Women Who Love Too Much (2014) analyzes the psychology of women who are addicted to toxic relationships with men who are either incapable of loving, or incapable of taking care of themselves.
Originally published in 1985, the author Robin Norwood has revised “Women Who Love Too Much” in successive years.
- Women who love too much are addicted to toxic relationships
- Women who love too much confuse pain and anxiety for love and sexual chemistry
- Women who love too much can recover. But they first need to admit they have issues to tackle
About the Author: Robin Norwood is a licensed marriage and family therapist. She worked in the field of addiction, both substance and relationship addiction, for fifteen years.
What “Loving Too Much” Means: A Definition
In chapter 2 I found this description which I thought was the best definition of “loving too much”:
It means obsessing about a man and calling that obsession love, allowing it to control your emotions and much of your behavior, realizing that it negatively influences your health and wellbeing, and yet finding yourself unable to let go. It means measuring the degree of your love by the
depth of your torment.
It does NOT mean, instead, loving too many men, or falling in love too often, or having too great a depth of genuine love for another.
Such as, it’s totally fine to love deeply and greatly. If you love deeply and the relationship is sound and healthy, then you have a great relationship. It’s only when love becomes pain within a dysfunctional relationship that you are loving too much.
You’re Loving Too Much When…
You are loving too much when:
- When being in love means being in pain we are loving too much
- When most of our conversations with friends are about him, his problems, his thoughts, his feelings—and nearly all our
sentences begin with “he . . .”, we are loving too much
- When we excuse his moodiness, bad temper, indifference, or put-downs as problems due to an unhappy childhood and we try to become his therapist, we are loving too much
- When we read a self-help book and underline all the passages we think would help him, we are loving too much
- When we don’t like many of his basic characteristics, values, and behaviors, but we put up with them thinking that if we are only attractive and loving enough he’ll want to change for us, we are
loving too much
- When our relationship jeopardizes our emotional well-being and perhaps even our physical health and safety, we are definitely loving too much
Ways in which women “help” their men
Women who love too much helps their men in ways that can severely impair their emotional and financial well-being.
Some examples include:
- buying him clothes to improve his self-image
- finding a therapist for him and begging him to go
- financing expensive hobbies to help him use his time better
- going through disruptive geographic relocations because “he’s not happy here”
- giving him half or all of our property and possessions so he won’t feel inferior to us
- providing him with a place to live so that he can feel secure
- allowing him to abuse us emotionally because “he was never allowed to express his feelings before”
- finding him a job
Types of men she finds attractive
- Unstable man: We find the unstable man exciting
- Unreliable man: challenging
- Unpredictable man: romantic
- Immature man: charming
- Moody man: mysterious
- Angry man: needs our understanding
- Unhappy man: needs our comforting
- Inadequate man: needs our encouragement
- Cold / distant man: needs our warmth
Says the author:
We take his emotional unavailability, his anger or depression or cruelty or indifference or violence or dishonesty or addiction, for signs that he has not been loved enough. We are determined to save him through the power of our love
And, finally, the man you wouldn’t expect:
- The loser: a man who can’t attract anyone else assures women that he wouldn’t be able to meet others, including other women. Many women
who love too much fear abandonment. Better to be with someone who didn’t quite meet her needs but whom she wouldn’t lose than with someone more loving and more lovable, who might leave her for someone else
Says one woman:
Also, I had at least twenty IQ points over him. And I needed that edge. It took all that and more to make me even begin to believe I was his equal, and that he wouldn’t leave me for someone better.
And what about “good men”?
That’s not interesting because we can’t be helpful to him, and he doesn’t make us suffer enough.
The good man is also scary, because he doesn’t need us, and he might leave us.
Traits of Women Who Love Too Much
- Come from a dysfunctional home in which your emotional needs were not met. Children are to some extent damaged in their ability to feel and relate.
