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Tough Love Reconsidered with BPD

Tough Love

Not too long ago I wrote an article on why tough love is not the answer for BPD. I still believe that ONLY tough love is not the answer; however, I have come to reconsider tough love and BPD.One of the reasons was that the TIME article said that DBT is a combination of emotional validation and tough love.

One of my list members has moved from the techniques that I provide in “When Hope is Not Enough” – which is basically a non-judgmental attitude plus validation and normalization – to a combination of those techniques plus “tough love.” What is tough love? In my opinion, tough love is the application of PERSONAL boundaries on a relationship. These personal boundaries need to be understood. Often, people don’t understand personal boundaries. Even popular books about BPD for Non-BPs (such as SWOE) get this concept wrong. In fact, even books that are ABOUT boundaries get this concept wrong. The other day I posted a link to a video of a part of the film “The Basketball Diaries” in which Jim Carroll’s mother (Jim Carroll is played by Leonardo DiCaprio BTW and the film is based on the book by Jim Carroll and is true) denies her son money for drugs (he is a heroin addict). She enforces her own boundary (I will not give my son money to buy drugs). She does not enforce a “rule” which is the way that someone tries to control the behavior of another person. Rules and boundaries differ significantly. With a rule, you try and control another person’s behavior – such as telling a child “you have to go to bed at 8:30 PM.” That is a rule, not a boundary, because it has to be enforced. Rules have to be enforced, boundaries do not (except on yourself).

Back to tough love… how does one use tough love with BPD? Well, first of all I have to say you can’t START with tough love, because first emotional trust has to be established. If you start with tough love and use ONLY tough love, that is a recipe for disaster with someone with BPD. The problem is that tough love hurts too much for them. They feel “different” and “broken” and tough love reinforces these feelings. However, tough love can be used once the trust is established. Tough love is something you can use FOR YOU to establish your own boundaries with someone with BPD. But you have to make sure that it’s your boundaries that are being applied and not rules for another person’s behavior.


11 comments to Tough Love Reconsidered with BPD

  • You wrote, “Well, first of all I have to say you can’t START with tough love, because first emotional trust has to be established. If you start with tough love and use ONLY tough love, that is a recipe for disaster with someone with BPD. The problem is that tough love hurts too much for them. They feel “different” and “broken” and tough love reinforces these feelings. However, tough love can be used once the trust is established.”

    I think that tough love or punitive boundaries (i.e., a long list of don’ts) are things that families feel like they are expected to utilize in an effort to control the behavior of someone diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Unfortunately, I cannot think of any instance where I have heard this was effective.

    You’re right; if there is to be any change in the behavior of someone with BPD, it must start within an atmosphere of trust, safety, and acceptance. For someone with BPD, it may take years to build this level of trust. It certainly doesn’t happen in a few short weeks.

    Thanks, Bon, for getting the word out that tough love, inflexible boundaries, and ultimatums simply do not work with this population.

  • Amanda,

    Sorry I have been not around – I was traveling quite a bit. I wanted to follow up on this. You say “punitive boundaries” – I say those are RULES and should not be used as well. The only boundaries that I encourage are for oneself and sometimes (after trust is established) using those boundaries can still feel punitive to others (especially those with BPD); however, it is important to me that, after trust is established, a loved one of someone with BPD can (and should) use their own personal boundaries – this can be seen as a form of “tough love” but it is not really that at all, because once trust si established, it is not really “tough” any more. Instead, it is usually respected. I have a boundary with my wife that I will not go out with her if she is over-medicated. Once I refused to go some where with her in this state, which upset her at the time. Later when asked about it I told her why and she said “oh” and that was that.


  • Oh, I think that we’re on the same page when it comes to this issue.

    You used the example of not going out with your wife if she’s over-medicated. It’s not practical to imagine that you’ll never do or say something that isn’t upsetting but you do have control over how you say it.

    In the mind someone with BPD, there’s a huge difference between the invalidation of saying, “I can’t believe that you took so much medication. Now we’re going to have to call the babysitter and cancel our plans for dinner!” and “You know, I’m not feeling comfortable with the amount of medication you took earlier. Let’s plan on going out to dinner on Wednesday instead.” One response can be seen as potentially hostile while they other is more gentle and validating.

    Knowing you, I suspect that you took the kinder approach.

    I think that the old adage of getting more flies with honey than with vinegar almost always applies to persons with BPD. Some may see this as “walking on eggshells” but I think that it comes down to giving the non-BP tools to be effective given a difficult situation.

