Because Valentine's Day is tomorrow, it's well to recall that there are gradations of love -- some people love openly and freely, some people do not love enough. Indeed, some people even love too much.
According to Robin Norwood's recent book, "Women Who Love Too Much," this kind of love occurs "when being in love means being in pain . . . when we excuse his . . . bad temper, indifference or put-downs" and tolerate disliked values and behavior.
Challenging the powerful cultural notion that a woman can change a man if she loves him enough, Norwood, a California family therapist, asserts that though this belief is underscored in popular songs, love poems and women's magazines, it is absolutely erroneous and destructive to millions of women.
Describing "loving too much" as a pattern of thoughts, feelings and behavior that certain women develop in response to problems in their family backgrounds, Norwood says these women typically come from homes in which their emotional needs were not met. As a result, they try vicariously to fill those needs by becoming care- givers to indifferent or abusive men whom they try to change through love.
Terrified of abandonment, they will do anything to keep a relationship from dissolving -- waiting, hoping and trying harder to please. Crippled by low self-esteem, they take far more than half the responsibility, guilt and blame in a relationship.
In case histories and stories, she introduces many women who endured difficult relationships. Among the dozens we meet in her book are a 23-year-old college student who was the daughter of a violent father; a woman married for 30 years to a workaholic; a 26-year-old woman whose two ex-husbands were alcoholics; a young nurse who grew up filling in for an absent parent. Although all of their lives were different, they had something in common: They were obsessed with thoughts about a man, called the obsession "love" and allowed it to control their emotions and behavior at great emotional, even physical, cost.
"That," according to Norwood, "is measuring the degree of your 'love' by the depth of your torment."
Describing this primarily, but not exclusively, as a female syndrome, Norwood even looked at the men who choose these women. She found they want to be taken care of and have their problems solved as much as their women want to be needed.
Norwood thinks women who are repeatedly drawn into destructive relationships and struggle to make them work have an "addiction" to these doomed affairs. Moreover, some of these women eventually eat or drink too much or use drugs to tune out reality. The result is that they avoid focusing on their responsibilities to themselves and shun as "boring" men who are kind, stable and interested in them.
Not willing merely to uncover the deep neurotic roots of these women, the author also maps out a sensible 10-step plan for their recovery and warns that the process may take years. She advises such women to seek help, which can range from reading relevant books to seeking therapy. According to the writer, "To go for help you must, at least temporarily, give up the idea that you can handle it alone."
Warning these women to make their own recovery their first priority, she adds: "This may be the first time in your life that you have regarded yourself as truly important . . . worthy of your own attention and nurturing." Her other suggestions for recovery are that women who are repeatedly drawn into destructive relationships find a support group of understanding peers, seek spiritual rejuvenation and avoid getting hooked into the games that men play even as they face their own problems and shortcomings.
But the bottom line, of course, is that any person -- man or woman -- who does not first learn to love himself or herself can never learn the art of loving another.
In musing over Norwood's interesting book, I recalled that the answer is to love wisely. I also recalled the conclusion of "Othello," when Shakespeare's great general bemoans the loss of his true love Desdemona, whom he has just slain. Before killing himself, Othello expresses his wish for the way he might be remembered: " . . . then, must you speak of one that lov'd not wisely, but too well . . . . "