• Richard Hughes

At Christmas: The Cinderella Complex

Updated: Jan 3

With the Christmas season upon us, I thought it would be fun to revisit a best-selling self-help book of the 1980s: The Cinderella Complex.

The 1970s and early 80s saw a boom in cheap paperbacks that popularised psychoanalytic and existential ideas. These books appealed to a Cosmopolitan magazine readership with titles such Fat Is A Feminist Issue (1978), Love & Will (1970) and Women Who Love Too Much (1985).

The world of therapy was changing at this time. No longer dominated by men in tweed jackets with an M.D after their names, a more humanistic, relational perspective, focusing on inter-subjectivity, was emerging. Child observation and attachment theory had become the research standard and it is therefore perhaps no surprise that more women were entering the field, which also reflected the feminist perspective of the period.

One of my favourite writers from this period was Alice Miller, who I feel should be better known since her writing has a vigour and clarity that is still relevant today. Miller takes no prisoners. Her best selling book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, was a war cry against all things Freudian. Whilst her background may have been psychoanalytic, her message was clear: children do not suffer from innate phantasy or Oedipal desires they suffer because of poor parenting, a lack of consistent care and brutality. Do not blame the child, focus on the trauma, was her message. This was a radical perspective for its time and to a certain extent, still is today.

Women Who Love Too Much is an extraordinary book. It was number one on the New York Times Best Seller List with over three million copies in print worldwide. It is still in print today. I have colleagues who say they became psychotherapists because of this book. Author Robin Norwood believes there can be an Oedipal outcome to developmental trauma and she asks that women take a profound look at their own psychological wounds as they explore why they are drawn to men who are also wounded.

She highlights relational patterns, such as women who are drawn to men with alcohol issues, who then sacrifice their own needs by holding on to the potential of the relationship. The outcome of a 'saviour complex' is rescuing, which is fundamentally about being controlling and so the relationship turns toxic and breaks down. Unless there is a psychological intervention and support from organisations such as AA and Al-Anon, all this gets repeated again in subsequent relationships.

Norwood has an unequivocal style of writing which is brilliant and affecting. Every sentence is an affirmation and clear reminder about how important it is to be aware of relational patterns, to know yourself deeply and to work on yourself before you embark on another relationship.

The focus is on ‘women’ and one criticism of the book is that it does not acknowledge that everyone can be impacted by trauma, which is essentially what is at the heart of the issue. We all suffer from unhelpful gender expectations and patriarchal structures, even men! An updated version, ‘People Who Love Too Much’ is long overdue and would be a brilliant addition to the canon.

And so we come to The Cinderella Complex. Published in 1981, the book has a distinctly proto-Carrie Bradshaw structure, as the author Colette Dowling muses: ‘the psychological need to avoid independence - the wish to be saved - seemed to me an important issue, quite probably the most important issue facing women today.’

Cinderella had a fairy godmother who solved all her problems with the wave of a magic wand; a handsome Prince rescued her from kitchen servitude. Feminism rejected all of this and instead promised freedom, but according to Dowling, millions of women still wanted ‘full-time emotional protection, a buffer between them and the world’.

I love how this book blends psychoanalysis, existential philosophy and Jungian imagery, but with so much going on, it begs many questions: millions of women? Really? Again, is this a single sex and gender issue or is there something about our fast-paced, technologically developing world that makes some of us yearn for security? And why does freedom have to be a polarised opposite of security? Surely security can be freedom?

Today, we would take a more nuanced approach. Dependency does not have to mean subordination or a lack of freedom. And for that matter, being independent does not mean we have to be alone. Connection is a human motivation and when we approach dependency and security from this perspective, whilst taking into account how patriarchal and gender expectations can limit us, we can see how being dependent, of being connected, can be a strength. The key to this is being aware of our needs, how we use them and how our sense of self and other is both distinct and merged, sometimes in the same moment, yes, as we know, relationships are complicated.

But this outcome is not dissimilar to what Dowling proposes: to strive for ‘lives that are less predictable, less bound by rules and institutional imprints.’

I wonder too, if there is a different interpretation of the Cinderella Complex that could resonate with readers today? Many people in their 20s and 30s have had to parent their parents and this has left them anxious about life and their ability to be a functioning adult in a fast-paced, ever-changing world. This makes sense: their 'child part' has been cut short, their 'adult part' hasn't been given the time and space to develop. In this scenario the fairy godmother is a much needed nurturing, reparative parental figure. The Prince symbolises their ego part: self-assured and functioning, this is within and can be developed. There is no guarantee of a 'happily ever after' but when people are able to develop their autonomy, their ‘adult’ part, they can cope with that.

Further reading:

Fat is a Feminist Issue - Susie Orbach

The Drama of the Gifted Child - Alice Miller

Love & Will - Rollo May

Women Who Love Too Much - Robin Norwood

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