The Cinderella Complex

Colette Dowling, LCSW

New York therapist Colette Dowling wrote The Cinderella Complex after discovering women's deep-seated conflicts with independence. The book caused a shockwave of recognition across the country. Soon it became a best seller and was eventually translated into 23 languages.

Since becoming a therapist herself, following Nine Eleven, Ms. Dowling has found, in the things she hears from  her women patients, that The Cinderella Complex lives on. This isn't so surprising, Colette says, as tje Cinderella Complex is the outcome of years of social conditioning. In the end, women still fear that if they were to develop themselves fully they could end up alone, unloved and uncared for.

Following are the opening pages of The Cinderella Complex.

The Wish to Be Saved

"Traditionally, women have not been expected to confront fear and go beyond it. We've been encouraged to avoid what scares us, taught, from the time we were very young, to do only those things that allow us to feel comfortable and secure. In fact we were not trained for freedom at all, but for its categorical opposite--dependency. Up to a point, dependency needs are quite normal, for men as well as for women. But women have been encouraged since they were children to be dependent, and to a degree that contemporary society finds unhealthy. Thus, we're stuck in a bind: the Cinderella Complex.

Any woman who looks within knows that she was never trained to feel comfortable with the idea of taking care of herself, standing up for herself, asserting herself. At best she may have played the game of independence, inwardly envying the boys (and later the men) because they seemed so naturally self-sufficient. But you know what? It isn't nature that bestows this self-sufficiency on men. It's training, pure and simple.

Males are educated for independence from the day they're born. Just as systematically, females are taught that they have an out--that someday, in some way, they are going to be saved. That is the fairy tale, the life-message we have introjected as if with mother's milk. We may venture out on our own for a while. We may go away to school, work, travel; we may even make good money, but underneath it all there is a finite quality to our feelings about independence. Only hang on long enough, the childhood story goes, and someday someone will come along to rescue you from the anxiety of authentic living. (The only saviour the boy learns about is himself.)

My introduction to the subject of women's dependency came though personal experience. For a long time, in my 20s and early 30s, I'd fooled myself and everyone else with a sophisticated brand of pseudo independence--a facade I'd built to hide my own, frightening wish to be taken care of. The disguise was so convincing I might have gone on believing in it indefinitely if something hadn't happened that produced a disturbing crack in the veneer of my self-sufficiency.

The Collapse of Ambition

When I was 35 I left New York and what had been a solitary, four-year struggle to make ends meet, after my husband and I had separated. With my three children I came to live in a small rural village in the Hudson Valley, ninety miles north of Manhattan. I'd met a man who seemed a perfect companion: stable, intelligent, and marvelously funny. We'd found ourselves a big, inviting house to rent, with land and gardens and fruit trees. I'd been writing, at that point, for about ten years. It was how I'd supported myself and the children. In my new euphoria I believed that writing for a living would be no more difficult in the hamlet of Rhinebeck than it had been in the metropolis of Manhattan. What I hadn't anticipated--what I'd had no way of foreseeing--was the startling collapse of ambition that would occur as soon as I began sharing my home with a man again.

Without any conscious decision, or even recognition of what was happening, my life chagned dramatically. I used to spend several hours a day writing. In Rhinebeck, my time seemed to be taken up with homemaking--blissful homemaking. After years of throwing together frozen dinners because I'd been too busy to do more, I started cooking again. Within six months I'd gained ten pounds. "Healthy," I told myself. "I've always been too thin." I took to wearing plaid shirts and rather large overalls. I was always lingering a bit--tending a flower pot, building a fire, looking out a window. Time seemed to melt into non-existence, one golden day flowing into the next. It was fall, the most glorious fall I'd ever known. The days slipped into winter and I wore boots and a down jacket and chopped wood. At night I slept dreamlessly, though I often found it hard to get up inthe morning. There was nothing compelling me to rise.

My new retreat into housewifery should have been more disconcerting than it was--a sign. After all,I was capable of supporting myself, had done so for four years. Ah, but it had been four years of peril; four years of feeling I was pitted against challenge, day after day. I had been scared most of the time--scared of the inexplicably rising costs, scared of the landlord, scared that I would not be ble to hang in there and keep us all afloat month after month, year after year. The fact that I profoundly doubted my own competence seemed neither strange nor unusual to me. Didn't most single mothers feel this way?

So the move to the country, that glorious, winesap fall, had felt like a tremendous reprieve from what I'd come to think of, rather vaguely, as "my struggle". Fortune had brought me back to another kind of place, an inner space not unlike the one I'd inhabited as a child--a world of cherry pies and bed quilts and freshly ironed summer dresses. Now I had land and flowers, a big house with plenty of rooms, comfy window seats, small nooks and crannies. Feeling safe for the first time in years I set about concocting the tranquil domicile that lingers as a kind of "cover memory" of the most positive aspects of one's childhood. I made a nest, insulating it with the softet bits of fluff and cotton I could find.

And then I hid in it. My idea of myself had shifted drastically.

What liberated woman would imagine this as her fate? The moment the opportunity to lean on someone presented itself I stopped moving forward--arrived, in fact, at a dead halt. I no longer made decisions, rarely went anywhere on my own, rarely visited with my friends. In six months I had not met one deadline or gone through the friction involved in working out a contract with a publisher. A flight-from-stress had become my unconscious goal. I had slipped back--lounged back, really, as into a large tub of tepid water--because it was easier. Because tending flower beds and organizing the grocery shopping and being a "good partner" is less anxiety provoking than being out there in the adult world making a life for oneself. It wasn't my own life I'd been living, it was his. And now it was suffocating me." 

Colette Dowling was in her thirties when she discovered The Cinderella Complex operating in her own life. Her book describes the things she learned about how the conflict between dependence and independence was affecting her life and the lives of many women.

Ms. Dowlng has since gone on to study women's psychological development. She became a psychotherapist specializing the women's issue.

New York psychotherapist Colette Dowling, LCSW, has a private practice in Manhattan and specializes in the treatment of women. Ms. Dowling received her MSW from The Smith College School for Social Work and went on to complete advanced training in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis at the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy, in New York.

For further information, or to seek a free consultation, Ms. Dowling can be reached at, or by calling 718-594-0201.

To hear Colette speak about what it's like to begin therapy with someone new, click the audio button.

For more information Colette Dowling's therapy practice see her profile at Psychology Today.

For information on The Cinderella Complex and women's unique mental health issues, click here for Colette's website.

Copyright Colette Dowling, 2006-2010