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Wellness Matters: When ‘tender’ love is insufficient, give ‘tough’ love a chance to work

By Marty Seitz
KyForward columnist

Most people have at least heard of, even if they aren’t familiar with its specifics, the “5 love languages” made popular by Gary Chapman in his book by the same name. These languages include (1) doing acts of service, (2) spending quality time, (3) giving tangible gifts, (4) saying words of affirmation and (5) giving positive, wanted physical touch. Chapman says these are five basic, though not exhaustive, ways of showing others love, and ways people generally want to receive love. I call Chapman’s languages tender love.

I’d like to propose five basic categories that I call tough love, which complement tender love. My tough love categories are (1) refusing, (2) relinquishing, (3) refuting, (4) reprimanding and (5) repudiating.

Now, before I explain each of these tough love languages, I need to provide a caveat. These five tough love languages are on the non-dominant hand, so to speak. You should think of the five tender love languages as dominant and, therefore, more important. Research suggests that we should have at least five times as much tender love shown in relationships as tough love, five times as many positives as negatives exchanged.

When we get positives from others, the vast majority of the time, we are more willing and able to accept some negatives from them. So while we need to be able to express tough love, we must first have delivered a whole bunch of positive/tender love in the ways most meaningful to the recipient. Only after individuals come to expect positives from you will they be willing and able to deal with tough love from you. Too much tough love is harsh and hateful. All tender love doesn’t make up a real relationship. A balance of a lot of tender love with some real tough love is productive, helpful and healthy.


You need to be willing and able to say no, to refuse the demands and requests of others. Most of us readily recognize the appropriateness of being able to say no to demands from strangers or enemies, but I believe it is also sometimes in the interest of our loved ones to say no to them.

In the Bible, when the Pharisees asked Jesus a question, trying to trick him, he refused to answer (Luke 20:8-18). Jesus also said no to his close friends, Mary and Martha, when they sent word to him that their brother, Lazarus, was sick. He didn’t leave immediately to go to them as they wanted. Instead, he delayed two days, conveying the message, “No, not right now.” His delay – his no – was for a good reason and, ultimately, for everyone’s benefit (John 11). When the mother of two of Jesus’ disciples asked him to place her two sons on either side of him in heaven, he told her no, that it wasn’t his place to award those positions (Matt. 20:21-23).


The word relinquish means to give over control of something. In this context, I think of it as giving over responsibility for a person or persons by stopping attempts to rescue them from the natural consequences of their own actions. Counselors urge family members or friends of persons with addiction problems to relinquish their attempts to protect the addicts from the consequences of their addictive behavior, to stop enabling them to maintain their addiction by trying to control them and/or the negative life experiences that result from their addictive behavior.

Similarly, when a rich young ruler asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus answered him, but when the young man heard the news and was unwilling to comply, Jesus let him go. He relinquished attempts to control the man’s choice. Sometimes the most loving thing to do for others is to relinquish feeling responsible for their choices and for the consequences of their choices.


At times, refuting the claims of others is the loving thing to do. Letting someone maintain a false and harmful belief isn’t loving if you have the power to point it out and correct it. In the Old Testament, the prophet, Nathan, challenged King David and helped the king see his own faults (2 Sam. 12). In the New Testament, the apostle Paul challenged the apostle Peter over a matter of doctrine (Gal. 2:11-21). To be sure, we ought to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). We also have a responsibility to confront and refute our own mistaken and harmful beliefs and attitudes. Doing so is the basis of cognitive behavioral therapy, one of the major forms of psychotherapy.


Beyond just refuting mistaken beliefs, we have not only the right but the responsibility to reprimand others at times. To reprimand means to criticize severely, to censure or to rebuke. Leviticus 19:17 says, [R]ebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt,” and 1 Timothy 5:20 says, “Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that others may take warning.” In Ezekiel 33:11, God says, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live….” Therefore, God urges rebuking, reproving, or reprimanding those who are engaging in behavior that is harmful to themselves and/or others for their own good.


Repudiating is even more severe than reprimanding. To repudiate is to disown, to refuse to have anything to do with someone. When someone has been repeatedly reprimanded but continues to engage in harmful behavior, there may come a point when the most caring choice is to refuse to interact any longer with the person in the hopes that such an extreme effort will cause the offending party to reconsider his or her actions. Sometimes people’s behavior is too toxic to tolerate. The practices of excommunication, shunning and dis-fellowshipping are examples of repudiation in some religious communities. Today, ongoing abusive behavior is obvious justification for separation from the abuser.

In conclusion, tender love may include giving tangible trinkets/treasures, spending quality time, talking and listening in affirming ways, doing caring tasks and/or bestowing wanted touch. Tough love may include refusing requests, relinquishing our efforts to rescue, refuting others’ mistaken beliefs, reprimanding others who are engaging in harmful behavior, and/or repudiating others (i.e., refusing to have anything to do with them as long as they continue to exhibit the harmful behavior).

We understandably ought to major in showing tender love and minor in showing tough love, but we ought to be willing and able to employ tough love techniques when tender love is insufficient because sometimes it is. Both sets of categories of love are actually assertiveness, which I consider an expression of love for self and others in ways that may benefit both short-term and long-term purposes.

Marty Seitz is an associate professor of psychology in the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Asbury University, where he has taught since 1989. He got his bachelor’s in psychology from Asbury University, studied at Asbury Theological Seminary, got a master’s degree in community counseling and a doctoral degree in counseling psychology from Georgia State University. In addition to his teaching, he has practiced as a licensed psychologist in Lexington since 1989, doing individual and couples’ counseling and has been working with the Access Wellness Group since its inception.

Read more Wellness Matters columns here.

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