'You make me sick': Women, health and romantic love

Wendy Langford, Lancaster University




Based on an original study of women's experiences of heterosexual love, this paper explores and discusses the unexpected claims of many participants that such relationships had literally made them sick.  Particular emotional processes and relational dynamics are identified which provide a context and explanation for the women's claims.  The analysis adds support to feminist arguments that romantic love relationships involve the reproduction of gendered power, but stresses women's own emotional investments in achieving a romantic ideal that promises happiness, emotional security and well-being, through the attention and devotion of a 'special person'.





When I embarked on a study of women's experiences of heterosexual love relationships, the question of health was not one of my central concerns.  Like everyone, I was aware that personal relationships could be very stressful. but only a single question on the subject of 'health and well-being' appeared among the long list on my interview schedule.  I was surprised, therefore, when, either in response to this particular question, or at other times during interviews, the majority of women who participated in the study described episodes of ill health which they felt to have been largely, if not solely, caused by their participation in a particular relationship.  Detailed analysis of the data revealed that the women's 'love sickness' was not a random occurrence, but was closely linked to very specific emotional processes and relational patterns which could be identified across their accounts.


This paper outlines my findings on the relationship between health and love in women's lives. I follow this with a brief discussion of how far individual pathology, 'bad' relationships or gendered power are sufficient explanations, before concluding that the research raises important questions concerning the wisdom of placing so many of our hopes for happiness and well-being on the experience of romantic love.




Romantic love has been on the feminist agenda for more than a century, and was seen as a central issue by many writers in the EuroAmerican women's movement of the 1970s.  It was argued that ideologies of romance lead women to believe that happiness is to be found through surrender to an idealised other, thus blinding them to the fact that heterosexual love relationships are both oppressive in themselves and play a crucial part in the maintenance of a patriarchal society.  Ti-Grace Atkinson, for example, argued that "the phenomenon of love is the psychological pivot in the persecution of women" (1974: 43), while Shulamith Firestone saw patriarchal culture as underpinned by a system of one-way emotional relationships: "women are not creating culture because they are preoccupied with love" (1979:121)[1].


These feminist critiques remain, however, largely undeveloped[2].  Meanwhile, only two decades later, a recent surge of interest in love among sociologists has produced claims that couple relationships are becoming increasingly 'democratised', taking on the characteristics of contracts negotiated between free and equal partners (Giddens 1992; Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 1995; Weeks 1995).  The discrepancy between these two bodies of theory, neither of which has any substantive empirical foundation, generates a number of important research questions: What meaning does the experience of romantic love have for individuals in contemporary society?  How is this related to questions of gender identity?  How are subjective emotional experiences of love related to the relational dynamics between partners?  How are these dynamics in turn related to the exercise of power?  And, how true are claims that love relationships are becoming more equal?




There is scope for a wide range of innovative research projects in relation to these questions. wanted to address, in particular, feminist claims concerning feminine identity, love and heterosexuality, and so chose to carry out a qualitative study of women's experiences of heterosexual love relationships, Fifteen women were selected who were prepared to talk in depth and in detail about their love relationships past and present.  The women came from a variety of social backgrounds and their experiences ranged from those who had .married their first love, and had stayed married, to those who had had a number of love relationships; also, from those who felt they had been 'lucky in love', to those who felt the opposite.


The research was designed to be particularly searching, and each woman participated in a series of 3 semi-structured, tape-recorded interviews.  The fieldwork yielded approximately 70 hours of tape-recorded material which was transcribed in its entirety and subjected to detailed analysis, This gave access to the women's own insights and understandings of their experiences, and also enabled the researcher to identify common patterns across the different accounts.  It was thus possible to construct an understanding of how this group of women experienced romantic love, how they responded to their partners, how they experienced their partners as relating to them, the nature of the emotional investments they had in these relationships, and how all of this related to their sense of themselves and to interpersonal dynamics of power and control.  It was from this analysis that, somewhat unexpectedly, the issue of health emerged as a key theme.




A range of health problems, sometimes of a severe nature, were described by women in the study.  These included digestive upsets, weight loss, disruption of menstruation, chronic insomnia, depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.  Acute distress in love relationships is commonly associated with abuse and, indeed, some women in the study had been subject to manifest abuse by partners.  Far more common in the women's narratives, however, were certain relational patterns which would be unlikely to be generally recognised as abusive, or as particularly unusual[3].  It is these patterns that call be seen to provide a context and a partial explanation for women's experiences of sickness.