- Denied feelings: Emotional needs also include having your perceptions and feelings ignored or denied rather than accepted and validated (example: “why are you mad at daddy”, mother replies angry “I’m not mad”. The child feels fear, confusion, anger, and guilt. The child learns not to trust his own perceptions)
- Received little real nurturing, so you try to fill this unmet need vicariously by becoming a caregiver, especially to men who appear in some way needy.
- Unable to change your parent(s) into the warm, loving caretaker(s)
you longed for, you respond deeply to the familiar type of emotionally unavailable man whom you can again try to change through your love
- Terrified of abandonment, you will do anything to keep a relationship from dissolving.
- Almost nothing is too much trouble, takes too much time, or is too expensive if it will “help” the man you are involved with
- Accustomed to lack of love in personal relationships, you are willing to wait, hope, and try harder to please
- Take far more than 50 percent of the responsibility, guilt, and blame in any relationship
- Critically low self-esteem, and deep inside you do not believe you deserve to be happy. Rather, you believe you must earn the right to enjoy life (also see: consequences of low self-esteem)
- Desperate need to control your men and relationships, having
experienced little security in childhood. You mask your efforts to control people and situations as “being helpful.”
- Focus on “how it could be” instead of “how it is”, you are much more in touch with your dream of how it could be than with the reality of your situation.
- Addicted to men and to emotional pain
- Potentially, a predisposition to addiction: you might be emotionally and biochemically predisposed to becoming addicted to drugs, alcohol, and/or certain foods, particularly sugary ones
- Little self-care: By being drawn to people with problems that need fixing, or by being enmeshed in situations that are chaotic, uncertain, and emotionally painful, you avoid focusing on your responsibility to yourself
- Possible tendency towards depression: you may have a tendency toward episodes of depression, which you try to forestall through the excitement provided by an unstable relationship
- Find reliable men boring: you are not attracted to men who are kind, stable, reliable, and interested in you. You find such “nice” men boring (see: the friend role)
Childhood trauma is a centerpiece of Norwood’s work, and she says:
The more difficult it is to end a relationship that is bad for you, the more elements of the childhood struggle it contains.
She says that women who love too much are unconsciously seeking to rectify all wrongs of their childhood by persevering in toxic relationships.
How Women Who Love Too Much Related to Sex
Women who love too much have a very peculiar relationship with sex.
They tend to confuse fear and anxiety for both love and sexual attraction. And sex is also one of the main ways women try to “love him toward health”.
- She seeks a man who needs her: She asks the question “How much does he love (or need) me?” and not “How much do I care for him?”
- Sex as a way to get him hooked: Most of her sexual interactions with him are motivated by “How can I get him to love (or need) me more?”
- Gives sex freely to be loved: Her drive to give herself sexually to others whom she perceives as needy may result in behavior that she herself labels promiscuous, but her behavior is primarily for another’s gratification, rather than for her own.
- Sex as manipulation: is one of the tools she uses for manipulating or changing her partner
- Power struggles are exciting to her: she often finds the power struggles of mutual manipulation very exciting. She behaves seductively to get her own way and feels great when it works and bad when it doesn’t. Failing to get what she wants usually causes her to try even harder
- Confuses anxiety and fear for love: She confuses anxiety, fear, and pain with love and sexual excitement
- Confuses anxiety with love: She calls the sensation of having a knot in her stomach “love.”
- She derives her pleasure from him, not from herself: She takes her excitement from his excitement. She doesn’t know how to feel good for herself; in fact, she is threatened by her own feelings.
- Sexual attraction only exists through anxiety: Unless the challenge of an unfulfilling relationship is there, she becomes restless. She is not sexually attracted to a man with whom she is not struggling. Instead, she labels him “boring.”
- She picks inexperienced men to be in control: she often teams up with a man who is less experienced sexually, in order that she feel in control.
