True Love is Always Tough Love

Many people believe (including some psychologists) that ‘threatening to end a relationship’ is unfair, damaging and destroys trust.  The implication is that ‘true love’ is somehow above these sorts of ‘dirty tactics’ and that resorting to them will undermine trust so severely that the relationship might never recover.

Yet, I find in my work as a clinical psychologist working with couples that while ‘the threat’ ought to be used extremely sparingly, it is nonetheless one of the best strategies we have at our disposal for leveraging profound change.  

This is mainly because it makes clear exactly what we will and will not put up with in the final analysis.  It acutely highlights both our self-respect and the limits to our tolerance. It makes clear there is a precise point where we will choose ourselves over our partner – no matter how upset we feel about making that choice.

In addition, ‘the threat’ puts our partner under enormous pressure to change if they want to keep the relationship alive.  Interestingly, this enhances our partner’s motivation to change – which, even if they do not know it – is often exactly what they need in order to keep moving forward. 

Keep in mind that in very close, truly loving relationships we are regularly asking each other to change at profound levels – and people mightily resist this deep core change because it can feel temporarily destabilising.  Often people show this resistance by saying ‘Don’t you dare threaten me’.

But if we take out the inflammatory language that is so often used around ‘love’ we see that making a ‘threat’ in this context is not about threatening harm to another person, but rather about being willing to identify and articulate the likely outcome or consequence of certain unwanted behaviours.  For example, it might involve saying ‘as much as I love you, if you continue to sulk and resist talking about this important issue, then I will not be willing to stay in this relationship much longer’.  

We all have an inalienable right to walk away and say ‘no’ at any point in any relationship – and to do so is neither remotely ‘unfair’ or a ‘dirty tactic’.  It is also not strictly a ‘threat’; rather, it simply stipulates our limits and applies reasonable pressure on our partner to change.  If our partner is unwilling to change, then they can always argue their case more persuasively or walk away too.

One more point: this special treatment for ‘love’ comes out of a slightly patronising assumption that our partner cannot take being told to ‘shape up or ship out’ as if they might mentally collapse at the first sign of tough love. 

In fact, we all desperately require a partner who sets clear limits, calls us to account and expects decent behaviour – otherwise we are far more likely to collapse with disappointment in ourselves for not being able to find ways to progress in life.