The End of Tough Love

The End of Tough Loverestorative justice, love, connection

Johann Hari wrote a wonderful article about Portugals’ alternative approach to drug addiction. Studies show that punishment (tough love) rarely works for addicts, rats or inmates. One of our most human needs is to be connected socially. Unfortunately most current approaches for both crime and addiction use methods that isolate and punish people for their behavior. The exact opposite of what they need.

Photo from Insight Prison Project website.

In both cases, the drug only becomes irresistible when the opportunity for normal social existence is destroyed. – Bruce Alexander

This study clearly shows that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, but connection. Our minds, bodies and very beings yearn for social connection. It is interesting to me that when both rats and people are given a choice between “addictive” drugs or social connections choose social connections. This is how researchers realized that it wasn’t the drugs that led to addiction, but the isolation.

Thankfully, Portugal has led the way in showing us a better way to treat drug addiction. About 15 years ago Portugal had one of the worst drug addiction problems in Europe. After using the traditional punitive war-on-drugs approach with no success, Portugal decided to try a very different approach. They made drugs legal, focusing on giving addicts support instead of punishment. They were given places to live, work, emotional skills and social connections. This approach has reduced addiction by over 50% and can be a model for other countries.

This is similar to the restorative justice movement that I’ve written about several times. Most restorative programs focus on restitution, responsibility, dialog, community service, making peace and more. Restorative justice is being used in schools, prisons, and as an alternative to prison and punishment.

The part of the article about shunning addicts really hit home for me. Usually, shunning an addict will deepen the addiction or worse. Sadly, I can attest to the truth of this. My Dad struggled with alcohol abuse, causing many problems with family, work and more. We tried the confrontation and intervention approach. It led to more drinking, pain and isolation. My parents divorced and within a few short years, my father died of alcohol-related illnesses, alone and isolated. I know that we did the best we knew how, but I feel the pain of my father’s isolation and truly believe he died of a wounded heart as much as the alcohol. Clearly he needed love and connection more than he needed discipline.

And to be clear, I’m not saying that we let addicts harm us and run rampant over our lives. I simply want us to acknowledge the evidence that addicts need love more than discipline.

I hope this compassionate approach to crime and drug rehab takes root in our homes, schools, governments and more. We all need and want more love.


25 thoughts on “The End of Tough Love

  1. Thank you for sharing this story, Brad, both about Portugal’s humane approach and your own experience with it as well. The ‘tough love’ thing has surfaced here and there in my reflections over the last couple of years, too, and I’ve noticed that it seems, really, to be a cop-out … like a way to quickly toss the ‘hot potato’ because the issue isn’t an easy one and would require us to actually ‘show up’ in empathy, etc. And as you said, that’s not to say it means we let ‘addicts’ run rough-shod over us or tolerate abusive behavior. In any case, your post touches on an important issue and possible humane approach. Blessings, Jamie

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Amazing evidence Brad.. Its been within my own experience of viewing those who resort to drug taking that many turn to drugs as they lack love within their lives.. And I am under no doubt that bringing that connection back, of feeling wanted and loved, helps them give up their addiction..
    Many thanks for this…
    Blessings Suex

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  3. A great atricle Brad, very informative. It reinforces the philosophy that fighting something doesn’t achieve the desired results, only by connecting with it and understanding the problem can we make positive change.
    This is the root of our problems in so many areas, from the small to the large, whether it be the ‘war against drugs’ or the ‘war on terror’. When we fight something we give it energy.
    It is heartening to hear about enlightened attitudes 🙂

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  4. Although along a slightly different vein, I read a story yesterday about an inmate program that pairs recently released inmates with pets from a shelter who would not otherwise have a home. The gentlemen in question had just completed serving a ten year sentence from selling cocaine. He certainly appeared to have changed his ways, and the win-win situation for both canine and human was a truly synergistic solution to needs on both sides of the equation.

