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Healthy Boundaries: Is Tough Love Still the Best Love?

Tough love. That old familiar phrase has been swimming around in my head a lot lately, as I struggle with the heart wrenching process of setting some healthy boundaries in my personal relationships. Let’s face it, we all, no matter how rosy the pictures of our lives may portray us on Facebook or Instagram, go through some absolute crap times with our loved ones. And it’s a good thing we don’t plaster it all over social media, because after all, that is a place for one to show life’s little celebrations and political views, and not necessarily the real nitty-gritty dirt of life. 🙂 For certain it would make our feeds rather depressing and intolerable, lacking the little dopamine highs we have become so addicted to feeding upon… (And, we’ve all had that one friend who shared a bit too much depressing stuff one too many times and it resulted in a decision to discreetly hide their feed.) Yet, we all have this sort of life ‘stuff’ at times, and it seems the empty nest phase of life is no exception.

Now, I’m going to say something that is probably not going to sit very well with everyone, but even in this day and age of hovering helicopter parents, it’s true that tough love is still the very best love.  Sometimes as friends, and often as parents, we find ourselves faced with a choice of offering unconditional support when a loved one is actively making self-destructive decisions, or of making our concerns known and then putting some healthy boundaries in place with love.

Photo Courtesy of Sean Tan

Time and time again during the teen and college years of my three adult children, I noticed them teetering on the edge of a path they darn well knew better of, but checking to make sure that I’d be there if it all went sideways. I can now look back and clearly see that on the occasions this happened, and I immediately dropped what was going on in my own life to run and support them they made the riskiest personal decisions every single time. This generally led them to some sort of ugly life mess in spite of all my ‘support’. But, what I’ve also noticed, is on the other occasions when I’ve made a different choice, the times when I’ve said, “I love you, and while I want you to know that I am very concerned about you right now, I also hope you will understand that I cannot support you in this,” they generally righted themselves in no time at all.

I’ve also found that often my perspective can only become clear with time, and some distance. Especially when it comes to situations where as parents, we become so entangled and emotional with the results of our loved ones choices, that we somehow lose complete sight of where the boundary should be. I can now see that my children were each stronger and able to make the best decisions for themselves the first time around when they knew they didn’t have a cushion willing to completely self sacrifice and catch them. Is that harsh? Maybe. But it sure seemed like knowing they had that safety net enabled them to make the riskier choice every time. That word…Enabled. What a word. Where exactly is the line, or boundary, that should be drawn between supporting someone and enabling them in poor life decisions? I think it’s in a different place for each person in our lives, for each particular circumstance, and I know that I’m still learning the necessary life art of where exactly to place mine.

Photo Courtesy of Brooke Cagle

‘Tough love’ was a phrase I heard growing up, with definite negative connotations. It was usually applied by adults who were talking about rebellious teens, but I feel like it’s something we all need to practice explicitly in our relationships for the benefit of ourselves and our loved ones. Now, ‘healthy boundaries’, is the term that is more prevalent, but applies to exactly the same thing. Drawing a clear line for the people you love to know and respect your limits. Brené Brown has been a fabulous resource for me in finding and placing my boundaries firmly and without shame (Book link below). For empty nesters especially, healthy boundaries are the key to being able to maintain healthy relationships with your loved ones while also enjoying the new phase of life you are so deserving of, to the fullest.


  • Reply
    May 3, 2017 at 8:09 am

    Yes, agreed. My mantra these days with my grown-up children. ‘I did my best, loved them powerfully, and gave them a compass for making good life choices. Now it’s on them.’ This frees me to love them without the urge to control.

    • Reply
      Bethany Eells Porter
      May 3, 2017 at 2:57 pm

      Hi Cheri!
      Thank you for the comment, I like your mantra! Mind if I borrow it?!?! 🙂
      P.S. I’m so rooting for you to be on the EPW this summer!

  • Reply
    Richard Dill
    May 3, 2017 at 7:59 pm

    Working through this with my 21 yo son. Just completed his Junior year and by all accounts he is a great young man. But getting him to take control of his life goals and finances…ugh!!! My mantra has become FIGURE IT OUT! I will advise him but refuse to do it for him. He is getting there…as well as myself.

    • Reply
      Bethany Eells Porter
      May 4, 2017 at 7:12 am

      Hi Richard! Yes, finances and goals during the college days can certainly be challenging.
      I’ve always wished that the U.S. system was set up more like European countries where a gap year to travel, experience life, and figure yourself out a bit more before choosing a career was acceptable. Our kids have to make their decisions rapid fire when they are so young, and lacking much life experience at all. But, if they take time off at any point, they generally miss out on scholarship or internships, etc.
      Not to worry, you’ve got a great son & mantra! 🙂 He’s going to do fabulous things in life!
      Thank you for the comment!

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