At times, carers of people living with BPD have asked me if tough love is what they should be doing to help the person they care for, to make them “grow up”, or to give them ultimatums if they don’t change their behaviours. I have always answered that tough love is not the way to go, and certainly that’s what Valerie Porr says. I believe there are times to do tough love, but there are times when it will only exacerbate the situation and you will further distress someone who is already distressed, and as a result, make things even harder for yourself. There is a time to validate, and a time to do tough love, but the situations are completely different.
Always remember that the person who has BPD is in great emotional pain and they are doing the best they can to cope with this pain. They react to most situations with emotions that are far greater than those of us who don’t have BPD. They live with a great sense of shame all the time and feel they are unlovable. They are impulsive, so react quickly, often without thought of the consequences. They have a great fear of being abandoned, and this can be as simple as us walking out of the room. When you see that the person you love is distressed, whether they are sad, anxious or even angry, it is important to validate and acknowledge their feelings. Validate the emotion, not the action. Whether you think the emotion is way over the top, or wrong, is not the point here. It is their emotion and it is what they are feeling in that moment. Validation should decrease the volatility of their heightened emotion and things should become calmer. These are not the times to use reason as the person with BPD simply cannot hear us. These are often the times that they will say “you aren’t listening to me”, and in truth we are not listening. We are too busy using our logic, and the way we would react to such a situation, rather than using empathy to “walk in their shoes”.
At other times you will have to accept that the person with BPD is feeling so bad, depressed, or anxious, that they simply cannot function. These are the times when they cannot get out of bed, do not have the energy to have a shower or maybe cook dinner or do housework. Again, this is not the time to do tough love. This is not the time to give ultimatums. If the person had a broken leg you would not expect them to go for a run. At these times, the person we care for is “broken” emotionally and we need to treat them as gently as we do someone with a broken leg.
So, when is the time to do tough love? It is the time when we need to keep ourselves safe. It is the time when we need to look after ourselves and take time out from the many demands, sometimes unreasonable demands, that a person with BPD will ask of us. If the person we care for is threatening us, it is time to take a step back, a time to leave the room or the house, till things calm down. If the situation is really bad, it is time to be tough, as hard as that may be, time to call police. Do not hesitate to call for help. This is not the time to validate or negotiate. You need to keep yourself safe before anything else.
Tough love is needed when we as carers are depleted and exhausted by too many expectations that our caree may put on us. Some examples are phone calls in the middle of the night, calls while you are at work, asking for money when they have run out because of spending sprees, money for drugs and alcohol, unreasonable demands to be picked up or for you to come home because they are distressed. All of these are times to set limits. These are the times to be tough, to save your own health and sanity, while at the same time showing your loved one that they can and must take some responsibility for their own lives. It is important to set your boundaries which will differ from my boundaries. Let the person know that you will be there for them, but will not take phone calls after 10 pm or whatever is reasonable for you. If your loved one calls and demands to be picked up at times which are not convenient for you and there are other options, you need to do tough love and say no. Suggest other options or ask them what else they could do.
The hardest part of tough love of course, is when the person threatens suicide if you don’t do what they want. You could try validation first, by saying you can see that are distressed, but do try sticking to your response if you think you are being reasonable. You cannot let your loved one blackmail you by using a threat to suicide. If you do, it may become an ever-increasing pattern, no good for her/him and certainly no good for your mental health. You also need to show the person you care for that you trust them to make the right decision. You need to give them some dignity and self-respect. And, of course you need to come to the realisation that you cannot control their every moment. You are not responsible for their every action. All you can do is love them, help them cope with this illness as best they can, and at the same time look after your own mental and physical health.
I hope that helps clarify things. Neither validation or setting boundaries are easy to do. You will get it wrong sometimes, and you will worry, but in the long run it helps the person you care for, and it will help you cope better.
Note that this is my opinion, and it’s supported by Valerie Porr and other authorities.