What is the Cinderella complex and how does it impact our relationships?

Kathryn Wheeler
By Kathryn Wheeler,
updated on Oct 28, 2022

What is the Cinderella complex and how does it impact our relationships?

How the picture society paints of a ‘fairytale ending’ could be preventing women from finding their freedom

In 1981, Colette Dowling wrote The Cinderella Complex: Women’s Hidden Fear of Independence, a book which explored the whys and ways a woman might fear going at it alone, and have an innate desire to be ‘rescued’ by a man. In an accompanying article published in The New York Times the same year, she explored how her divorce, and the struggles she had with independence following it, became the inspiration for the book, and wrote: “I came to the conclusion that psychological dependence – the conscious or unconscious wish to escape responsibility – was the unidentified element in the conflict many women are experiencing today. It leads to a condition I call the ‘Cinderella Complex’.”

As Colette Dowling saw it, the consequences of women being raised to be dependent on a man can lead to self-sabotaging behaviours, particularly those linked to success and happiness. You might put off personal goals and targets in order to maintain stability, or you might quickly jump from one relationship to the next to feel safe.

Now, it’s fair to say that attitudes have moved on in the past 40 years, and generations of women have since grown up in a different world. But still, elements of this patriarchal structure do exist, and conversations around dependency and independence in relationships are still of the utmost importance.

When asked where the feelings and behaviours described by Colette Dowling might have come from, counsellor Amy Preston first makes the point that the need to rely on other is a fundamental part of being a human being.

“In the context of the so-called ‘Cinderella Complex’, the expectation of having all our needs met by another person might evolve in a childhood where caregivers were overprotective and met financial needs, while leaving emotional ones unmet,” Amy explains. “If you were wrapped up in cotton wool, yet found it difficult to connect and feel validated by your caregivers, you may not have received the message that you are worthy, capable, and important. As an adult, you may have internalised the message that, not only is an appropriate level of independence unfamiliar and frightening, you are fundamentally incapable of achieving it.”

Amy goes on to explain how we live in a fairytale culture, where it’s very normal to talk about your partner as being your ‘everything’ or the one who ‘completes’ you. “We expect our partner to fill a number of different roles: to make us happy, to complete us, to save us from our past, and to rescue us from uncomfortable emotions. On a subconscious level, this cements the belief that we cannot be happy unless we have a partner to take away all of our pain.”

These beliefs come with baggage. They pile pressure on our relationships, restricting our ability to grow inside and outside of the relationship, and also, as Amy points out, can lead us to overlook potential ‘red flags’ in order to maintain the fairytale.

All that said, in 2022, the concept of a ‘Cinderella Complex’ isn’t totally comfortable. The same systems can cause men to over-rely on partners, yet they escape comparable labels. And while there is certainly space to break down unconscious, patriarchal forces that restrict women’s choices in particular, another ‘complex’ to contend with isn’t exactly a welcomed addition to to-do lists.

“Doing the inner work to discover how to meet your own needs is liberating,” says Amy. “However, I’m not sure how useful the ‘Cinderella Complex’ is as a concept. We have been pathologizing women and their emotions for centuries. You only have to cast your mind back to the days of ‘hysteria’ to see that we love telling women there is something wrong with them.

“For a long time, women were told their only job was to depend on a man. Now they have a ‘complex’ if they do this too much? There is absolutely nothing wrong with inviting a man to meet some of your needs, to allow him to make you feel safe, cared for, and loved. It is not ‘needy’ to have needs!”

The bottom line is that, yes, an unhealthy level of dependency exists – but, as with anything in this realm, its origin may be complex, and its solution long-term. The behaviour that Colette Dowling captures with the ‘Cinderella Complex’ can be a helpful starting point when it comes to beginning a conversation about, and reflecting on, our relationships, but to really get the answers you need, you’ll need to turn inwards.

How to build self-sufficiency

Amy says:Firstly, have some compassion for yourself. Next, find small ways to challenge yourself and notice how you feel when you’re able to meet them. They could be practical – if you’re usually relying on your partner to drive somewhere new, try doing it yourself. Or they could be emotional – if you feel anxious that your partner hasn’t called, see if you can find ways to regulate this feeling yourself without relying on them to soothe you. Could you take a short walk around the block, play with your pet, or take a bath?

“If you’re struggling, consider asking a professional to explore this with you.”

If you are struggling with these feelings and behaviours, visit the Counselling Directory or speak to a qualified counsellor.

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