Many clients and readers insist that if they were happier in their marriage or love relationship, they’d be less stressed and enjoy a better relationship with food. Indeed, they probably would. I will say with certainty, however, that some marriages can be fixed and some can’t be. Even I don’t always know what the outcome of counseling (individual or couples) will be. Here’s my view on what’s fixable and what isn’t.
There are personalities that will never change. If you’re partnered with a Sociopath or Psychopath (now clinically labeled Anti-social Personality Disorder), the chance that he or she will change is minus zero. Unlike you, these folks lack empathy and compassion for others and don’t genuinely care about people. They are exclusively self-serving and manipulate and abuse others brazenly or covertly—lying, lying about their lies, and intentionally trying to make you think you’re crazy (called Gaslighting). Some are extremely vengeful and calculating, while others are wildly impulsive and sadistic. They may receive pleasure from inflicting pain or be indifferent to doing so and feel no remorse, believing that, if you take it, you deserve what they dish out. Many are charming and seemingly switch overnight from your dream lover to your worst nightmare. They run hot and cold and seek out people who allow themselves to be controlled by them. Neither you nor therapy can change them. For more information on them, read Healing from Hidden Abuse by Shannon Thomas, LCSW.
Then there are Narcissists who are self-absorbed, self-serving, lack empathy, and your needs are rarely on their radar screen. They are not necessarily bad people, nor are they out to trample all over your ego. They simply put themselves and their needs first. These kinds of partners may or may not change from therapy. Once their needs are met, they can then (with the right incentives and training), try to meet yours. They will still generally put their needs first, but at least you have a shot at getting yours met.
Last are the people who aren’t any of the above, but who had dysfunctional childhoods in which they never learned how to care for themselves or others, may be chronically depressed or anxious, or who may suffer from trauma or abuse. Most of these people can change with appropriate encouragement and rewards. With them, you have a chance at improving your marriage or love relationship.
After reading the above, if you believe your relationship is fixable, an excellent, easy read (with a couple of caveats which I’ll get to in a minute) is The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman. In simple terms, this book lays out the different ways in which we wish to receive love: via physical touch, acts of service, quality time, words of affirmation, or receiving gifts. Chapman’s idea is that by recognizing and giving partners what they want, they will be more likely (when they know what our love language is) to give us what we want. I’ve tried using this concept with couples and it is highly effective. Change doesn’t happen overnight but, with time, a positive, rather than a negative, spiral can be created between lovers.
Now, on to my two caveats about the book. The first is my need to provide descriptions about Narcissists and people with Anti-social Personality Disorders. Chapman writes as if all these folks need in order to be nicer to you is for you to provide love in their chosen language. Not true. You could bend over backward to be kind to them and give them exactly what they want until the cows come home and that would only reinforce their contempt and desire for power over you. My second is that, as a secular therapist who tries to keep religion out of helping others in my office or books, I find Chapman’s discussion of religion at the end of his book unnecessary and potentially off-putting to non-religious readers.
Some steps to take to see if your love relationship can be fixed. 1) Try taking the “language” path for three or so months and, if you’re only feeling worse and receiving more abuse, you’ll know that your partner is unlikely to change. 2) Give therapy on your own or with your partner a try and pay close attention to whether your therapist seems to be encouraging or discouraging you from staying in the relationship. 3) Stop eating over your emotions and feel them and they will tell you whether you can stay or need to go.