    I appreciate you sharing this very personal story Brad – and I agree with you that we need to acknowledge more than what we often choose to see on the surface. Once we dig beneath the outer layer and really take time to look what’s inside, the story certainly shifts from resentment and anger towards one of compassion – thank you 🙂

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  5. That is a great story Dave and similar. It also points to the same drive for connection. For me, the beauty of caring is that it grows when shared! Thanks for your kind words and heart. I appreciate you and hope many of us dig deeper to find the hidden gems in ourselves and others. 🙂


  6. I read something about this not too long ago (maybe in another of your posts) and found the rat test really interesting, it makes a lot of sense, we all need that feeling of connectedness. In my own personal experiences with the addicts in my life (currently happening, actually), I have had to completely separate myself from them for my own well being – emotional and physical. There’s is quite a bit of guilt involved, knowing that they very well may self destruct, but sometimes there comes a time where letting go is all you can do, and unfortunately no amount of love you can give a person can save them from themselves. 😦

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  7. Hi Julie. I’m sorry you and they are having to deal with addiction. It is a very challenging situation and you know what is best for you. I hope they find the tools, connections and love to heal. hugs and blessings,


  8. Thank you Dear Brad for shedding light on this. It makes so much sense — and yet?? Your dad’s story breaks my heart, and I send you so much love for having the courage to share your firsthand experience with such a devastating issue. 💗

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Brad, the stories on Restorative Justice are remarkable. The older I get, the more I think we’ve almost entirely missed the boat on crime and punishment in North America.

    We claim to be Christian societies, but we are following the harshest of Old Testament beliefs about war and hatred and ‘justice’. People – especially the young – do something wrong and are sent to prison, but it is there that they become hardened criminals. (How ridiculous that here in Canada we call these places “correctional facilities”!)
    We have a lot to learn from Aboriginal communities on justice, healing and restoration.

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  10. I totally agree Cynthia. You remind me of something I read about an African tribe that encircles a person who has done wrong and showers them with praise and reminders of all they have done right and their inherent worth. All in the belief that their behavior is a sign of needing help.


  11. There’s the Brad I know. And yet I’m still impressed by the largeness of your heart. How compassionate of you to see your father that way after all the heartache you earned at the hands of his addiction. Thank you for such a powerful post, my friend. Keep shining.


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  12. Thanks for your kind reflections Diana. It took me a while, but I realize we are all doing the best we can. And under our addictions, pain and acting out, what we really want is love and acceptance. Your compassion is showing too. Lights, action! 🙂


  13. Hi Brad,
    I think your recent post led me to this page. I am very moved by this article, and feeling really grateful to you for your sympathies toward your father, and your spreading the message of compassionate connecting. It makes me very sad to think of so much unnecessary loneliness and isolation. I do think that to a certain extent transient loneliness it is part of the human condition. We do the best with what we can and what we know, and sometimes its just a feeling that comes and goes with the shifts of our lives. What you wrote here about the addicts in Portugal, “They were given places to live, work, emotional skills and social connections,” is key to the solution, and as you pointed out, it was proven. Often families are encumbered with these challenges alone within their families. No family for that matter should have to face so many challenges alone. Thank you for highlighting this article and sharing it here.

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  14. Hi Ka and thanks for caring so much. I appreciate you exploring both posts and opening your heart to this kind of challenge. As you mentioned, it would be nice for everyone to get help, instead of floundering alone or even being punished for what is typically a lack of social skills and connection. And yes, loneliness seems part of the path, at least in our modern culture. The communal aspects were much stronger in tribal life and continue in some areas still.

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  15. Your recent Jimmy Carter post on humility brought me here, too. Connection is definitely a key component in successful recovery. I believe that is why 12 step programs continue to draw people in to recovery. But the emotional skills, wisely provided by the Portugal program, are crucial. I’ve known many addicts who didn’t know how to connect with people outside of the drug lifestyle. They feel like they won’t fit in and will be judged by “regular” people. Teaching people how to connect and what to do with all the feelings that surface when they quit using or drinking, and walking with them through this process takes time and commitment. Recovery is a lot more work than many people realize. Thanks for posting this article about Portugal’s alternative program.


    • Thanks JoAnna. I always appreciate your visits and thoughtful comments. I attended some 12 step meetings in my 30’s and understand how hard it is for some people with addictions. The restorative justice programs and Portugals approach to treatment give me hope. Mostly, we all need more love, support and connections. Thankfully, we’re starting to understand that in our treatment approaches. to compassion…


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