Summary: for the right audience (Oprah fans?) Norwood's book is one of the best; for the wrong audience (not Oprah fans?) - one of the worst.
Robin Norwood helped launch an entire genre of popular culture that helped define nearly an entire generation of women in relationships. Her book landed on the New York Times best-seller list for 37 weeks, and, along with Susan Forward, Melodie Beattie, Pia Mellody defined the "codependency" movement.
The idea, now accepted as common-sense and even slightly outdated, often the butt of jokes and ridiculed more often than respected, was somewhat revolutionary when it came out. The basic idea is this: women tend to get into relationships with jerks, and stay in relationships with them, even when it is harmful.
Why? Because of low self-esteem rooted in childhood wounds. (This answer isn't the whole picture, but more on this later). What to do about it? It's strong independent woman 101: leave the jerk, do some inner work on yourself, and find a better man, or take a break from men completely.
The popularity of this book is testimony to the fact that there are (or were) apparently many, many women who were with abusive, alcoholic and good-for-nothing men and felt trapped in unloving and abusive relationships.
The core positive aspect of the message is the crux of empowerment: it's not the man, it's YOU. The fundamental positive message is one of responsibility. Sure, men can be jerks, but who is the one who that keeps hooking up with them?
A powerful structure of illusion and denial fuels this whole process - primarily hoping and insisting that he will change if you are prettier, smarter, thinner, etc, and is often fueled by a partner who is a somewhat skilled manipulator (see our upcoming Battle for the Mind section for more on this).
This is also one of the classic scenarios where something that goes by the name of "love" actually isn't (try telling this, though to someone who isn't ready to admit it - it's not dissimilar to getting an alcoholic to admit they have a problem). This pattern of behavior isn't real "love"; it's an addictive, delusory compulsion rooted in psychological needs that is rationalized and justified by calling it "love." Women in this patter tend to be characterized by "low self-esteem," a need to be needed, a strong urge to change and control others, and a willingness to suffer as a "martyr for love" that responds not to being loved, but to being needed and and even abused.
One reviewer sums it up well:
"Robin Norwood explains exactly why it affects us into adulthood (and for us it's much different than for men -- she explains this, too), why we keep choosing painful, debilitating relationships and why we can't walk away from them even when the pain is literally destroying us. I highlighted so much of this book to re-read and study later that my highlighting pen almost gave out. The book explains how we actually get addicted to pain and chaos, and why we choose the types of men we do, and why we're terrified to lose even a disastrous relationship. It also looks at how we hide the truth from ourselves and why. If you fit the description of a woman whose childhood was shredded by the pain of a highly dysfunctional family, and now you keep landing in one unhealthy relationship after another with men, this book will definitely help you, but you also must find a good therapist. You WILL heal in time, but you have to step out into the unknown and stick with it. As Robin Norwood so beautifully points out, with this type of love addiction,your future is sure to be painful no matter what. But it can either be the temporary pain associated with dealing with your problems and your subsequent recovery, or it can be the same kind of pain you've got now, magnified over years and years. "
Norwood's recommended solutions include seeking help (for example, therapy, or other similar books), making recovery itself a priority, finding a support group, developing a genuine spirituality as a source of strength, stopping the practice of managing and controlling others, learning not to get hooked into manipulative games, courageously facing your own problems and shortcomings, cultivating whatever needs to be developed in yourself, learning how to become self-honoring, and sharing with others what you have learned. Overall, the focus is on self-development rather than seeking a solution in someone else who will love you as you think you want to be loved.
See the other authors in this genre - Susan Forward, Melodie Beattie, Pia Mellody - to get a more comprehensive view of this arena - as well as the recommended material in The Psychology Arena to hear more of the LiveReal views on the matter.
So, what are the possible drawbacks to getting involved in Norwood's work, and others like her?
It goes without saying that for women in this kind of pattern, books like this are excellent to help wake them up, get them to take a hard, honest look at themselves, and to start getting their lives in order. Ideally, women could run across this type of material when they are young, before they have to go through all of the suffering and pain of learning the hard way.
When this book is read and "the healing begins," it is also often a beginning of an entirely different lifestyle. Support groups, self-help books, and Oprah-As-Christ-Figure can often become a regular, daily center-point of one's life. This is often a positive step forward; the risk runs in turning the whole "recovery" into a new lifestyle (and new set of addictions), and becoming a permanent "survivor" and self-help junkie. Norwood is sometimes criticized for not giving enough advice to what to do when someone has actually "healed" - and her recommendations tend to reflect a common theme of much of modern psychology, where "healing" and therapy becomes an unending process, where you never "arrive." (Again, we recommend checking out the material in The Psychology Arena)..
It can also be helpful to also view the work from the perspective of the work of David Deida. Essentially, according to Deida's perspective, Norwood's work is all about a woman going from Stage One (dependent) to Stage Two (independent). She does not delve into what is potentially the next stage of growth, Stage Three.
Further, the basic idea that women are attracted to jerks because of low self-esteem and a bad childhood - while sometimes true - is somewhat off the mark. In general - although this is a topic for another article - even women with high self-esteem and good childhoods tend to be attracted to jerks. Norwood seems to imply that if women were all psychologically healthy and whole, they would all like "nice guys" who are polite, considerate, sensitive, thoughtful, etc - which is just not the case.
Further, Norwood's work runs the risk, in certain cases, of creating problems where there really aren't any. Along the vein of "psychological hypochondria," if certain types of women have too much time on their hands . . . sense a certain emptiness in their lives . . . if the men they are with have some flaws, or are less than perfect (are there any who don't?) . . . then Norwood's book can rush in with an explanation that seems to ring true . . . when actually, the problem is more of a generic spiritual condition that has little or nothing to do with having hooked up with a jerk; it's not a relationship problem, it's a spiritual problem, and is best address spiritual level.
Finally, Norwood's message can potentially run the risk of creating some of the more harmful effects of feminist thought; where men and a male-dominated society become essentially the root of all evil; where true, healthy devotion and loyalty get re-interpreted as a sign of weakness; where honest imperfections in a man become justifications for feeling betrayed and truly harming others' lives; where emotion is treated as the final judge and jury for measuring one's happiness and success in life; where "for better or worse, richer or poorer," through thick and thin - and so on - in a committed relationship becomes "as long as I am feeling wonderful and inspired on a day-to-day basis" . . . and so on.
Yet all of these shortcomings are relevant only as long as Norwood's message gets misapplied and misused. Her message itself - born of her own pain and self-reflection (she later admitted that the various case histories presented in the book are really her own stories) - are a true model of someone taking deliberate action taken to improve one's life, and there is much to be admired in this.