By Michael Small
Updated September 13, 1982 12:00 PM
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In the 1978 movie An Unmarried Woman, psychologist Penelope Russianoff played the counselor who helped Jill Clayburgh get back on her feet after a traumatic divorce. It was a performance straight from the heart. Russianoff, now 64, provides similar services for 30 distraught patients a week (at $75 for 45 minutes). Holder of a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Northwestern University and a degree from the American Board of Professional Psychology, Russianoff has developed a theory that 95 percent of all women are “desperately dependent” on men, making a male, or the lack of one, the central focus of their lives.

Russianoff herself learned about dependence firsthand. As the gangly daughter of geneticist Raymond Pearl in exclusive Roland Park, Md., she worried she would never obtain her greatest desire: a husband. She finally married at 32; 16years later, concluding she had sacrificed her personality to perpetuate the marriage, she and her husband divorced. At 6’2″, Penelope now stands a full seven inches taller than her second husband, renowned clarinet teacher Leon Russianoff, but her old worries that her height and assertiveness were “unfeminine” have faded. This year she published her first book, Why Do I Think I Am Nothing Without a Man? (Bantam, $10.95), which she recently discussed with PEOPLE’S Michael Small.

What are the symptoms of desperate dependence?

A desperately dependent woman becomes more and more needy of reassurance. She calls her husband or lover several times a day, she needs him to assume responsibility, she fears being with people, fears being alone and above all, she lacks trust in herself. Though almost all women suffer from this inferiority complex to some degree, many aren’t even aware of it.

Where does this attitude come from?

Maybe it goes back to when man’s physical strength allowed him to view the woman as his possession. Men are probably still stronger, but it no longer makes the difference it once did in the jungle.

Then what causes the misconception?

Men are not responsible. They have colluded to view women as inferior, but both sexes have accepted it. Society constantly bombards a woman, saying she ought to feel unhappy if she hasn’t hooked a man. After her best friend gets married and has a child, a chorus in the background chimes, “Now you’re so successful, but when are you going to get married?”

What about women’s lib?

Twenty years ago we started to have consciousness raising for both men and women. But the problems of emotional liberation have lagged behind political and economic improvements. Women still fall into the helpless-little-girl role without even knowing it.

Don’t better jobs help women overcome desperate dependence?

Not unless they change their attitudes too. Many women with very successful jobs come to my office with feelings of depression, anxiety and emptiness. When you scratch below the surface, you find it’s because they don’t have a primary male relationship.

How does a woman’s emotional dependence show itself?

When a woman is hooked on a person, she often throws away her friends, and tries to get her man’s approval instead of sticking up for what she believes. But sacrificing herself becomes an entrapment. She is making a contract: “I’m giving up my life for you and in return you owe me.” This destroys the freedom of a relationship. Loving someone is letting him go, letting him be himself, not pulling in the leash.

How does this affect a marriage?

The woman who denies her potential and becomes a satellite to a man becomes a bore and a burden to him. A man feels an emotional drain when he’s the most important thing for his wife. He may visit a mistress who is more exciting because she is involved in something outside their relationship.

How are women’s expectations molded by society?

They often have unrealistic rules about where a relationship should go. A woman might complain, “We spent every weekend together for the past three months. So he shouldn’t have dropped me suddenly. It’s not morally right.” That reaction has to do with socialization, not sexual desire. I say it’s fine for a woman to go ahead and have sex, but she shouldn’t expect the man to call her the next day.

Are women with lasting relationships vulnerable too?

They tend to impute marvelous imagined qualities to their men. In turn, they try to be the “total woman.” Even when they know that image is ridiculous, they blame themselves when they can’t reach it. The total woman, from what I’ve seen, usually feels—or ends up feeling—anything but total. Totaled is more like it.

How can a woman conquer desperate dependence?

First of all, she should become aware of her limiting attitudes and change them. Then she should find meaningful, exciting work or a serious avocation that she doesn’t rank second to a relationship. When you come right down to it, work is the only thing that is entirely yours. It belongs to you. And this is something you should never say about the man you love.

Do men ever suffer a similar dependence on women?

Not often. Men validate themselves through the eyes of other men, or through work, rather than women.

Are you suggesting that a job is more satisfying than a loving relationship?

No. Each enhances and balances the other. If you eliminate either, you’re in deep trouble.

Can a woman become too dependent on children?

A woman binds her children with guilt and provides herself with a permanent baby-sitter for her old age. When her offspring break away, she goes into deep depression, sometimes more severe than when a man rejects her. But this situation is less common than dependence on men because many children won’t let it develop.

Can other people help?

It’s important to establish friends of both sexes. Being good friends with a number of men reduces desperate dependence on finding or keeping that one special man. And good strong female friendships provide an invaluable source of emotional support, information and just plain companionship.

How have you changed your own attitudes toward men?

I went into my first marriage unaware that I was placing the man at the head of the household. I did what my husband said and felt guilty about being so interested in my career. But in my current marriage we enjoy each other without anxiety about approval. I also have platonic male friends whom I love dearly. I’ve maintained those friendships throughout my marriage.

Do you ever fall back into programmed emotional habits?

I don’t feel at all nonfeminine in pushing my potential as far as I can. I certainly would never try to act dumb to make a man feel like a big shot. It’s demeaning to him as well as myself. Even so, like most women I sometimes fall back on wanting a man for protection. Last year I was cleaning my basement with a handyman and found a dead mouse. I screamed and ran to my companion for help, whereas if I were alone I would have picked up the dead mouse by the tail and tossed it in the garbage.

But you usually can take your advice?

Absolutely. A lot of Freudian therapists attacked my direct approach in An Unmarried Woman, but the older I grow, the more secure I get from listening to my own philosophy. So when I wake up in the morning I say, as I would like my patients to do, “Whoopee! Another day to be me.”