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  • Writer's pictureRichard Hughes

At Christmas: The Cinderella Complex

Updated: Jun 17, 2022

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

The 1970s and 80s saw a boom in cheap paperbacks, which 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 M.D after their names, a more humanistic perspective focusing on relationships and 'free will' was emerging. Child observation and attachment theory had become the research standard, and consequently, more women were entering the field, which also mirrored the feminist perspective of the period.

One of my favourite pop-psych writers is Alice Miller, who should be better known, since her writing reverberates with a contemporary vigour. Miller takes no prisoners. Her best-selling book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, is a war cry against all things Freudian. Whilst her background was psychoanalytic, her message could not have been further from that: children do not suffer from phantasy or Oedipal desires, they suffer because of poor parenting, brutality and a lack of consistent care. Do not blame the child, focus on the trauma. This was a radical idea back in 1979, and to an extent, still is today, especially in the criminal justice system.

Women Who Love Too Much was number one on the New York Times Best Seller List, having sold over three million copies. It remains in print today. I have colleagues who say they became psychotherapists because of this book. Author Robin Norwood reframes the Oedipus complex as sexual abuse, and she asks women to take a profound look at their own trauma, as they explore why they are drawn to men, who are also deeply wounded.

She highlights the role alcohol plays in abusive relationships, and she questions why women sacrifice their own needs in order to rescue men who do not have the psychological capacity to be in a relationship. She reminds us that the shadow of the 'saviour complex' is control, and so the relationship will never be anything but toxic. Unless there is a psychological intervention, and support from organisations such as AA and Al-Anon, all this will get repeated again and again.

Norwood has an unequivocal style of writing which is brilliant and affecting. Every sentence is an affirmation; a clear reminder about how important it is to be aware of our wounds, and that through awareness of this, we have the capacity to heal.

The focus is very much on women, and one criticism of the book is that it does not acknowledge that everyone can be impacted by developmental and intergenerational trauma. We all suffer from unhelpful gender expectations and patriarchal structures, even men! An updated version, Those 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 - seems to me an important issue, quite probably the most important issue facing women today.’

Cinderella has a fairy godmother who solves all her problems with the wave of a magic wand. A handsome Prince rescues her from kitchen servitude. A sequined gown is all she needs to live happily ever. Feminism rejects all of this, and instead promises freedom through the dismantling of patriarchal oppression, but according to Dowling, millions of women still want 'full-time emotional protection, a buffer between them and the world’.

Whilst at first glance, it may seem that this book puts the cause back 50 years, Dowling could be on to something.

In our fast-paced, screen focused world, many of us yearn for security. This is not a specific gender issue, though there is a gender piece within this, since we are all still grappling with unhelpful gender expectations and patriarchal structures. Of course, security does not need to come at a cost to independence, and self-autonomy happens when we build connection.

Despite being a little dated, the book comes to a conclusion that is as relevant today as it was then, that we must strive for 'lives that are less predictable, less bound by rules and institutional imprints.'

I wonder too, if the Cinderella Complex could be repurposed for the 21st Century?

In my psychotherapy practice, I often notice that many young people have had to parent their parents. An outcome of this is an overwhelming anxiety about life. They have lost a sense of their 'autonomous adult' and their 'child part' yearns to be properly parented. In this scenario, the fairy godmother represents a much needed nurturing, parental figure. The Prince symbolises their future potential, their 'ego strength', if human connection is given priority. There is no guarantee of a 'happily ever after', but the book could be a broad blueprint for how to be a functioning human being in the 21st Century.

Further reading:

The Cinderella Complex - Colette Dowling

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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