a self-centered or selfish way are sponsors who should know better.
In an earlier node dating back several years, tough love is presented as refusing to help someone who is still actively addicted, i.e. drinking and/or using. The expression began in the mid-80’s with Al-Anon, the 12-step program for people associated with alcoholics, alcoholics either in or out of recovery.
Many of those joining Al-Anon were family members who had a history of enabling “their” alcoholic to continue the destructive behavior by covering for them when they were too hung-over to go to work, paying their bills or supporting the family when most of the paycheck ended up in the local bar, or bailing them out of unsavory situations that happened during a drinking spree. They were called enablers, a noun probably coined by Al-Anon itself.
Naturally, no loving wife wanted to learn that her best efforts were producing the opposite effect : instead of helping her husband stop or control his drinking, she was making it possible for him to drink even more. “Control freak” was another label used interchangeably with “enabler”. There may be some truth in that one, as it is generally very, very hard for the associate of an alcoholic or addict to suddenly develop a hands-off attitude. Hence the term, tough love : Sure you love him, but leave him alone.
It didn’t take very long for “tough love” to join the vocabulary of Alcoholics Anonymous itself. When a newly-abstinent alcoholic joins the Program, he or she is advised to find a “sponsor”, someone who has been sober for a while and who can guide the newcomer in their first months of sobriety. These sponsors were soon advocating the practice of tough love.
Often this took the form of being brutally honest about character defects, or setting impossibly high standards for their "sponsees". Sometimes it manifested itself as “if he wants to talk to me he can call me, otherwise I’m going to ignore him”. These sponsors forgot that the phrase is about love, not toughness. As Al-Anon says, “If you must leave your partner, detach with love.”
There is an old AA story that was making the rounds before tough love was introduced. It is about an alcoholic, Jack, who joined AA, got a sponsor, and was doing very well for several months until he decided to go off the wagon. He came home from his bender and passed out on the living room floor. His wife called Jack’s sponsor, Ed, and asked what she should do. Ed replied,
”If he’s not in the way, just leave him there until he comes to.”
”Just leave him there?” asked the wife. “All night long?”
”Well”, Ed said, “if it gets chilly I suppose you could throw a blanket over him.”