  • Amanda,

    I like your approach and I think you and I agree on a lot of things. The reason I wrote this as “Tough Love Reconsidered” is I think at some point AFTER emotional closeness and trust is established, some boundaries – like you mentioned (“I don’t feel comfortable…”) work effectively to protect both a person with BPD and the loved ones. I have also found when a person (any person) is impaired by alcohol or drugs (or both) that that is not the time to be judgmental or to be “effective” – I “just say no” (haha). Afterward, IMO the “boundary” can be explained, effectively and non-judgmentally. I certainly never want to spur shame in anyone that struggles with shame issues. I always try to make this “enforcement” about my feelings and not hers. Sure, during the intoxication, the rage is likely to happen, but I know what it is really about – avoiding shame and pain. That, in me, breeds compassion, even when I have to say “no”.

    Yes, we’re on the same page.


  • John Lucas

    This is a good discussion about the concept of “tough love”, which I agree is not helpful for communicating with a BP, if we define tough love as a punitive and aggressive stance. And I like the concept of personal boundaries as described above–which is all about defining and communicating our own behavior, rather than trying to influence the behavior of the borderline.

    My current interest is in moving beyong boundaries and communicating to a borderline, fairly and non-judgmentally, about their behavior, and trying to influence it. I like the DEAR MAN GIVE FAST tool from dialectical behavior therapy as a means to do so. I just wanted to add these to this discussion, because they are different from boundaries in that they are focused not on our own behavior but on our request for someone else to behave in a certain way, but using a non-judgmental, compassionate, empathetic, validating approach.

    My one current frustration with this set of tools is that they feel daunting!

  • Arlyce Becker

    Do you have any suggestions for a 6 year old with behavior problems (not drug related)?

  • Possibly. What are the behavioral problems? I have a 6 year old son and he is pretty emotional – especially when tired. If you give me more detail, I can try to help.

  • Kay

    I see in January you received a question from someone about their 6 year old. I am living with my stepson who is a 10 almost 11 year old boy. He has lived here with my husband and I for just over a year now, because his BPD (with NPD tendencies) birth mother sent him here from her home state. We have had him in therapy several times a week, but with no results. He exhibits symptoms from several different personality disorders such as BPD, ODD, PTSD and has possibly been sexually abused and also a sexual abuser. We are at our wit’s end with him. The lying, stealing, manipulating and his seeming inability to truly feel things like remorse or guilt has worn us down to nothing.

    Any thoughts or suggestions? We are thinking about CBT and/or DBT but have yet to find someone in our area.

    Thank you for your time.

  • Michelle

    I saw this site and wanted to comment. My twin had BPD. We are 44 years old, and I have tried everything to try to have a normal relationship with her. I am sick and tired of her always trying to ruin my happiness because she fears abondonment. I moved 2000 miles away from her over 10 years ago, and she is still there, calling constantly, same old personality motes as always. I am TIRED of trying to give her a person to trust, of normalizing her issues, I am so tired. I have an opportunity to make my life even better with a person I love, and she hates that and just doesn’t stop. I am a recovering alcoholic and this is largely due to my whole life being about her. So tough love sounds like a great idea and I am doing it now! I am not doing this to help her, I am doing this to help me! I need some relief. I need some peace, I deserve to have a life of my own, FINALLY. Is tough love right for a BPD? Probably not. But I sure feel better. I have blocked her phone calls, texts and emails and she still gets a hold of other peoples phones to try to call and tell me how worthless I am. I am tired of doing everything for another person, but always only being as good as the last thing I did for her. I need tough love at this point for my own sanity and my sobriety. I have nothing to lose at this point.

  • Diana

    So you have a 25 year old BPD that trashes every car she is given to use for work – you think telling her she can only use the car if she goes to therapy once a week is punitive? If you cannot enforce any rules – how are they ever to learn that rules apply in life? And I agree with Michelle above – I am not doing tough love to help her – I am doing it to help ME. I am sick of my life being a misery and I do not think my life should be ruined forever while I pad the corners of life for our daughter who has cleaned us out emotionally and financially. So we told her she can use an old car of ours for work if she goes to therapy and pays off her traffic tickets. She is refusing to do either without us nagging her so we will take the car away. Only someone that has not had a child like this would feel we are being too harsh. If I dont do SOMETHING for ME soon – I will die of a heart attack from all of this. Enough.

  • If the rules that you are putting in place don’t work, then perhaps it is time to try something new… and perhaps that something new is counter-intuitive to your understood role of being a parent. Emotionally sensitive people can be “handled” in a certain way. I can see you’re exhausted from your daughter’s behavior. It’s emotionally draining when you have a person like that in your live. At the same time, I have noticed that dealing with my daughter is best done when I use the skills I wrote about in my book. The rules don’t work when someone is emotionally. You might like for them to work. You might think that it’s supposed to be that way. Yet, when it is not the way that it is supposed to be, what do you do then?

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