A particular relational dynamic appeared in almost all accounts as the basic underlying pattern of interaction between women and their partners.  When recounting experiences of established love relationships, even where these were claimed to be comparatively satisfactory, women repeatedly expressed frustration concerning an attitude of emotional detachment exhibited by their partners.  Men were frequently described as 'withdrawn,, as .shutting of', and as remaining unmoved by their partners concerns.  The women's feelings about this attitude were intense, and in the interviews they would often show visible signs of tension and frustration as they spoke of how they had tried to 'get through' an invisible 'wall' or 'barrier' ,which their partner seemed to erect around himself.  The difficulty was often exacerbated in that the more the woman tried to 'break through', the more 'distant' her partner would become.  If she kept 'pushing', he might become angry and defensive.[4]


It has been suggested that such gendered :patterns are evidence of an unequal emotional contract between men and women (Hite 1988).  Elsewhere, I develop the theory that emotional distancing functions as a means of exercising power and control in love relationships (Langford, forthcoming).  Here, however, I want to focus specifically on how women in the study responded to their partner's distancing, and the destructive effect this appeared to have on their well-being.


For the women, the critical factor was not simply that their partners were emotionally 'unavailable', but the fact that this had not always been the case.  In other words, men were experienced as having undergone a process of withdrawal which followed on from an initial phase of comparative intimacy and mutuality[5].  Many women lamented that the whole reason they had 'got together' with the man in question in the first place was that he had been attentive, affectionate and affirming.  This was experienced as extremely gratifying, and the man's subsequent emotional withdrawal was thus a painful loss.


The sense of loss and disillusionment is not in itself, however, a sufficient explanation for women's 'lovesickness'.  Of crucial importance here is how they responded to their partner 'putting up the shutters'.  Analysis of the accounts revealed changes in women's own behaviour and sense of self, which paralleled the process of their partner's withdrawal and which were motivated by the desire to make good their loss.  These changes are usefully described as 'self-silencing' and 'self objectification'.


Self-silencing refers to a process whereby women appeared to lose sight of their own feelings and of what was important to them as individuals, not only within love relationships but in other respects as well.  Although in the interviews women often expressed anger at their partners, and saw them as being at fault, their accounts also revealed a tendency to take responsibility for the difficulties, in that the more distant the man became, the more effort they would put into 'trying to work him out'.  Moreover, taking such responsibility did not 'feel' to be too much of a problem; 'working at the relationship', and helping an 'emotionally illiterate' partner to express his feelings, could be experienced as an area of female competence (c.f. Duncombe and Marsden 1993).  One woman, for example, expressed pride in her ability to deliberately put her own feelings aside when having a 'talk' with her partner, so that she could concentrate on helping him to 'open up'.  Another claimed that she knew more about her partner's 'inner life' than he did!


However, while women themselves tended to assume that such abilities showed that they were 'good at relationships' in comparison to their partners, such assumptions can, as Sandra Bartky (1990) argues, be viewed as particularly treacherous[6].  To illustrate this I will use an extract from an interview with 'Hannah', whose self-reflexivity provided some important insights into the process of self-silencing.  Here 'Hannah' reflects critically on her own response to men's withdrawal in three previous relationships:


'Hannah': "I've consistently lost sight of myself in trying to work out this emotional [puzzle] that they're offering me.  Because I think - well - I'm sorted, so forget about me - I'll just try and get this sorted.  And I've got really caught up in somebody else's head ... It's losing sight of who I actually am ... Who am 1? What things do I like?  What things am I interested in?  In what ways do I like to talk to people? ... I've almost scrubbed out the old me and immersed myself in this new person".


A similar process was evident in many other narratives.  On the one hand, women complained of a growing alienation from their partner, yet their own response to his distance appeared to alienate them from themselves while putting him 'centre stage'.  Ironically, therefore, women's attempts to re-establish a sense of intimacy with their emotionally 'absent' partners ensured that they themselves were less 'present' in the relationship.


Self-silencing was closely linked to a second process evident in the interview material, that of self-objectification; indeed, I separate them only for analytical purposes.  Through self-objectification, women could come to apprehend themselves as the object of their partner's gaze'; that is, they would learn to see themselves as they imagined their partner might see them.  This compounded the tendency for the man to assume centre stage and ensured that his point of view, or perceived point of view, was even more visible.  Thus the more her partner seemed distant and disinterested, the more the woman would not only silence her feelings, but attempt to second guess what his point of view might be.  Again, women's motivation seemed to be simply a desire to 'make the relationship work'.  'Sarah', for example, echoed several other women in the study, when she said of her partner, 'Wayne', "he's not horrible to me - he's indifferent".  In the following extract, she talks of how she tries to .win him back':

'Sarah': "/ spend a lot of my time trying to get affection from him, so much so that it makes me tired, sometimes because I try so hard, and I usually don't get anywhere."