- She yearns for physical closeness, but can’t get emotionally close: because she fears being enveloped by another and/or being overwhelmed by her own needs for nurturing, she is only comfortable with the emotional distance created and maintained by stress in the relationship. She becomes fearful when a man is willing to be there for her emotionally as well as sexually. She either runs away or drives him away
My Note: this is a fearful attachment style
This was another passage where attachment styles would have added further depth to this book. The author is partially describing here a fearful / anxious attachment style.
- The anxious – avoidant trap: this article will explain the dynamics of the toxic relationship between women who love too much and unavailable men
- Dating for fearful/anxious attachment styles: advice on how to date that works well for women who love too much
Sex As Release of Tension
Sex can be gratifying in toxic relationships for a number of reasons:
- Women see it as a way of bonding again and fixing the relationship. Thus, the degree of sexual release may be highest when the discomfort with her partner is the highest
- Sex is a release of tension, hence, the higher the tension the higher the release
The good sex could then be used as a way of validating the relationship and sticking together in spite of the toxicity.
She can point at sex and think “look how great we fit and make each other feel, we belong together in spite of all the pain”.
The sex act, when it is highly gratifying physically, has the power to create deeply felt bonds between two people.
For women who love too much, especially, the intensity of our struggle with a man may contribute to the intensity of our sexual experience with him and thus our bond to him.
The converse is also true. Relationships free of pain and anxiety also seem less exciting for women who love too much.
Says the author:
Because we are not in an almost constant state of excitement over him, and because sex isn’t used to prove something, we may find an easier, more relaxed relationship to be somewhat tame. Compared to the tempestuous styles of relating that we’ve known, this tamer kind of experience only seems to verify for us that tension, struggle, heartache, and drama truly do equal “real love.”
In part, that’s because people don’t differentiate today between love and sexual attraction.
Plus, women who love too much also aren’t able to see the link between pain and sexual satisfaction.
The Toxic Bond Can Be More Addictive
Sex is part of an overall trend by which the toxic relationship can be more addictive than a healthy one.
Says the author:
It would be safe to say that the attraction between two people who have the capability of creating a rewarding relationship based on the exchange of healthy responses, while perhaps strong and exciting, is never as compelling as the attraction between a woman who loves too much and the man with whom she can “dance.”
- Relationship dances: the chaser and runner (or pursuer and distancer) is a common dance that women who love too much engage in
Loving Too Much Is An Addiction Based on Fear
Women who love too much are addicted to men -certain types of men- and to toxic relationships.
The author says that the relationship is not based on love, but on fear.
The fears include:
- fear of being alone
- fear of being unlovable and unworthy
- fear of being ignored, abandoned or destroyed
We give our love in the desperate hope that the man with whom we’re obsessed will take care of our fears.
Instead, the fears—and our obsession—deepen until giving love in order to get it back becomes a driving force in our lives.
And because our strategy doesn’t work we try, we love even harder.
Men Get Addicted Too, But Sometimes to Different Things Than Relationships
Most men who have been damaged in childhood do not develop an addiction to relationships.
Due to an interplay of cultural and biological factors, they usually try to protect themselves and avoid their pain through pursuits that are more external than internal, more impersonal than personal. Their tendency
is to become obsessed with work, sports, or hobbies.
My Note: Attachment theory explains men’s reactions
This is where the attachment theory would have made this book more complete.
Many men with attachment issues become avoidants and/or emotionally unavailable.
Childhood Traumas That Lead to Loving Too Much
- Addiction in the family
- Violence at home
- Mysoginist father: maybe your father, while providing a financially secure home, disliked and distrusted women
- Unloving father: and his inability to love you kept you from loving yourself
- Jealous mother: your mother’s attitude toward you may have been jealous and competitive in private even though she showed you off and bragged about you in public, so that you ended up needing to do well to gain her approval and yet fearing the hostility your success generated in her
Norwood said that there are a thousand ways family dynamics can be toxic and lead to the dysfunctional patterns of loving too much.
