If Being in Love Means Being in Pain, Therapist Robin Norwood Says You Are a Woman Who Loves Too Much

updated 12/09/1985 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/09/1985 01:00AM

"It was mostly from the wives and girlfriends of addictive men that I began to understand the nature of the disease," says Robin Norwood, 40, author of the best-selling Women Who Love Too Much, subtitled When You Keep Wishing and Hoping He'll Change (Tarcher/ St. Martin's Press, $14.95). In the book Norwood examines why women become involved in destructive relationships with men, and what can be done about the fatal attraction. A California licensed family and marriage therapist with a master's degree in human development from Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena, Norwood is married to her third husband, Robert Calvert, 45, a deputy district attorney for Santa Barbara. Norwood, the mother of a son, Lane, 21, and a daughter, Piper, 17, discussed her work with reporter Lee Powell.

Who is the woman who "loves too much"?

She is a woman who gets into relationships with men who have problems, knowing full well they do have problems. She's obsessed with another person, whether it's a partner of many years or a series of partners. If she's not with a man, then she's obsessed with finding one. She's a woman who measures the degree of her "love" by the depth of her torment.

Why is loving too much destructive?

It's like any other addiction. Everything deteriorates: her work, her health, her relationships. She can die from stress-related physical disorders or from being so preoccupied with someone else she doesn't take care of herself. Some of these women actually become suicidal.

What drew you to this subject?

I grew up in a single-parent home. My parents separated during World War II, and I met my father only once, when he took me out to dinner after my fifth-grade graduation. Then at Burbank High School I heard a psychologist describe working with families, helping them to talk about their problems. Without plugging into how much I wanted that to happen in my own family, I knew that's what I wanted to do.

Are there men who love too much?

There are some. Men aren't set up biologically to be childbearers, nor are they culturally programmed to be caretakers. So men are more apt to turn to something outside themselves, like work or sports. But men who do stay with, say, alcoholic women are themselves often from alcoholic homes. Women are more loyal, perhaps neurotically so. Look at the statistics: One out of 10 men stays with an alcoholic wife; nine out of 10 women stay with an alcoholic partner.

What do these women have in common that contributes to their problem?

They usually come from poorly functioning families where they learned very early to take responsibility for others, to monitor the emotional climate and to try to keep it stable. Many come from families where there is alcoholism, drug addiction or compulsive gambling. If there's a struggle going on between the adult partners in the family or between a parent and the world—to make a living, for example—then the children can feel abandoned emotionally.

What is the result?

A child in a troubled family feels she must solve her parents' problems in order to earn their love. But she can't, and they are too obsessed with their pain to love and nurture her.

What other factors are involved?

Just being the oldest in a troubled family can force a child into an overly responsible role. When a parent is ill it may create a situation over which the child is powerless but with which she tries to cope.

How serious can these problems be?

The most devastating, for example, is incest, and a daughter who is forced to take over her mother's role is betrayed both physically and emotionally. It's a grim legacy because the victim is likely, in adulthood, to choose a partner who will violate her daughter. We tend to repeat patterns we grew up with.

Aren't most females in our society raised to be caretakers?

From childhood on we're surrounded by messages that tell us, in books, articles and on TV, that we have the power to fix and control others if we use it correctly, which is a total fiction. For example, we're supposed to make our partners healthier, better lovers, more successful. When a woman has grown up in an impaired or abnormal family, the problem of wanting to change someone else becomes exaggerated, sometimes to the point of pathology.

You refer to these women as addicts and call their problem a "disease." Aren't those pretty strong words?

Not if you see how sick these women become and still are unable to let go. If their partners leave them, they suffer withdrawal symptoms that are very powerful and physical. They can often become sleepless, restless, they can have chills, even nausea. Just as a compulsive eater goes all over town looking for the chocolate cake or a drug addict stays up all night looking for a connection, the woman who's addicted to relationships drives around trying to find her partner. It's humiliating, out-of-control behavior. There's no difference that I've been able to find between an addict coming off heroin and a woman coming off an obsessive relationship.

How many of the women you see are attracted to men who are dependent on alcohol or drugs?

When I worked at a clinic that wasn't specifically oriented toward drug and alcohol abuse, I observed that about 80 percent of the men and women seeking professional advice in my office were either chemically dependent on drugs or alcohol, or were the mothers, sisters, wives and daughters of abusers. And remember, for every alcoholic there are four other people whose lives are affected. A therapist I worked with once told me, "You can't find an alcoholic who doesn't have a girlfriend. You know why? Because alcoholics are so exciting."

Why are alcoholics intriguing?

When an alcoholic asks you out, you never know if he'll show up. He might show up two days late, with roses, and say, "Let's fly to San Francisco for dinner." And when he does show up, we think we are so wonderful that he did it for us. We pit ourselves against the behavior pattern and we want to win.

Isn't love supposed to be exciting?

That's the rough part. Since the age of chivalry we've been romanticizing suffering. "This is the real thing," we say when it hurts. Television portrays seductive relationships as though they were reality, when they lack all the ingredients for stability or real intimacy. There's no trust, no security, just all this drama.

Could this be a result of the changing role for women today?

No. We used to believe women stayed in terrible relationships because of economics. But today women with wonderfully paying jobs stay in or repeat unhealthy relationships. This situation is a product of the families we've grown up in, the problems we learned to cope with—or couldn't cope with—in childhood.

How does a woman recover?

First she should seek help. Usually a woman wants to help him, her partner. But it's important to focus on yourself and to help yourself. See someone who understands addiction. For example, I think Al-Anon, which treats the partners of alcoholics, is the treatment of choice because the best help comes from people who have been through it all themselves and are recovering. There is also Nar-Anon for the partners of narcotics abusers and shelter services for battered wives. Whatever the problem, there is usually a support group. I trust that more than professional help.

How does a woman make recovery her first priority when she has children, perhaps a job and a sick partner?

I believe that if you put your own recovery first, everything else takes care of itself. Spend as much time and energy changing yourself, which is possible, as you've spent trying to change your partner, which is impossible.

Does recovery mean that you have to be loveless and alone?

No, but you have to get your focus on yourself, face your own destructive patterns. It's a rough world, and most of us would like to hold hands with somebody. But when you cling to one person as the source of all good things in life, this dependency is going to fill you with fear. You can get some of the things that make you feel good from yourself, your friends or your co-workers. Someone once told me, "We can have everything we want and need, but we can't say where it's going to come from."

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