Wendy: "What sorts of things do you try to..."

'Sarah': (interrupts) "/just try to do what he wants to do - try and organise us to go out for a meal or something, but he just - he's just not interested usually".


'Sarah' went on to describe how she puts a great deal of effort into keeping their house looking nice and ensuring that she looks 'immaculate' whenever 'Wayne' is around.  Thus, although 'Sarah' was very angry and critical of 'Wayne' during the interview, her account nevertheless reveals that it is she who has assumed emotional responsibility for his loss of interest by trying to work out how to please him.  Her lack of success leaves her tired and frustrated as she silences her own feelings of anger, disappointment and hurt.


It is important here to emphasize the dialectical nature of what appeared to happen between women and their partners.  The more the man withdrew, the more his partner would become anxious, and try to 'work him out' at the expense of her own point of view.  Her motivation was to re-establish an emotional connection, but, paradoxically, the more the woman lost sight of herself in pursuit of her withdrawing partner, the more he seemed to withdraw.


The existence of such a dynamic produced a downward spiral which appeared as both a cause and context of women's health problems.  Silencing and objectification brought a loss of confidence and self-esteem.  Old insecurities about appearance, intelligence, acceptability as a person, and so on, were reactivated and new ones awakened, perhaps focused on some cruel remark the partner might have made.  The less their partners showed any affirmation or respect, the more likely women came to 'read' the man's behavior as a negative comment upon themselves.  For example, one woman, 'Jane', described how she developed eating and digestive problems in a previous marriage.  As her husband became more distant, 'Jane' became preoccupied with her body and fearful that his apparent rejection of her was due to her appearance.  The more 'Jane' worried that she was fat, however, and the less able she felt to assert herself within the relationship, the more she felt like eating to console herself:


'Jane': "... I went from, at one time, going very overweight from bingeing for comfort, because 1 wasn't getting what I wanted out of the relationship, - just eating and eating, comfort eating, taking food to bed with me when he didn't realize - to going to the other extreme of making myself ill to ... to diet drastically to try and be what he wanted me to be. ... And I had ... I developed stomach problems, and I was nervous all the time".


These destructive effects were often compounded by the fact that, paradoxically, the more distressed women felt, and the less they felt recognised within in the relationship, the more difficult it became to contemplate leaving it. Indeed, their lack of confidence could make such a step feel overwhelmingly frightening.  It could feel as though they had invested 'everything' in trying to make this relationship ,work' and therefore they would lose everything if it ended.  This single-mindedness produced a tendency for some women to feel that the cause of all their problems was the fact that they did not feel loved by their partner.


This was the case with 'Diane', who, like a number of women in the study, talked about suffering from episodes of depression.  In the following extract, it can be seen that 'Diane' is quite insistent that her depression was directly caused by her husband's 'coldness' towards her:


'Diane': "/ had got into a very depressed state... and... I said, oh, I said 'l feel as though I have lost my soul somewhere'.  Do you know what he said to me? 'What does it feel like?' (laughs)... 'What does it feel like? Not: 'Don't be silly, of course you haven't, come here', you know? 'What does it feel like?" (disbelief)

Wendy: "Was your depression..."

'Diane':   (interrupts) "Due to him?"

Wendy: "To the marriage?"'

'Diane': "Yeah".

Wendy: "Very much?'

'Diane': "Yeah, Oh yes.  Definitely, yes ... he sort of left me in a ... like ... this void ... And l just had no one to talk to, because if I talked to him, I may as well be talking to myself... And I was just going down, and down, and down.  And other people could see it, but he couldn't - Whether he didn't want to, you know, I don't know.  But I went to seven and a half stone ... and the doctor then said to me, 'You have had a complete ... physical and nervous breakdown."

Wendy: "And that was all due to..."

'Diane': (interrupts) "Well, it was due ... to my relationship with 'John', and his inability to offer me any sort of... emotional and, sort of spiritual support".


Diane's experience of her 'decline' as being a direct result of frustration and disappointment in love is highly significant.  It implies a conviction, echoed in several other women's narratives, that if only their partners would love them in the way they felt they needed to be loved, in the way they had in fact felt loved at the outset, they would be able to regain their well-being.  Instead, however, frequent laments that 'he didn't even notice' or 'he just carried on as usual' revealed that it was this they found most painful of all.




How should such findings be explained?  In particular, can women's 'lovesickness' be seen simply as the effect of male power and of the oppressive nature of heterosexual relationships?  There are other possible explanations.


