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31 January 2022

NS archive: Hungry people make poor shoppers

27 January 1988: The boom in women’s self-help books.

By Yvonne Roberts

A new genre of women’s self-help books that appeared in the late 1980s revealed “a sad secret at the heart of the Sisterhood”, writes Yvonne Roberts. Publications such as “Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them” by Susan Forward and Joan Torres, and “How To Love a Difficult Man” by Nancy Good showed that women may have the middle-class lifestyle they’ve always aspired to, but they haven’t got the partner they really need. So what should a woman do if she finds herself married to a misogynist? These books, the popularity for which indicated a self-interest “totally in keeping with the Thatcherite times”, writes Roberts, don’t offer any real answers. While they advise women on how to stop playing the “victim”, they don’t explain how to navigate a healthy relationship in a way that’s suited to both her and her partner. It’s the men, Roberts concludes, who must change.

If only, in the film Fatal Attraction, Alex Forrest had lived next door to a bookshop instead of an abattoir. She could have wandered in and bought a dozen or so books – on a subject close to her heart: women who love too much. After an evening’s reading, she would have realised why she had no need to do nasty things to a rabbit, or anyone else for that matter. A lifebelt would have been thrown, as some would see it, to save her from the consequences of her own liberation. And the outlook for single working women everywhere might have looked a little brighter. Or would it?

Fatal Attraction‘s pull is not some crude message about the price paid for female success, or the risks of adultery, or the sight of a woman, however demented, hitting back. It’s because, in an extreme way, it portrays a woman trapped, a victim of a relationship over which she desperately wants control. She is a victim, not a victimiser. She wants him; he doesn’t want her – and she hasn’t got the means to understand why.

The reasons she doesn’t understand her relationship are now the source of a whole new genre of books. It’s a boom which reveals a rather sad secret at the heart of the Sisterhood. Middle-class women may have got their company cars, salaries, babies and nannies – but they haven’t yet learnt how to keep their man or change him into the partner they imagine they really need. And now, they want to know why.

This week, the latest of many of these self-help guides is published. Men Who Hate Women and The Women Who Love Them is written by American psychologist Dr Susan Forward with Joan Torres (Bantam Press, £11.95). It describes what the publicity handout calls “a disturbingly familiar” character in the lives of contemporary women, “the misogynist”.

Dr Susan Forward was once married to a misogynist. “He blamed me for everything from his business problems to the fact that his shoes weren’t shined… He labelled me selfish and uncaring… and instead of being able to enjoy a joyous moment with the man who meant so much to me, I had to hide it for fear of upsetting him…” (Sounds familiar?)

Also recently published is How to Love a Difficult Man by Nancy Good (“Ask any woman if the man she’s married to or involved with is difficult and the chances are she’ll say yes…”) and Women Men Love, Women Men Leave by Dr Connell Cowan and Dr Melvyn Kinder. Due out shortly is Intimate Partners: Patterns in Love and Marriage by Maggie Scarf and A Woman’s Guide to Men and Sex: How to Understand Men’s Sexual and Emotional Needs by Dr Andrew Stanway.

The self-help manuals’ con

In 1963, Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique and referred to the domestic misery of middle-class housewives as “the problem without a name”. Twenty-five years on, enough women friends and colleagues are going through breakups, divorce and infidelity (their own and their partners), plus an awful lot of uncertainty as to what to expect from a relationship, for us to identify a new problem “without a name”.

It’s the problem of trying to have a successful heterosexual relationship built on the premise that, as the writer Barbara Ehrenreich puts it, women are people with the same needs for respect, for satisfying work, for love and pleasure as men. Or, to reduce it to the mundane, it’s a problem about women who are beginning to wonder whether it’s worth arguing for the third year in a row about who cleans the bath.

The con about all these self-help manuals is that while they do advise a woman on how she can stop being a victim, they cop out precisely at the time when, self-esteem restored, she needs to know how to navigate a healthy relationship, on terms acceptable to her and her partner.

The only clue she is given is “back off”. Leave a man alone, don’t nag, don’t make demands, let him deal with his own problems (assuming he recognises he’s got any). Don’t complain if he’s a workaholic. Simply smile sweetly and if he wants you, he’ll change.

The message is not only anachronistic, it is also deeply selfish. In the 1960s, we had general guides on the nature and extent of sexism such as The Female Eunuch and we assumed it would all change as, united, we all became More Aware. In the 1970s, a hint of selfishness began to invade the process, as we were fed specific (and endless) advice on how to handle our bodies and our corporate careers.

Now, in the late 1980s, the popularity of these new books indicates a new attitude among some women totally in keeping with the Thatcherite times. Never mind the wider struggle, sod the other sisters. Let’s practise a little self-interest, sit in our corner with half-a-dozen of these books and concentrate on our own salvation.

These new self-help manuals exercise a great attraction on the otherwise sane. In November a friend, not usually a soul in search of a cult, suggested that I read yet another book, Women Who Love Too Much by Robin Norwood (Arrow Books, £2.95). “Read it,” she said, “and it will all click into place.” I did and I almost thought it had – until I looked a little harder beyond the checklists and the charts.

The book, a pioneer in the genre, was first published in 1986, reprinted twice last year and has sold solidly over Christmas (a fertile time for “Whither Us?” introspection) – all on word of (mainly) feminist mouth.

Its formula is archetypal. First, the promise, in this case, on the cover: “A lifechanging book for women…”. A book for “man junkies”, for women with destructive patterns of relating to men. Its aim, the author explains, is to teach such women to change their lives. (Men too can become obsessional, Robin Norwood says, but many more of them have other ways to externalise their needs in work, sports, hobbies.)

Next comes the brief synopsis. A woman addicted to men blames herself for the relationship going wrong. If she can only find the key to making him happy, then he will change and become the man she wants. “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.”

Is this the book for you?

“Hungry people,” Robin Norwood points out, “make poor shoppers”. Women who have had no relationship with themselves hardly know what to look for in somebody else. Next comes the checklist. In Women Who Love Too Much it covers 15 characteristics and if you identify with any one (on page 10 if you want a quick flick through in the bookshop) – This Is The Book For You.

Among the characteristics of a woman who loves too much are: a childhood in which her own emotional needs were not met; a willingness to take more than 50 per cent of the blame in the relationship; a sense of low self-esteem; and a belief she has no right to be happy.

Women in emotional overdrive choose men who need help and who can guarantee a life of turmoil because, says Robin Norwood (echoed by Dr Susan Forward), they are addicted to pain, just as an alcoholic is addicted to booze. In order to recover, the first step is to back off from the partner. Stop nagging, stop making demands, stop wasting energy and begin concentrating not on his problems but on your own. Find a support group, “be selfish”. Leave the relationship if necessary.

All of which is fine – but the real question, unanswered, is who do you find to take his place? Over 20 years ago, Betty Friedan wrote: “Man is not the enemy here but the fellow victim. The real enemy is women’s denigration of themselves.” It’s the same message, unheard then, being preached again. It’s a fairy story message which ignores the feminisation of poverty; the abandonment of families by men; the issues of physical and sexual abuse; men’s flight from commitment; and the ambivalence of women themselves about what they want from life – a career, children, both, neither?

All these questions are avoided in the manuals. Many women do have a low sense of self-esteem and, in helping to restore it, these self-help guides may serve a purpose, but the danger comes when they assume that what happens to male partners is irrelevant. They assume that a woman, once “recovered”, will inevitably find the man who treats her right. Surely the one lesson learnt already is that unless men do change on a significant scale (and who is to see to that?) then all the female self-esteem in the British Isles isn’t really going to change the structure of life.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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