IZ JONES on how wasted her life pursuing inferior men

If only I’d read this self-help book when it first came out 37 years ago, I’d be married with children and grandchildren: LIZ JONES on how she now realises why she’s wasted her life pursuing inferior men

  • Women Who Love Too Much is a self-help book by licensed marriage and family therapist Robin Norwood
  • It became a New York Times No.1 bestseller
  • Liz Jones claims had she read it sooner, she’d have saved years of heartbreak 

Why didn’t I read this revelatory, groundbreaking book when it was first published in 1985? How did I miss it, given that I was 26, working on a feminist magazine and searching, desperately, for a boyfriend? 

If only I’d listened and learned from what was one of the first self-help manuals, I’d have saved myself a lifetime of heartache. I’d have been normal, with children, grandchildren perhaps, a loving partner and a stable home. The book in question, which has just been updated and reissued, is Women Who Love Too Much, by the wise woman that is Robin Norwood. It was first published in the U.S., where it became a New York Times No.1 bestseller before being published in 25 languages, selling three million copies worldwide. It was one of those books, much like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, that would have been sitting on Bridget Jones’s bookshelf after she famously swept it of everything else. 

‘Women who love too much are often loved the least,’ wrote the Chicago Tribune in its review. Fear Of Flying author Erica Jong called the book ‘life-changing’, although some feminists at the time felt it blamed women for men’s failings. 

Liz Jones (pictured) said: ‘If only I’d listened and learned from what was one of the first self-help manuals, I’d have saved myself a lifetime of heartache’

There is irony in the reason I missed it. I was obsessed with the boy who lived next door to me, whom I spotted at a party in 1983 and fell head over heels in unrequited love with. I maintained my crush for more than 30 years, only to be horribly disappointed by him when we did finally get together in later life. I was precisely the sort of woman who would have benefited from Robin’s wisdom. ‘

When we don’t like many of his basic characteristics, values and behaviours,’ explains Robin, ‘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.’ That was — still is — me with bells on. 

Robin had been working as a counsellor for drug addicts and alcoholics for many years, and it was while helping the women in the lives of these difficult men that she began to understand the nature of ‘loving too much’. The women had one thing in common: a need to be both superior and a saviour. The men were damaged, difficult, ‘wild’, not boring, unlikely to change, in need of help. 

It was first published in the U.S., where it became a New York Times No.1 bestseller

Robin discovered that the women generally came from a dysfunctional family — alcoholic, violent or distant parents — where they played a role to fit in and placate. Women with damaged childhoods tend to become obsessed with men. We become unable to discern when someone is good or bad for us, as our determination to be in a couple overrides common sense. 

The women often had very low self-esteem (check!), so did not feel they deserved love that came without pain and turmoil. ‘Because we can’t love ourselves, we need him to convince us we are loveable,’ she writes. They felt the only way they could keep a man was by helping him, so that he needed her and wouldn’t leave. Check, check, check! 

As I read the part where Robin describes the kind of men who are picked by women who love too much, I feel a lightning bolt of recognition We go for those who are homeless, unemployed, poorer than us, younger or less intelligent, she says. We house them, buy them things and try to get them a job. All of which ensures we have the power. 

‘It was one of those books, much like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, that would have been sitting on Bridget Jones’s bookshelf after she famously swept it of everything else’, said Liz Jones

Oh. My. God. I recognise myself and every relationship I’ve ever had on each page.

Like all children, I thought my family — I was one of seven — was normal, even when it was highly dysfunctional. My dad, typical of the time (I was born in 1958), was an exArmy captain, with a stiff upper lip and a temper. I was never hugged. I was never told I was pretty or clever. My role was the good little girl who never complained. 

My mum, meanwhile, was a martyr. The sister closest in age to me would kick me in our shared bed and fly into a rage if I borrowed a sweater. I learnt to give her things, and even do her homework, in the hope she wouldn’t explode. 

Having left home, living in London, I poured my heart and soul into bettering myself: I went to nightly exercise classes; I bought smart, fashionable clothes on credit cards. And, without knowing it, I chose a difficult, distant man to love: that boy-next-door from 1983, who was indeed wild and exciting. 

Of course, I didn’t get him. I wasn’t yet ‘superior’. But it wasn’t for want of trying. One woman confesses in the book: ‘You have no idea, the lengths to which I’ve gone in order to win men’s attention.’ 

I gave him a home and helped him in his career. He didn’t even try to make me happy in return

I learned how to play squash to get a date with that first crush. I learned to drive so I could offer him a lift. 

After a couple of years, I moved, having bought my first house. I made sure it wasn’t too far away and posted my new address and phone number through his letterbox. I’d get home from my job on a glossy magazine, remove my make-up, put it back on and wait by my answering machine. That lasted about five years. 

I married another man in 2002, but he, too, ticked many of the boxes on Robin Norwood’s 1985 checklist. He was 15 years my junior and, although more intelligent than me, he was infinitely lazier. He lived with his mum and was penniless. 

I gave him a home (‘Why don’t you and your trainer collection move in?’), bought him things (driving lessons, a car, clothes, holidays) and helped him in his career. He didn’t even try to make me happy in return. 

Robin’s book is like a mirror held up to my life. So many of the female case studies want their man to diet and exercise. I bought my husband a kick-boxing course and a bicycle. Once divorced, I finally snared the boy-next-door, after a 35-year hiatus, but only because I was now more affluent than he was, with a house, car, career and a facelift, too. As Robin writes: ‘Looking good becomes much more important than feeling good — than feeling anything.’ 

