All Things Relationship: The Cinderella Complex

All Things Relationship

A regular column where Kimberley Wall explores various issues or topics associated with our relationships; from dating to relationship breakdown and everything in-between including loneliness, coercive control, communication, conflict, sex, infidelity and baby shock. You can contact her with an individual issue or story by emailing She will try to answer as many letters as possible and your personal details will always remain anonymous.

Photographer: Mike Martin  Models: P-J Model & Rexie T

The Cinderella Complex:

It was difficult to choose a topic for my first column so I decided to share something that came to my attention only a few months back, but which truly opened my eyes to the ways in which I, myself, had been subconsciously viewing what I thought I wanted from a romantic relationship. What I found astounding was that, as an avid follower and studier of psychology, I had never come across this term before nor had I previously questioned whether there were any ‘secret’ desires that I harboured that may influence my choice of partner. Especially considering that consciously I view myself as a modern and intelligent woman who strives for equality in my relationships; I wasn’t completely aware, at the time, how much influence the fairy-tales I had read growing up had buried themselves within my subconscious.

My awakening began when I was given a booked entitled ‘The Cinderella Complex’. Now Cinderella was my favourite fairy-tale of all time so the title itself was enough to intrigue me even though the book was written in 1981 (regularly considered ancient in psychological literature). Well. While our society has significantly progressed in terms of equality during the last 35 years, the Cinderella story (and other Fairytales) is still prominent within our culture today and because it can take generations to truly challenge culturally accepted relationship stereotypes and/or gender roles, I was bemused at our culture’s continued ignorance to this concept.

The concept of the ‘Cinderella Complex’ was born when the author, Colette Dowling, a successful journalist and single parent, became shocked at the discovery that secretly all she really wanted was to be taken care of. In her own words she said “it was not a question of having someone else pay the bills. I wanted full-time emotional protection, a buffer between me and the world”. Colette then found that there were thousands upon thousands of women who felt the same way she did; that there was an imbalance between the need to be independent Vs an internal drive to be emotionally reliant on (and therefore ‘protected by’) a partner. She writes in her book that part of it derives from a young woman’s upbringing, which in previous generations, particularly, encouraged women to be nurturing, caring and to take care of others which in fact generates a dependency itself. This is because the act of always helping others and putting other people first actually becomes a subconscious method of avoiding one’s own challenges and difficulties (such as low self esteem) with a secret desire that someone – usually in the form of a prince – will simply come along and handle our difficulties in life without us doing any of the work (when actually each and every one of us are responsible for our own lives, feelings and choices).

Photographer: Mike Martin  Models: P-J Model & Rexie T

So why is this covert ‘dependency’ on another person such a problem? Robin Norwood continues to explain in her book ‘Women Who Love Too Much’; that if this subconscious drive isn’t identified then this can lead to unhealthy relationships and maybe even a relationship addiction. As with alcoholism or other addictions, the desire to feel the high becomes greater and greater. In this case it is the high of being needed by someone else which helps takes the focus off our own problems or internal struggles. This sounds like a nice person, you may think, but it’s the context in which this behaviour manifests which is important. For example, it is an act of love to support someone else through their struggles and challenges but your life shouldn’t suddenly become consumed with their fight or finding them a solution to it; ownership of that must remain with the partner. This is frequently observed within couples where one of them is showing signs of alcoholism; their partner might try furiously (out of ‘love’) to get them into rehab or find a programme that helps them see the ‘error’ of their ways. But if the alcoholic isn’t motivated to change then they aren’t dedicated to recovery, plus being pressured will simply give them another reason to want to drink. The action of someone else taking the reins for them also subtly implies that they are not capable of success on their own (plus if they fail they can then blame the person who forced them into the programme rather than take responsibility for the choice). It is extremely difficult and painful to see a loved one change or become ill from a disease such as alcoholism, but the difference between healthy and unhealthy love is that it is OK to support a person through their own choices but not to enforce those choices upon them. The question should be; “this is the path they choose, can I accept this in my life even if they never recover?”

This illustrates that it is important to acknowledge the difference between the feeling of being ‘needed’ and being ‘loved’; if we have grown up believing that love equals sacrifice and our whole life should change to accommodate a new partner’s troubles or bad attitudes this replaces the real enjoyment of what healthy relationships should bring to our lives which is the support to live an independent journey alongside another.

