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What Is the Cinderella Complex?

By Susan Grindstaff
Updated Feb 21, 2024
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The Cinderella complex is loosely used to describe the fear of independence in women. It is based on the idea that many women do not believe they can take care of themselves, but instead need a male figure to care for them. They see themselves as princesses waiting for a prince to come to their rescue. Women who suffer from this complex often end up staying in abusive or dysfunctional relationships out of fear of being on their own and because of feelings of low self-esteem.

A New York therapist named Collette Dowling is believed to be the first psychologist to use the term “Cinderella complex,” in her book by the same name. In this best-selling book, Dowling outlines symptoms of the complex and some of the pathways to help women learn to conquer the fear of being on their own. Most doctors believe that women who suffer from this complex usually have other deep-seated emotional problems such as low self-esteem and dependency issues.

Some women who suffer from the Cinderella complex are unable to accept the men in their lives in a healthy way. Rather than seeing them as normally flawed individuals, they often idolize them. This type of idolization often leads to expectations that are unrealistic and impossible to meet. A woman with these unrealistic expectations may become emotionally wounded by behaviors that other women would not consider unexpected or earth shaking. For instance, a women suffering from a Cinderella complex might view lateness for a date as a complete rejection, while other women might simply be annoyed.

For women who suffer from Cinderella type complexes, dependency and low self-esteem seem to be the root causes of the problem. Most psychologists believe that in many cases dependency issues may result from extremely over-protective parenting. In fact, these parents may have escalated normal protective behavior into abusive controlling, in some cases even punishing the child for displaying signs of independence. It is also considered likely that women who suffer this complex were humiliated socially during their formative years, which is often the cause of low self-esteem.

Treatment for the Cinderella complex typically involves therapy to both improve self-esteem and deal with issues of dependency. In many cases, this treatment can be long term, because patients are so dependent, they may find it difficult to wean themselves away from therapy. Sometimes their dependency on men is replaced by their dependency on therapy. In many cases, patients do well in group therapy sessions, because it allows them to see their problems from the outside in, sometimes resulting in them being able to view their problems more realistically.

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Discussion Comments

By anon999040 — On Oct 16, 2017

There is some contention about whether this complex is real or not - in 1990, Carole Tavris wrote a scathing review in the LA Times (it's online) claiming that it was simply one more attempt to disguise real socioeconomic phenomena as yet another "women's issue" needing therapy and soul-searching.

But yes, this is a decent synopsis. BTW another interesting take on this issue, more so in my opinion, is Dowling's later book, "Maxing Out," also available under the title "The Myth of The Money Tree." Now that, my glip-glops, is one scary read!! Fascinating though.

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