It could be suggested that certain women are exceptionally prone to such 'decline of self', and that love relationships merely act as a forum where this tendency manifests itself.  This theory might gain support, for example, from the work of psychoanalyst Alexandra Symonds, who writes of her clinical experience of young women who, upon marriage, gave up all aspirations to independence and self sufficiency and developed various signs of ".,.constriction of the self" (Symonds 1974: 288).  Symonds observes that a significant number of women seem to 'shrivel up' after marriage, giving up previous interests and activities and developing phobias, usually in conjunction with depression, anxiety and so on (pp. 288-9).  Similarly, in a study of 12 women diagnosed as clinically depressed, psychologist Dana Crowley Jack found that the one thing they all had in common was a tendency to describe their relationships with male partners as involving a loss of self (Jack 1991).


My own study group, unlike those of Symonds and Jack, was selected on the basis of their 'ordinariness', and not on their presentation of acute psychic distress.  How, then, is it possible to account for the fact that more than half of the women spoke of similar experiences?  One obvious explanation, always possible in a small study, is the unwitting selection of an exceptional group.  However, while I have here concentrated on the experience of decline and suffering, it would be misleading to suggest that these women were unusually 'weak' or dependent.  Indeed, by some other measures they might be seen as strong and successful.  Most, for example, were mothers who had brought up families, more or less successfully, all but one were in paid world, some had successful professional careers, and, if anything, the group had a higher than average level of educational attainment.  The overall picture is thus one of a fairly unexceptional group, describing the normal ups and downs of love, and life, and health.  While individual differences clearly exist, my study is suggestive of a more general tendency among women towards 'disappearing' in the context of love relationships, a tendency which is not ultimately reducible to individual pathology.


If the women were not exceptional, perhaps their relationships were.  Certainly, there was considerable evidence of unhappy relationships: some women had been divorced, some had suffered from abuse at the hands of partners, and a minority were so disillusioned that they despaired of ever finding happiness in their current relationship or any other. Are these not, however, quite usual experiences?  Soaring divorce rates and an ever increasing army of experts discoursing on the topic of 'how to have a good relationship' suggest that, despite our aspirations, few of us are actually engaged in the emotionally satisfying, sexually fulfilling, companionate relationship of the romantic ideal.


Moreover, even the accounts of women who felt their relationships to be relatively happy were not entirely free from the dynamics and processes which I have outlined.  Thus, while some love relationships are clearly much more destructive than others, it would be hard to conclude from this study that the problem of women's' shrinking selfhood', and its associated ailments, is reducible to their participation in exceptionally 'bad' relationships.  Rather, the evidence is suggestive that heterosexual relationships, in general, are prone to the reproduction of harmful gendered patterns, even if the intensity of these is variable.


There are long-standing claims which would appear to support such a conclusion.  In the early 1970s, for example, sociologist Jessie Bernard claimed that US health statistics had, for more than a generation, revealed "the poor mental and emotional health of married women as compared not only to married men's but also to unmarried women's" (Bernard 1972: 27-28)[7].  Bernard herself saw the economic dependency of the traditional 'wife' role as largely productive of women's health disadvantage, and suggested that a 'shared role pattern' might go some way towards ending it.  In my study, however, economics did not appear as the major motivation for women remaining in 'unhealthy' relationships, and while genuine sharing of domestic responsibilities was generally far from evident, this fact in itself appeared to be partly underpinned by women's desires to 'make the relationship work' emotionally.  It was this powerful desire that implicated many women in the active, although completely unintentional, tendency to participate in their own demise.




The study certainly found no evidence to support the claim that love relationships are becoming more democratic.  On the contrary, the onset of health problems appeared to be one manifestation of what can happen when women are socially conditioned to seek self-fulfillment through a self-denying relation to a particular man.  This conclusion, however, raises further questions: how far are we to regard women's lovesickness as an effect of male power; as the effect of the particular structure of feminine identity; as the effect of heterosexual dynamics; or as the effect of romantic love itself?  While, at least insofar as heterosexual love is concerned, these factors seem, in practice, to be indivisible and interrelated, perhaps what matters in terms of a search for change is where it is useful to place most emphasis.


For me, what stands out from the study is the way in which gender identity, the dynamics of relationships, and the exercise of power, were all negotiated in relation to the experience of falling in love itself, partly through women's own desire to recapture something they felt they had lost.  Even where the 'in love' phase had been brief, and the years of unhappiness had been long, women often still hoped that the relationship would become what it once had seemed to be, or what they had once hoped it would become.  What was it that made this hope so compelling?


