Relationships, You & Your Family

How tough is your love?

How tough is your love

Love is often associated with ideas of romance, roses, soft-focus pictures and gentle, kind words. Toughness, being stern and exacting, seem to be diametrically opposite. Yet many of us would have heard of “tough love”. What is it?

Tough love is a way of showing affection, but not in an overindulgent manner, to someone we love. Proactively, it involves enforcing strict but fair punishment and setting exacting demands, all in the interest of teaching the loved one self-discipline and self-reliance.

I suspect many parents would agree that a little tough love every now and then is good when raising our children.

In March 2011, a photograph of a National Serviceman with his maid carrying his backpack drew much criticism. This young soldier perhaps did not experience tough love in his growing years. Recently, a friend recounted how upset she was at seeing a Primary One pupil dumping her school bag at the first sight of her maid. Without saying a word, she expected the maid to pick up after her.

Thanks to the hard work and economic success of earlier generations, many of our young in Singapore have not experienced hardship. They thus grow up expecting, and maybe even feel entitled, that life must treat them kindly and with a measure of generosity.

The young are fed only positive feedback, which risks emotionally crippling them. A young social worker carried this into her first job. While going through her performance evaluation, she said to her supervisor: “Just give me positive feedback.” This was clearly not meant as a light-hearted statement because when the conversation veered to areas where she needed to improve, tears welled up in her eyes and she abruptly left the meeting.

We must rid ourselves of thinking of love in such a one-dimensional manner. Life is full of ups and downs; parents need to equip their young to face it. As they grow up, our young ones need to learn that when they fail, they can pick themselves up and survive. They need to believe that failure is not final unless one gives up.

I am not proposing we run our homes like boot camps. But tough love is, well, tough to execute. It is a restrained response of love. It involves not giving in to your emotions and inclination to pour out your disappointment and wrath.

In a conversation with a client who has three sons (one of whom has Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder), he was painfully honest to admit that he sometimes wished his boys were “not there”. He was surprised by my response that his struggle to care for his sons showed how much he loved them. He retorted that he was simply doing his duty. To which I said that even duty comes from love—doing one’s duty is an expression of love.

It is sad that in these days of preoccupation with the sugary sweet version of love, doing one’s duty is not recognised as love. Indeed, tough love is another expression of love.

Benny Bong has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award, received in 2011, and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.