However, all toxic families have one thing in common, she says:
What all unhealthy families have in common is their inability to discuss root problems. There may be other problems that are discussed, often ad nauseum, but these often cover up the underlying secrets that make the family dysfunctional. It is the degree of secrecy—the inability to talk about the problems— rather than their severity, that defines both how dysfunctional a family becomes and how severely its members are damaged.
In dysfunctional families, people cover a certain fixed role that are set in place to hold up a certain (false) narrative, or to avoid discussing and addressing tabu topics that the family carefully avoids (see “Transaction Analysis“).
Because our family denies our reality, we begin to deny it, too. And this severely impairs the development of our basic tools for living life and for relating to people and situations. It is this basic impairment that operates in women who love too much. We become unable to discern when someone or something is not good for us.
Dependency to Relationships As a Drug
Norwood repeatedly draws parallels between addiction to (toxic) men and relationships and the addiction to drugs.
She says the two are similar even in their stages.
These are the stages seen through one of her clinical examples, a woman called “Jill”:
- Initial high: early in each of her relationships there was an initial “high,” a feeling of euphoria and excitement while she believed that finally her deepest needs for love, attention, and emotional security might be met.
- Use the “drug” more and more: the woman seeks the drug more and more frequently
- Addiction grows: Jill became more and more dependent on the man and the relationship in order to feel good
- More drug is needed: Then, like an addict who must use a drug more as it produces less effect, she was driven to pursue the relationship harder as it gave her less satisfaction and fulfillment. Trying to sustain what had once felt so wonderful, so promising, Jill slavishly dogged her man, needing more contact, more reassurance, more love as she received less and less
- The worse it gets, the harder it is to let go: the worse the situation became, the harder it was to let go because of the depth of her need. She could not quit
- Withdrawal symptoms: Some women may unconsciously seek powerful the stimulation of a difficult and dramatic relationship in order to stir their glands to release adrenaline. But when the strong stimulant of involvement in an unhealthy relationship is removed, either because the relationship ends or because the man begins to recover from his problems and to relate to her in a healthier way, a woman of this type will usually sink into depression
We Take Full Blame to Dupe Ourselves That We Have Control
Extreme ownership can be a good thing.
And it can be an empowering mindset, too (follow the link for the forum discussion).
However, some people take extreme ownership as a defensive mechanism to protect their emotional well-being and to cling to tiny shivers of hope.
When an emotionally painful event occurs, and we tell ourselves it is our fault, we are actually saying that we have control of it: if we change, the pain will stop.
This dynamic is behind much of the self-blame in women who love too much.
By blaming ourselves, we hold on to the hope that we will be able to figure out what we are doing wrong and correct it, thereby controlling the situation and stopping the pain.
Women Who Love Too Much Are Attracted to Needy & Distant Men…
Says one of the women that the author introduces as examples:
I remember now how I kept trying to be in his direct line of vision and how he kept sort of puffing away at this pipe, looking off to the side or up at the ceiling, or fiddling with keeping the pipe lit. I thought he was so very mature, with his furrowed brow and faraway look. I was drawn like a magnet.
The woman had a distant father and she always tried to get his attention to make him stay at home.
Now she was doing the same with this unavailable man.
… And Men Who Are Loved Too Much Are Attracted to Strong and Caring Women
But who are the men?
Who are the men who get mired in toxic relationships?
Though the details differ from story to story, always present is the appeal of the strong woman who somehow promises to make up for what each man is lacking in himself or his life.
Says the author:
“Do you need me?” the woman who loves too much secretly asks.
“Will you take care of me and solve my problems?” is the silent query behind the spoken words of the man who would choose her to be his partner.
This made me think that the author is wrong when she says that men don’t “love too much”.
Some of these men are actually seeking the relationship that they lacked with a distant mother.
