Women Who Love Too Much

In 1985, Robin Norwood wrote a book called Women Who Love Too Much. My immediate response was, “Oh dear. She’s redefining what love means.” I haven’t read the book, but I still dislike the title. Is it really possible to “love too much?”

I don’t think so.

To make a judgment like that, it would be very helpful if various actions could be assigned to love and love alone. Not, for instance, to combinations like love and cowardice or love and ignorance. But let’s talk about love as if it were a single unmixed motive.

My notion of love is organized around other dimensions. It doesn’t make any sense to me love too much 1that anyone could “love too much.” You might, of course, do the wrong things. There is nothing about love as a motive that cleans up all the actions it drives. The actions may still be ineffective or even perverse in their effects. The outcome may be disastrous for all parties. That does’t reflect on love as a motive and particularly it does not argue that love might be successfully viewed as an amount, as if there were too little, too much, and just right.

Let’s look at a few settings where this notion might be usefully examined. Ms. Norwood seems to be thinking about—again, I haven’t read the book, I am working off the subtitle of the book, which is: when you keep wishing and hoping he’ll change. The man in the subtitle, a significant other of some sort, is not behaving the way you wish but you stay with him anyway. You say, it seems to me that you are doing that because “you love him too much.” If you loved him only as much as you should—the “amount notion” of love again—you would have dumped him long ago. Apologies to fans of the book if the argument makes is actually more subtle than that.

Love too much 6Let me offer a counter example. The word love doesn’t show up in this text at all but I do think that if there were a subtitle, it could well be: “when you keep wishing and hoping she’ll change.” This is a children’s book, one of my very favorite books of any kind, called A Bargain for Frances. [1] In the first scene, Frances announced to her mother [2] that she is going to play with Thelma. Mother’s response is, “Be careful.”

Frances wonders why she should be careful. Mother ticks off a few instances of Frances’s previous times with Thelma—we get the distinct impression that these are taken from a much larger list.

Remember the last time? said Mother

Which time was that? said Frances

That was the time you played catch with Thelma’s new boomerang, said Mother. Thelma did all the throwing and you came home with lumps on your head.

I remember that time now, said Frances.

And do you remember the other time last winter? said Mother

I remember that time too, said Frances.

That was the first time there was ice on the pond. Thelma wanted to go skating and she told me to try the ice first.

Who came home wet? said Mother, “You or Thelma.”

I came home wet, said Frances.

But even the two instances we see are enough to establish that over and over, Thelma acts as a predator, counting on Frances to be her prey. If Frances wants a friendship relationship with Thelma, she is going to have to offer it from a different place; a different status. Sheep do not make friends with wolves. It doesn’t work that way.

And there is nothing Frances can do to make Thelma want to be a sheep. She could choose love too much 2to put up with Thelma’s abuse—apparently, that is what she has been doing—or she could decide that if she continues to be gentle and tolerant, that Thelma might be shamed into changing her behavior. That’s why I like the wolf and sheep analogy so much. Wolves are not ashamed of killing and eating sheep.

We can imagine Frances’s mother anguishing over the kinds of behavior Frances tolerates from Thelma. Mother might conclude that Frances “loves too much” and that “loving less” is the right thing to do. My argument is that loving smarter is the right thing to do.

Since there is nothing Frances can do to turn Thelma into a sheep, it might be the smart thing for Frances to become a wolf. And that is what she does. In this story, Thelma lies to Frances and cheats her out of her toy tea set. In response, Frances lies to Thelma and gets the tea set back. Thelma understands immediately that a shift in relationship has taken place and that it might not be good for her. “I can see,” says Thelma the wolf, “that I am going to have to be careful when I play with you.” To which Frances the wolf replies, “Do you want to be careful or do you want to be friends?”

As a wolf, Frances now occupies the same status as Thelma. Neither is now predator; neither is now prey. Wolves are a very social species. [3]There is nothing, now, stopping them from being friends.

This achievement of Frances’s love is surprising and encouraging. Nothing about it suggests either that “love considered as an amount” is a useful notion or that “love” requires acquiescing to abuse. I think it stretches the story beyond the author’s notion of it to say that Frances cheats Thelma for the purpose of establishing the basis for friendship. I think Russell Hoban’s notion is that Frances, confronted with Thelma’s new wariness, is moved by an instant generosity to offer Thelma friendship. But as an illustration that the love that works best is the love that is both smart and courageous, the first interpretation actually works better.

Based on the Frances analogy, a useful response to the subtitle of Robin Norwood’s book (when you keep wishing and hoping he’ll change) is that wishing and hoping are not going to get the job done. Deciding what you, yourself, are going to do is the form that love can take that shows the most promise. Just what that is will depend, of course, on the relationship. Hoping he will change, would apply equally to a husband who abuses the children, who spends all his time at work, or who treats his wife as if she were the maid.

love too much 5What would a wife have to do to bring herself to the place where she could offer friendship? Certainly, she will have to be taken seriously. Whatever she has to say can’t be simply waved away at the time or violated without consequence later on. I would want to apply my notion of loving enough to ask, “Do you love him enough to do that?” To say what you want to say will require that your husband be married to an actual person. Loving him enough to establish yourself as a person is a preface to having the kind of marriage in which two persons can thrive and grow.

Applying my notion of “loving enough” to this situation requires that you say what you are willing to do to achieve it. That could be onerous. It could be scary. It absolutely must be generous and non-vindictive. Asking for a new relationship means making it a choice he will want to make. It means that the new actions he might contemplate that will support the relationship should be recognized and rewarded. Actions he might take that fall short of that or that exacerbate the situation need to be either ignored or opposed, depending on what works best for him.

It’s hard to know what to do. And knowing what it will take might establish that it takes too much. But neither of those brings the motive—loving enough to do the right thing—into question and neither of them imagines that “loving more” is going to do the trick.

So let’s have no more of “loving too much.” It’s not a useful notion. Let’s talk instead about doing what a knowledgeable and courageous love might require.

[1] I haven’t written anything about this book since the accession of Pope Francis and the question of who Francis’s friends will be, when the tumultuous politics of his first years in the Vatican are sorted out.
[2] If you don’t know the Frances books, you wouldn’t know that all the characters are badgers. It doesn’t really matter except to the illustrator, Lillian Hoban.

[3]  A good general introduction to the question is Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce’s Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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