from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Sunday, 21 July 2013

moving beyond being a woman who 'loves too much'

Edgar Rubin's goblet/two faces
In my early 30s I purchased a book that I, snob that I am, wanted to hide in plain paper covers. Hardcore you-know-what? No. The Bible? No. It was a little book called Women Who Love Too Much ('WWLTM') and had one of those horrible cheap mass-market covers that has shiny raised lettering, suggesting that it might be in the lower echelons of touchy-feely New Age self-help feel-good writing.

That book, by psychologist Robin Norwood, was a hugely important find for me, and should perhaps be up there in the list of essential books for living your life; at least, if you're a woman. It's a deeply intelligent and highly relevant read to redress some of the imbalances that we have inherited, culturally and socially.

What's wrong with loving? you might cry. Can one love too much? you might also reasonably ask. The answers are 'nothing', and 'no', respectively, obviously.

The issue is indulging needy dysfunctional behaviour, one's own and another's, and calling it love.

While none of us, biologically and psychically, is entirely male or entirely female, certainly there appears to be a socio-cultural bias that reinforces whatever is predominant in our biology.

It's also, I believe, an important insight that we each have a trans-gender aspect. Usually, and almost inevitably, our unconscious inner-gender-opposite manifests itself in the falling-in-love bit of a romantic relationship, projected on another of the opposite gender (generally) – one who most nearly fits the screen of our life-story and beliefs. We typically fall out of love when we notice Other no longer quite fits the picture, and we typically blame it on him or her.

I say this because a great deal of the growth of consciousness, the growth towards wholeness, requires looking at our own projections and reclaiming our shadow, which then also frees the Other to be who they are meant to be.

In our culture, and at the very least since early Judeo-Christian times and probably a great deal longer than that, men are expected to behave in one way, women in another.

I make this statement because our collective cultural inheritance, East and West, but reinforced in the West by noble Christian ideas about self-sacrifice and unselfishness, defines 'love' in specific and perhaps culturally-useful but individually-suspect ways that embed certain social mores.

In Europe and the West we've also inherited our ideas of love from some of the Moorish Islamic ideas on which were founded the European ideals of courtly or romantic love that emerged directly from Eleanor of Aquitaine's Courts of Love in the early part of the last millennium. This paradigm of romantic love originally had, resonating beneath it, some notions of seeing the Divine in the human Beloved in order to effect some merging with the transcendent; in a secular culture, we've adopted the model, but our hunger for the experience of meaning and maybe transcendence we tend to invest in another human, who is supposed to make us feel good.

This model reinforces apparent biological determinism on a cultural level; it tends to expect women to love by enabling a man, bearing and rearing children, and putting their own needs bottom of the list, and men to love by not showing their feelings and getting out there to do the contemporary version of warfare and hunting – providing for the helpless woman. (Obviously, I'm putting this crudely and simplistically. Yes, I know that in theory we've moved beyond that; I disbelieve that it's that easy to shed millenia of conditioning so speedily, though.)

The upshot is, generally speaking, that women in particular sometimes seem to have a hard time valuing themselves and taking proper care of themselves, and many of us tend to fall into relationships where if things are difficult we feel subliminally that it's our fault, and we need to try harder, love more, be less selfish, etc etc. (It's for that reason that the book is named as it is; not because men aren't co-creators, and some will indeed experience what Norwood speaks of themselves, but generally it seems to be women who recognise this pattern.)

What's more, many of us are 'rescuers' – usually because of our own history. Instead of looking at what we're doing, we become preoccupied with the other: their needs, their behaviour, their faults, their agenda. Our own sublimated needs drive our behaviour in this, and of course we attract partners who need us to rescue them, even if that is never overt or explicit.

To that extent, our 'loving' is predicated, unconsciously, of course, and oh-so-subtly, on 'helping' and thereby becoming indispensable to another. We're also colluding with keeping the other small and undifferentiated – 'safe', in other words, in every sense of that word. Between adults, this is co-dependency: feeling ourselves to be responsible for another, instead of for our own behaviour towards another.