Also interesting are the stories of men who fall for the women, including:
- Men feel great for the attention women who love too much shower them with
- Men feel great for women who fix their mistakes
- Addicts fall for women who love too much because they help them stay addicts
However, when the women’s strength help fix the man’s weakness, the man sometimes can come to resent the woman.
When someone helps us, we often resent that person’s implied power and superiority.
Moreover, a man often needs to feel stronger than his female partner in order to feel sexually attracted to her. In this case, the help Rita gave Bart by getting him into a hospital only made it clear how very sick he was, and her deeply caring gesture thus undermined, at least for a while, his sexual attraction to her.
Very good understanding of relationship power dynamics from Robin Norwood.
The Steps of Recovery
- Go for help
- Make your own recovery the first priority in your life
- Find a support group of peers who understand
- Develop your spiritual side through daily practice
- Stop managing and controlling others
- Learn to not get “hooked” into the games
- Courageously face your own problems and shortcomings
- Cultivate whatever needs to be developed in yourself
- Become “selfish.”
- Share with others what you have experienced and learned
Don’t seek the support of the people you were helping: they need you to stay sick so they can keep doing what they were doing.
Traits of Recovered Women
Recovery is a life-long process, it’s never a finish line at which you can say “done”.
But you will know you’re getting close when you can recognize yourself in the following traits:
- She accepts herself fully, even while wanting to change parts of herself. There is a basic self-love and self-regard, which she carefully nurtures and purposely expands
- She accepts others as they are without trying to change them to meet her needs
- She is in touch with her feelings and attitudes about every aspect of her life, including her sexuality
- She cherishes every aspect of herself: her personality, her appearance, her beliefs and values, her body her interests and accomplishments. She validates herself, rather than searching for a relationship to give her a sense of self-worth
- Her self-esteem is great enough that she can enjoy being with others, especially men, who are fine just as they are. She does not need to be needed in order to feel worthy
- She allows herself to be open and trusting with appropriate people. She is not afraid to be known at a deeply personal level, but she also does not expose herself to the exploitation of those who are not interested in her well-being
- She questions, “Is this relationship good for me? Does it enable me to grow into all I am capable of being?”
- When a relationship is destructive, she is able to let go of it without experiencing disabling depression. She has a circle of supportive friends and healthy interests to see her through crises
- She values her own serenity above all else. All the struggles, drama, and chaos of the past have lost their appeal. She is protective of herself, her health, and her well-being
- She knows that a relationship, in order to work, must be between partners who share similar values, interests, and goals, and who each have a capacity for intimacy. She also knows that she is worthy of the best that life has to offer
On choosing to admit the problem, and start the road towards recovery:
The choice is yours. If you choose to begin the process of recovery, you will change from a woman who loves someone else so much it hurts into a woman who loves herself enough to stop the pain.
Healthy relationships start with the self:
Many women make the mistake of looking for a man with whom to develop a relationship without first developing a relationship with themselves; they run from man to man, looking for what is missing within. The search must begin at home, within the self.
This part made me cry.
It’s a man reflecting at his father’s funeral:
My brother-in-law, trying to be funny, said, “You know, this is the first time I’ve been in this house when the TV wasn’t on and he wasn’t watching a game.” I looked at my brother and he started to cry again, not sadly but bitterly.
All of a sudden I saw what my father had done all his life and what I was doing, too. Just like him, I wouldn’t let anybody be close to me, know me, talk to me. The TV was my armor.
I followed my brother outside and we took a drive together down to the lake. We sat there for a long time. As I listened to him talk about how long he’d been waiting for Dad to notice him, I started really seeing myself for the first time, realizing how much I’d become like my father. I thought about my step-son, Tim, always waiting like a sad little puppy for some of my time and attention, and how I had kept myself too busy for him or his mom.