I was happy that he was a decade older and had fallen on hard times because of a messy divorce, as it made me feel more attractive. At last I had the upper hand.

Robin writes: ‘Almost nothing is too much trouble, takes too much time or is too expensive if it will ‘help’ the man you are involved with.’ I showered my first crush, now my boyfriend, with gifts — a Paul Smith suit, cashmere, a gold lighter he later moaned was ‘gold-plated’, holidays in Paris, St Tropez, Marrakech and on and on. 

I now realise I latched on to both men, my old crush and my ex-husband — mavericks; argumentative, arrogant men — because I didn’t believe I deserved an equal

I now realise I latched on to both men, my old crush and my ex-husband — mavericks; argumentative, arrogant men — because I didn’t believe I deserved an equal, so I tried to a) ensure they couldn’t leave; and b) change their personalities.

Like all women who love too much, I took over. Tired of my moaning, ‘Why won’t you put a light in your bathroom?’, my first crush came back to his flat one day to find a Pimlico Plumber up a ladder.

How do we find these losers? 

‘Hungry people make poor shoppers,’ Robin says wisely. 

We choose these men because they are inadequate and won’t reject us, then try to train them up. I’d drag the crush to premieres and plays, then complain: ‘Why do you have nothing to say?’ We have a dream of how it will be, and the reality never measures up. 

And, of course, just as in the numerous case studies in the book, the two men in my life flatly refused to change. In fact, they got worse to spite me. The husband had numerous affairs. My crush refused to look after his health or improve his home.

When I finally dated a man more successful than me and about the same age, I retreated, convinced I’d be hurt because he’d leave me: fear feeds women who love too much. I no longer had the power. Yes, I should be married to a Hanif Kureishi or Nick Hornby, but I feel I don’t deserve someone good enough. Therein lies the conflict, the unhappiness.

A telling chapter is about the influence of media. I grew up reading Jackie, the girls’ magazine, with its love stories; then the TV series Thirtysomething, where Melissa moons over the unpredictable, freewheeling Gary; and finally moved on to Sex And The City, where Carrie finds the stable Aidan boring and dumps him for the unattainable Mr Big. Popular culture taught me that cool girls went for difficult men and uncomplicated happiness was boring. 

For me, unless love is torturous, there is no passion. A woman who loves too much becomes a ‘man junkie’ and puts up with him in a way we’d never put up with a friend. The crush, at a five-star hotel — paid for by me — stood up and called me, in front of the entire restaurant, ‘a d***head’. And I still took him back. 

Other signs you love too much? 

  • When being in love means being in pain. 
  • Your friends can’t stand him. ‘What does she see in him, anyway? She could do so much better.’ How many times have my girlfriends said that to me? 
  • When most of our conversations are about him, his problems, his thoughts, his feelings. 
  • When we excuse his moodiness, bad temper, indifference or put-downs (the put-downs I’ve tolerated due to those men feeling small and resentful: I’m a typist, not a writer, apparently. My husband’s nickname for me was ‘Chubby’) as problems due to an unhappy childhood and we try to become his therapist. 

The most shocking revelation in the book is that loving too much is a disease and can kill you. Women may develop eating disorders, high blood pressure, depression.

How do we stop? First, find a support group. Stop managing and controlling him. Let go of the idea that ‘when he changes, I’ll be happy’. He may never change. You must stop trying to make him. 

Don’t get hooked into games. Let go of trying to make it turn out the way you want it to by being nice, angry or helpless. Change what you can, which means change yourself! Stop needing to win. Stop even needing to fight, or to make him give you a good reason or excuse for his behaviour or neglect. Face your own problems and shortcomings, and cultivate whatever needs to be developed in yourself. 

Don’t get hooked into games. Let go of trying to make it turn out the way you want it to by being nice, angry or helpless. Change what you can, which means change yourself

But why haven’t we learned to do all of the above in nearly four decades? Robin explains that the concept that we should help those less fortunate than ourselves is endemic. ‘We are taught that it’s our duty to respond with compassion and generosity when someone has a problem . . . unfortunately, these virtuous motives by no means entirely explain the behaviour of millions of women who choose to take as partners men who are cruel, indifferent, abusive, emotionally unavailable, addictive or otherwise unable to be loving and caring.’ Women who love too much make these choices out of a driving need to control those closest to them. We still need this book because, as Robin says: ‘Surface details in behaviour may have changed somewhat, but the basic obsession is as strong as ever.’ 

Instead of, like me, rushing home to see if the red light on my answering machine was flashing, women today constantly check their phone or trawl his social media for clues. The torture is now even worse. But there is hope. Robin’s baton has been picked up by the likes of American writer Sarah Knight, whose The Life-Changing Magic Of Not Giving a F**k was published in 2015. Her take seemed shockingly selfish at first. But it’s all about balance. Don’t be oblivious to others’ feelings but don’t be a slave to them, either. 

Women aren’t always victims. We can be our own worst enemy. 

I have saved the best advice from Women Who Love Too Much for last. It’s already stuck on my fridge. ‘As you begin to put yourself first, you must learn to tolerate other people’s anger and disapproval,’ says Robin. ‘These are inevitable reactions from those whose welfare you have heretofore put before your own. Do not argue, apologise or justify yourself. Remain as cheerful as possible and go on about your activities.’ 

In short, for women who love too much, the secret to happiness is to learn to love yourself just as you are — and who cares if not everyone loves you in return?

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