Can You Love Someone to Health?

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Can you love a character disturbed individual to health? Love, even the right kind of love, is never enough.

Marriages and other relationships fail for a variety of reasons. Some of the reasons are more common and predictable than others, such as communications difficulties, sexual fidelity problems, discord over financial matters, etc. While it’s not technically a cause per se for a relationship’s failure, over the years I’ve witnessed more than a few marriages eventually fall apart because for years one of the parties labored feverishly under the notion that with enough patience, commitment, nurturing, and above all, love in their hearts, their troubled, “wounded” spouse would change — that they would heal and grow into the kind of person they always believed they had it within them to be. All too often, however, they ended up throwing in the towel, feeling not only victimized and exploited but also utterly defeated in their attempt to love their partner to health. That raises the question of whether love is ever really enough to foster change.

When it comes to changing who we are, all too many folks in troubled relationships have had to learn the hard way that it takes a lot more than love to mend a broken character. I’ve written before about the “art” of therapeutic “loving”:

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Those articles focus on its power to help effect change in persons with disturbed or disordered character and who have at least the minimum required capacity for and motivation to change. But that kind of loving is not rooted in emotion or sentiment. Nor is it merely an expression of wishful thinking. It’s a skillful type of loving that is both challenging and reinforcing in nature and takes particular care not to be “enabling.” It also always puts the burden of change squarely where it rightly belongs: on the character-impaired individual. Changing who we are and becoming a better person in the process takes a lot of consistent, hard work. It also takes a unique kind of carefully structured support. Merely caring is not enough. There is a genuine method to this kind of loving and it takes the proper combination of therapeutic skill in the therapist and internal motivation on the part of the individual receiving it to be effective.

There are certainly cases where a person enters a relationship completely unaware of or deceived about who their prospective partner really is. This can happen with some of the more manipulative personalities I describe in In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?) and Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?). Sadly, in cases like these it often only becomes apparent who a person really is and how incapable they are of nurturing and sustaining a healthy relationship long after they’ve engaged in substantial exploitation and victimization. There are also times when a person enters a relationship aware from the beginning that their prospective partner has some serious “issues.” Perhaps they even know that those issues largely stem from significant deficiencies in the person’s character. They might even be aware of the risks associated with entering a relationship with such a person. Still, for a variety of reasons, they might put on the emotional blinders of denial and fantasize about what they want to believe is still possible. Perhaps they were aware of negative circumstances or trauma their potential partner experienced in the past and were of the belief not only that those circumstances must necessarily lie at the root of problems but also that only unconditional love could help resolve the hurt stemming from them. So, they cling to the unreasonable hope that with enough loving care on their part, the good they’re convinced must lie underneath their partner’s pain and ugliness will one day come gushing forth and they will live happily ever after. They have to learn the hard way that this rarely happens.

So what’s the answer to the question of the day? Can you in fact love a character disturbed individual to health? The answer is not so simple. Love, even the right kind of love, is never enough. The person with “issues” of a characterological nature has to be of a mind to do something about those issues. That’s a rare enough circumstance in itself, but it can happen. Even then, the “loving” such a person requires has to be of a special, well informed type. So, the answer is that you can do it, but doing so involves a lot more than most people entering relationships with character impaired people tend to think.

So, if you’re involved with someone you know has character “issues” and you’re convinced that all they really need is enough love and devotion to change, you might do well to reflect on just what kind of loving you have in mind. Otherwise, you’re likely to have to learn the hard and painful way that even the best of sentiments can’t heal the character troubled heart.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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