I can still feel the kneeler biting into my knees as I begged the pastor to pray for me. “I’m a failure at tough love,” I began. “No matter what I do, I can’t throw out my son.” For me and loads of other moms like me, “tough love” means “kicking him out” or “turning my back.” Anything less is enabling. Sound familiar?
The pastor’s gentle smile took me by surprise. He said, “I don’t believe in tough love.”
Those words changed me forever. But I only got it half right.
True, a humongous sack of guilt and shame lifted itself from my shoulders. The mill stone of enabling lightened. My three grown sons had been involved with drugs and alcohol since their early teens, no matter what I did to discourage them. As I dutifully attended meetings, all I kept hearing was that I should separate myself from them. Detach. Let go. Use tough love.
But as I told the pastor that day, I sucked at all three of those areas. I loved my kids more than anything, but I couldn’t extricate myself from their addictions to save to my life. And according to the experts, my life was what I would forfeit should I not heed the slogans.
I thought those slogans were all wrong. Love would win, well because love has to win. But what I was missing, in between the pure giving and the total detachment, was a third way. A love that doesn’t end up eating me alive. A love that incorporates boundaries that help me live my values.
Back then, I couldn’t accept love and boundaries. So I went home that day and put only love into high gear. I ignored the fact that my dysfunctional family has such deeply ingrained habits that it can tie any boundary to a chair and lock it in a closet without breaking a sweat. My dear husband, a former Marine with PTSD and his own family values, only knows two ways to be: silently mad at the world or putting up dukes to right whatever’s wrong.
I’ve tried to help him adopt the “don’t pick up the rope” strategy of dealing with our sons’ drug or alcohol-fueled outbursts. But unless I get all up in hubby’s face before he goes DEFCON 4, it’s no use. He yells and hurls back as many insults as they spit out. Then he goes back to stewing. And blaming me for not doing something about the situation.
He’s not one-hundred-percent right—or wrong. I’m a rescuer by nature, always willing to give another chance. And another and another. Two of our grown sons live with us and we constantly walk that razor’s edge. Will we call the cops again tonight? Will one or both of them break things, curse us, try to beat one another to a pulp? A rescuer like me plays these odds every single day.
If I’d do it for a stranger, I’ll do it for my loved one.
But I hardly ever stop there. I’m like the guy who rants against feeding people food to pets as he slips table scraps to his dog. I make excuses for trampling my own boundaries and then I wonder why I can’t make any progress.
Not long ago I told my spiritual director that I was stuck. I couldn’t seem to keep any of the boundaries I set. She replied, “You’re not stuck. You’re doing exactly what you say you’ll do.”
Between love or detachment, there is a third way: Love with boundaries.
At the time, her remark cut deep. But I’ve discovered that she’s right. I don’t keep my boundaries because I don’t think I deserve to live my values. Values, like peace, calm. Values that we respect and honor one another with our words, our actions, our thoughts.
This is the third way, people. The third way is scary and lonely but necessary to love well, as a friend puts it. My sons constantly dare me to keep loving them. I must dare my sons to keep loving me even when I have to say no. Like a three-strand cord, if I keep my support (friends if not family), my faith and my boundaries in place, I’ll be able to love with abandon. And that love starts with me. For me.
I’m working on it. It’s very hard. But until I change my self-perception of unworthiness, I won’t keep any boundary.
I’ll keep trying, though, and I’ll start again with what I’m good at. Since love is the place I excel with my sons, my only hope is to turn my love light inward. Do you struggle this way too? Let’s shine a lot more on our own faces and stop throwing ourselves so much shade.