Photographer: Mike Martin  Models: P-J Model & Rexie T

When the need to be with a partner no matter the cost becomes greater and greater; people in these types of relationships can also become sicker and sicker until they recognise their need to be in a relationship (sometimes any relationship) at all times is actually a subconscious drive to feel love for themselves. Sometimes it is the threat of a relationship ending (e.g. because someone feels too suffocated or one partner feels more invested than the other) or the breakdown of the relationship which becomes the catalyst needed to realise that to stay within a relationship that doesn’t really meet their own needs, or could even be abusive, may actually stem from the realisation that dedicating their life to helping another was really a way to build up their own self-esteem. It’s at this point that people have a choice... to focus on the self rather than the relationship or instantly find a new relationship in which the pattern can begin all over again.

However, considering that like attracts like, people who have attachment or dependency imbalance usually repeatedly select new partners who also mimic their unhealthy patterns. As with the opposite ends of a magnet, it is common for someone who is clingy or over-dependent on others to attract a partner who is avoidant or distant which then becomes a cycle of pushing and pulling until the relationship once again breaks down or help is finally sought. We all know someone, maybe even yourself, who is very rarely single and can jump from relationship to relationship in search of the ‘thing’ that is missing. Unfortunately, instead of looking inside for the answers; Cinderella believes the answer is being saved by finding her prince. But in turn, no ‘prince’ can ever make someone else feel love for themselves anyway; the expectations on each other may already be impossibly high before the relationship has even had a chance to flourish. This can be difficult because, as Robin Norwood explains in her book; to choose to focus on the self may not guarantee a current partner will follow suit but it may also be the only way to save a relationship which already embodies fear, possessiveness or dependency.

It is safe to say that while these older books are based on the experience of women – our culture has shifted significantly and it is more likely that other social groups can experience these feelings of dependency; men and women in either heterosexual or homosexual relationships. But what can you do if you recognise this pattern within yourself? Firstly becoming aware of this subconscious process is a big step and may take some time to digest. Colette Dowling continues to explain in her book that it is fear that drives these patterns, in her own words she explains that is it “fear of being independent (that could mean we’d end up alone and uncared for); fear of being dependent (that could mean we’d be swallowed by some dominating ‘other’); fear of being competent and good at what we do (that would mean we’d have to keep on being good at what we do); fear of being incompetent (that would mean we’d have to keep on feeling shlumpy, depressed and second class” all at the same time!

There is a lot of fear in that explanation never mind the competing contradictions so the second thing to do is not to give yourself a hard time. Accept that life is a journey and even in adulthood we can learn new things about ourselves if we are willing to open up to change. Experiencing so many emotions can also be tiring so give your body some time to just reflect and be; going for walks, taking a holiday, getting enough sleep or taking a meditative yoga class will help you restore some energy and balance for when you are ready to process this information further. Visiting your GP is also vital if the depressive or upsetting feelings become too much to bear.

Thirdly, I would recommend speaking to a counsellor or therapist about

Photographer: Mike Martin  Models: P-J Model & Rexie T

your new found insight if ‘The Cinderella Complex’ resounds with you strongly (couple counselling is also available if your partner is also willing and motivated to look at patterns within the relationship). Patterns can take a lifetime to create and a lifetime to alter (and while you may now view your world differently, your culture remains the same as before) so having the support of someone impartial and professionally trained can encourage you to seek answers gradually in a safe environment. If you have experienced many toxic or dramatic relationships previously then healthy relationships which serve both partners may initially seem ‘boring’ in comparison. Being able to talk openly about this with a professional could help bring your subconscious beliefs about relationships (derived from fairytales, Hollywood films or culture) to the forefront in order to help you analyse these thoughts more objectively in the future.

Colette Dowling concludes her book with some solutions – all which come back to the idea of investing in, listening to and loving the self. She concludes with “I have learned that freedom and independence can’t be wrested from others – from society at large, or from men – but can only be developed, painstakingly, from within. To achieve it, we will have to give up the dependencies we’ve used like crutches, to feel safe… She is free at last to love others because she loves herself.”

Basically, you are your own fairy godmother.

Kimberley Wall is currently the Agony Aunt for Swindon 105.5 (Wednesdays at 11am. Second Wednesday of the month is a live broadcast, the other Wednesdays are pre-recorded) and recently achieved a 1st in her Masters of Psychology (BPS accredited). Her dissertation focused on creating a new interactive tool to help young people recognise relationship abuse in their own relationships which is currently being trialled in Gloucestershire.

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