It's all too easy to set up such a climate of co-dependency, where each colludes with the other to remain less-than-wholly differentiated; dysfunctional, to whatever degree, rather than each agreeing to be responsible for making sure our own basic needs are met, and giving to the other out of a spirit of generosity and choice and mutual care and well-being (which has rather a lot more to do with love).

This genuine love will, at bottom, support the other in being all they might be – even if we risk that that growth takes the other away from us.

There is a whole book to write about this (and indeed I am partway through one; and there are many others already written), but right here I want to speak of one insidious manifestation of all this in our culture, and that is the confusion in our culture of love with getting our needs met, or of expecting the other to meet our needs 'if they really love me'. This is ego speaking. As Clarissa Pinkola Estés says: 'It is not from the ever-changing ego that we love one another, but from the wild soul. It takes a heart that is willing to die and be reborn, die and be reborn, over and over again.'

I want to keep this brief so I'm not going to follow all that up except to say that, while of course we expect, and reasonably, to have some of our needs met in our relationships, the other actually isn't on this earth to do that, and it has little to do with love.

Since that book, I've come a long way (as one might hope in 25 or so years); but still I fall back into old patterns at times of stress, and of course it's an ongoing process to attempt to live and love in a healthy non-dysfunctional way (especially when much of our cultural idiom confuses co-dependency with 'real love' – whoever writes popular songs, or bestselling novels, or award-winning films, about healthy relationships, for instance?).

In case it's useful to any other woman who doesn't know WWLTM, and struggles with these issues at times, here's Norwood's list of characteristics of a woman who's moved beyond this co-dependent tug and is operating as a healthy fully-functioning individual who is therefore genuinely able to give and receive love.

1 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.

2 She accepts others as they are, without trying to change them to meet her needs.

3 She is in touch with her feelings and attitudes about every aspect of her life, including her sexuality.

4 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.

5 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.

6 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 wellbeing.

7 She questions: 'Is this relationship good for me? Does it enable me to grow into all I'm capable of being?'

8 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.

9 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 wellbeing.

10 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.


I believe that the path of conscious personal relationship is as valid a sacred path as any other, dedicated as it is to wholeness. From time-to-time, under the Fire in the Head programme, I run courses and/or offer mentoring in this and related aspects of psychospiritual growth. If you are not on my mailing list and would like to hear about this or other of my courses, please use the contact form to the right.


  1. From Miriam:
    Very interesting, Roselle. Those 10 characteristics of Norwood's: so easy to say – yes, of course, I know it, I agree with it, have done so for so many years, have long-since turned the corner etc and yet know damn well how much at times one falls short, how easy it is to slip back into child/adult (I think that's Eric Berne and Norwood may put it more relevantly) mode in a relationship based on dysfunctional need. Even at this great age!
    But realising that is half the battle, I console myself.
    All very relevant to me and my poor dear characters waiting for an author (or maybe they've found another!). On that subject, a little knot of hope, rebirth, I don't know, shows itself on the edge of my vision. I want to get back to it but need autumn/winter and cool; too hot to be anything but indolent, I feel at the moment. Nearly 30 degrees and no wind. Stifling here in the bleached barren singe of Worcestershire. Hope the sea-breezes reaches you there.

  2. Miriam - hello! And I think most of us, almost all of us, include some of that dysfunctional stuff in relationships - it's called being human! But at least we recognise it...! Yes, Berne, and Transactional Analysis, child/parent/adult; and there's also the victim/rescuer/persecutor triad. So many ways to get it wrong! Or get it right by noticing, rather... :-) Seems to me most fiction is based on this sort of dysfunction, one way and another; the characters learn, or they don't.

    Am v pleased to hear about the knot of hope/rebirth. Do get to unravelling it when it's cooler! Loads of people have asked me if I'll offer a couple of revisiting-the-novel days, so am thinking about it for the autumn (wonder of they'll actually sign up if I do??).

    We're sadly too far inland for the sea (well, 20-30 minutes); I miss it badly. But we have had a little wind. Haven't seen the land this parched in decades - more like southern France.

    Love to you both


    1. Miriam – briefly.

      Do hope you do offer a novel day as I'd be very interested as long as it's not on Sept 14 or 20 to 28th.

      Yes, it's upsetting to see our plants shrivel, trees suffer – especially birches. The deer are eating the roses but I don't blame them.


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