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When love isn't enough, get tough: practicing tough love in marriage
Our spouses will drive us crazy, and most of the time those annoyances are pretty harmless. Other times, problems can be serious. How do we bring out the issues we're really worried about while encouraging the best in our significant other? - photo by Burkley Rudd
He never helps me in the kitchen.

She never cleans up after herself.

He doesn't like to be with the kids.

She ignores everything but the kids.

Let me evict the elephant in the room and give it to you straight: none of you have life down pat. From day one, to retirement and beyond, married couples are a work in progress out of necessity. Most of the time, disagreements are petty and fights are over minor things. The longer we live together and work to build a lasting and loving marriage, the smaller corrections will become.

Every so often though, an issue will pop up and be either too large or too chronic to ignore. Discussions may not be enough. Forgiveness, while essential, won't change the nature of the problem. Fighting might provide temporary relief, but won't actually offer a solution. It is in these moments that you must weigh the seriousness of the issue against keeping the status quo.

This is shaky ground to travel, and every step needs to be carefully planned, but if love for your spouse and your life together is really your motivation, you'd be willing to go anywhere to put the problem in the past.

Live by these rules when tackling the ugliest of flaws:

This is a joint effort

"His problem" and "her problem" ended with "I do." If you want to be the voice of accusation, point out what needs to happen, and then sit back, misery will be yours. Everything else you do in marriage you do together; it's OUR house, they're OUR children, it's OUR food. In the most personal and challenging issues, why would anyone think to leave a spouse on their own? It will take both of you to solve this.

Actually commit to ending it

This separates all your fights and superficial arguments from a concentrated handling of things. This has to assume that you are both in it to win it already. This means no matter what the obstacle is, you both want it out of your life, and you'll keep at it until you realize that dream.

This means that being flexible, forgiving, and understanding are all givens, but in the end, you both understand that what is going on is not ok and is not acceptable.

Patience, patience, patience

Changing anything about ourselves is really, really difficult. Few things seem to be stronger than a formed habit. Do not shoot yourself in the foot by scheduling an end date for your problem. Consistently working at change will always do more than setting an arbitrary goal and ramrodding a fix in before time is up. Stepping away from setting and reaching goals makes success harder to measure, and there may well be a place for goals in individual application. Patience, however, will carry the day: this fight is about solving a problem, not making a deadline.

Balance positive and negative

Nothing will prove to be more wearing than constant negativity, day in and day out. Every time the plan for change hits a snag, bite back the surge of soul-sucking comments that may surface, choose one careful, constructive criticism, and throw out the rest. Make that one criticism pointed, but also add a genuine positive thing to say. Progress will thrive in an environment that demands change but constantly encourages too.

Remember your motivation

Forgetting that this problem is being addressed because of your love for each other drives a wedge between you. Suddenly being alone will start to be more appealing than being together. Hate for the problem, without love to temper it into action, breeds hate for each other. Do not allow love to fade for even a moment.

No, this will not be easy, and tough love can sound an awful lot like nagging and spouses sounding and looking like parents. It might be a careful balancing act, but tough love is indispensable in making each other better. Love is the key ingredient that sets tough love apart. It's not always enough on its own, but it can never be replaced.
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