On the plane ride home I kept thinking about what I wanted people to say about me when I died, and that helped me see what I had to do
The nurse who saved a woman’s life (this was just too touching):
On her last night in the hospital a nurse sat quietly with her and asked her some gently probing questions. The whole story came pouring out. The nurse finally said to her, “I know you’re thinking of trying it again. Why shouldn’t you? Nothing’s different tonight than it was a week ago. But before you do, I want you to see someone.”
The nurse, a former client of mine, referred her to me.
On the importance of providing guidance, instead of telling people “I trust you”:
“I called my mother and described him in glowing terms to her. She said, ‘I trust you to make the right decision.’ Well, she shouldn’t have. I decided to marry him, which was definitely a mistake.
On women needing toxicity and relationships falling apart as men improve:
When I started making what we’d wished for a reality, we fell apart. The more middle class we became, the less she liked it. I guess she couldn’t feel sorry for me anymore
- Avoid minimizing your problems
It’s a human tendency to tell ourselves that we are “OK” even when we’re not.
We amplify other people’s problems and minimize our own so that we can feel good. But that way, we don’t address the problem.
- An high-achiever career with toxic relationships can be common
Like so many women who love too much, she was obviously a very responsible person, a high achiever who was succeeding in many areas of her life, but who nevertheless had little self-esteem
If this is you, I also recommend reading “Will I Ever Be Good Enough“.
- Obsession: caring too much, thinking too much, contacting someone too often
When you care so much more than your partner and you need constant contact and reassurance, that is obsession.
When you know you should give him space, but you can’t, that’s obsession.
- Adults are responsible for preventing sexual parent/child bonds
The author explains that it’s normal that children want the parent of opposite gender all for themselves.
And those feelings can find a more fertile ground when the mother is missing, and the daughter has to step up and help the father take care of the household.
In an effort to avoid violating, even in thought, the powerful incest taboo, she may numb herself to most or even all of her sexual feelings. The decision to do so is, again, unconscious, a defense against the most threatening impulse of all: sexual attraction for a parent. Because it is unconscious, the decision is not easily examined and reversed.
A mother who is present and a healthy relationship within parents instead allows the daughter to develop a healthy, sex-free emotional attachment to the father.
- Women who love too much and the attraction to criminals
Some women who love too much end up with men who have been in prison -prisoners’ wives, as Nordwood calls them-.
The allure of these men is that they are broken and need fixing, and that they are unavailable.
The women prefer to dream about a possible love, than work and make it happen in real life.
- Help is the Sunny Side of Control
Says the author:
It is not easy or comfortable for us to consider that selfless behavior, “being good,” and efforts to help may actually be attempts to control, and not be altruistically motivated.
When efforts to help are practiced by people who come from unhappy backgrounds, or who are in stressful relationships in the present, the need to control must always be suspected.
- Toxic relationships often go from bad to worse
When a relationship fails, women think that if they couldn’t make it work with a loser, or with a toxic man, then they must really be worthless.
So for the next relationship, they pick a worse man.
- Attachment styles are missing
The author wrote the first version of the book when attachment styles weren’t as widespread knowledge as they are today.
Norwood describes many patterns of fearful/anxious women, but never calls them so.
With attachment styles, this book would have been even more complete. But it’s a small con, given the huge value this book provides.
- Some women say it demonizes support (but I disagree)
Some reviewers say that the author is encouraging women to love less. But I don’t think it’s true at all.
- Great psychology
- Life-changing content:
“Women Who Love Too Much” is an eye-opening book and, potentially, a life-changing book.
By looking around the web, I could find many women who credited “Women Who Love Too Much” with having helped change their lives for the better. I believe those reviews are genuine, since the psychology just makes sense.
Sadly, “Women Who Love Too Much” only addresses women, but I believe that many men will also equally benefit from this book.
Who should read it?
- People who always fall in love with the wrong person
- People who confuse pain with love
- People who fall in love for the unavailable partner
- People who fall in love with messed up partners who need constant rescuing
- People who fall in love for partners who are below their actual value