Falling mutually in love was described by several women as a powerful and positively transforming experience.  Two factors were clear: firstly, they had gained the attention, the affection and the affirmation of their lover, and, secondly, they had gained a new sense of self new feelings of confidence, well-being and self worth.  All of a sudden, they could transcend the self-doubt that had held them back in the past.  As 'Sarah' said of her early relationship with 'Wayne', "He couldn't get enough of me - I could do anything because I was in love with him".  Thus, just like the heroines in romantic novels, women experienced themselves as becoming 'somebody' through falling in love[8].


Can romantic love really transform our lives and give us a new identity?  It can certainly prove pleasurable and gratifying, and is so highly regarded as a fortunate and foundational life event in contemporary western society that some theorists claim it has gained the status and function of a 'secular religion' (Beck and Beck-Gernesheim 1995).  Certainly, to speak of the dangers of 'falling' can seem like heresy.  But dangers there are, for falling in love is also, by its very nature, a transitory and illusory experience (Alberoni 1983).  Whatever we 'gain' through falling in love, we cannot have and we cannot keep.  Thus, while women in this study 'became themselves' in the affirming gaze of their devoted lovers, so they 'lost themselves', once again, as their partners became less affirming, less devoted.  And, while in one sense this loss was as illusory as the gain which preceded it, women's attempts to overcome it had destructive effects which were all too real.


Paradoxically, therefore, women's tendencies to give themselves up for love' were ultimately fueled by a powerful perception that they had once 'found themselves', and could therefore find themselves again, through surrender to love.  The fact that the women's identities, and often their health and well-being too, were thus so affected by the vicissitudes of love, certainly demonstrates how love relationships can function as a domain for the exercise of power.  However, this may not be easily remedied in a society where, for everyone, happiness, security, identity and emotional fulfillment seem increasingly to depend on establishing and maintaining a relationship with a 'special person'.




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Atkinson T (1974) Amazon Odyssey Links Books, New York

Bartky S (1990) Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression Routledge, London

Beck U and Beck-Gernsheim E (1995) The Normal Chaos of Love (trans.  Ritter M and Wiebel J) Polity, Cambridge

Bernard J (1973) The Future of Marriage Souvenir Press, London

Christian-Smith L (1990) Becoming a Woman Through Romance Routledge, London 

Douglas K (1996) Invisible Wounds: a self-help guide for women in destructive relationships The Women's Press, London

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Firestone S (1979) The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution The Women's Press, London

Giddens A (1992) The Transformation of Intimacy.. Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modem Societies Polity Press, Cambridge

Hite S (1988) Women and Love: A Cultural Revolution in Progress Viking, London

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Kirkwood C (1993) Leaving Abusive Partners Sage, London

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Langford W (forthcoming) The Subject of Love Routledge, London

Lerner HG (1989) The Dance of Anger: A Woman's Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships Thorsons, London

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Modeleski T (1984) Loving With a Vengeance Methuen, London

Pearce ,L. and Stacey J (eds) (1995) Romance Revisited Lawrence and Wishart, London

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[1] See Langford (1996) for a summary of feminist debates concerning love and power.


[2] Some important work on women's relationship to romance as a cultural form continued in the 1980s (see e.g. Modleski 1984; Radway 1984; Christian, Smith 1990), and remains the main focus of feminist academic interest in love (see Pearce and Stacey 1995).  Research and discussion of 'real life' romantic love has, however, remained a neglected area.


[3] Although, see Kirkwood (1993) and Douglas(1996) for more comprehensive definitions and discussions of what constitutes 'emotional abuse' in love relationships.


[4] Similar patterns have been found by sociologists in interviews with male and female partners in heterosexual couples (Mansfield and Collard 1988; Duncombe and Marsden 1993) and are widely described and discussed in popular self-help literature (e.g. Lerner 1989)


[5] I discuss possible reasons for this apparent withdrawal elsewhere (Langford, forthcoming).


[6] Sandra Bartky (1990) argues that the activities of 'feeding egos and tending wounds' can give women feelings of power and personal efficacy, which should not be mistaken for real power to act in the world.  Indeed, they may help to undermine women's position.


[7] Francesco Alberoni (1 983) argues that one of the fundamental characteristics of failing in love is its capacity to remake the Past, to heal old wounds, to make us feel 'whole'.


[8] In an analysis of teen romances, Linda Christian-Smith (1990), for example, argues that the plot is generally structured around a weak, aimless and insecure heroine whose romance with a special boy transforms her into 'somebody' who is mature, self-confident, friendly and popular.