Women feel helpless. They yearn for freedom but are afraid to take it. That is the controversial thesis of Colette Dowling’s The Cinderella Complex: Women’s Hidden Fear of Independence (Summit Books, $12.95). A decade after feminists began to raise consciousness, Dowling argues that women still remain passive, relying on Prince Charmings to deliver them. Dowling, 43, counts herself among the victims. The daughter of an engineering professor and a housewife, she wrote her first book while raising three children and her second, an autobiography, after her 1971 separation. But a new relationship plummeted her back into dependency and launched four years of self-examination and research that culminated in the publication of her new book. She explained to Linda Marx of PEOPLE her theory of why many women have nothing to fear but fear itself.
Could you amplify on “the Cinderella Complex”?
I mean that women today are waiting for something external to come along and transform their lives. We may venture into the world, travel, go to college, or make money. But underneath it all lurks a wish to be saved, a deep yearning for dependence. These largely repressed attitudes, I believe, are holding women down. And they affect not some women, but virtually all of us.
Could you give examples?
Yes. You see it in the protected housewife who has to ask her husband’s permission to buy a dress; in the well-paid career woman who is unable to sleep at night when her lover is out of town; in the suddenly widowed older woman who feels angry about having to fend for herself. The common link is tearfulness and an underlying propensity to feel helpless without a man.
When does the complex start?
At birth. Instead of teaching a woman to be an individual, a free-thinking, decision-making human being, parents provide answers for her to everything and protect her. By the time she goes out on her own as an adult, she has a feeling of helplessness because she has never had to make decisions for herself.
What are some examples?
A father may give both his son and daughter an allowance. But the boy’s allowance is more money and may be expected to cover essentials like hobbies and parts for his bicycle. For the girl, it’s a small amount, merely to make her feel good. But she isn’t expected to buy anything substantial, maybe a magazine or candy. That creates a dependency at an early age.
Why blame only fathers?
The mother is equally to blame. Mothering in this country has been precisely to teach the daughter to be just like her. In most cases, the mother has been dependent on her husband all of her married life and sees that as the norm. Conversely, the mother has taught her son to be independent, get a job while in high school and learn to fend for himself. Men are taught to provide for, and women are taught to take from. Until that philosophy of child-rearing changes, nothing is going to improve significantly.
What about “liberated” women?
Certainly feminism has helped many women to change. But feistiness can often be a shell hiding insecurity. It was in my case. By the time I got to high school I had a very tough and sassy exterior which fooled a lot of people. Psychologists call this a counterphobic facade. Bossy, self-assured, often very good talkers, these women are usually terrified of their underlying vulnerability and loneliness. But they work so hard denying the fear that many have no idea how much it dominates their lives.
Is puberty the first crisis in the Cinderella Complex?
Yes. For example, after high school dances, boys have been allowed to walk home in the dark. Girls, forbidden to walk the streets at night, can’t go home until they have a ride, a friend to walk with or some external force to guide them through. The same is true in women as adults: They feel insecure about eating dinner alone in a restaurant, about visiting a strange town by themselves and about independently deciding to do something they have never experienced before, say, making a foreign trip and leaving their children home for a week. The Cinderella Complex used to hit girls after high school, driving them into early marriages. Now it tends to hit after college, raising anxiety after they’ve gotten a taste of the world.
Why is that?
For a single working woman, the crisis is usually not having enough money to support herself. Daddy will supplement the income for the daughter. He won’t for the son because the son doesn’t expect it and the son makes enough money because his job pays well. The daughter—and this is a crucial problem—is normally underpaid in any work she does. Once Daddy stops supporting her or she spends too much money and has cash flow problems, she becomes frantic and dependent.
Is marriage still an escape valve for women?
A 1978 survey indicated that women still view marriage as a fortress overseen by a prince who rescues them from responsibility, with good sex and companionship secondary. A married woman may be unhappy allowing her husband to make all her decisions, but she doesn’t really know it. She probably won’t realize she has a dependency complex until he goes out of town on a business trip and she is forced to make decisions like where to take the car to have it fixed or which refrigerator repairman to call or how to handle a burglary in the summer home.
But can women who want children ever really live a totally independent life?
A woman can be a wife and mother and be an independent person. One has nothing to do with the other. Helplessness is just an excuse.
Will men support this theory?
Some will. Women who learn to step out of the Cinderella Complex will be attracted to a different kind of man and will find their lives more rewarding.
Do you advocate divorcing a man who doesn’t believe your philosophy?
Yes, because if you truly believe that you are becoming more independent, more interesting and more of a person, and he doesn’t support the theory, then why do you need him?
At which point did your Cinderella Complex really hit you?
My independent facade was so convincing I might have gone on believing it indefinitely if something hadn’t happened. After all, I was separated from my husband before he died, and supported myself and the kids for four years living and working in New York as a free-lance writer. My underlying dependency needs were still there, making me anxious, but on the surface I coped because I was forced to.
In 1974 I met Lowell Miller and later moved with him and my kids to a house in Rhinebeck, N.Y. To my surprise, my ambition faded. While Lowell provided for us, I cooked, cleaned, gardened, got fat, typed Lowell’s manuscripts—and wrote nothing of my own. Lowell, who is 10 years younger than I and not a “traditional” male, objected. He told me I had collapsed into dependency and it hurt him that I would exploit him in this way. This gave me the impetus to confront myself.
Are you out of the complex today?
I felt secure enough about our relationship to take an apartment in Manhattan because I need it for my work. Five years ago I would have been afraid of losing him over that. Now I know he values our relationship and views me as a total person, just like him. It feels good and I have come a long way. However, I am not cured. I still get scared of new and complex things.
What advice do you have for women?
The first and most important thing is to recognize the degree to which fear rules their lives. Begin keeping a journal of self-observation, noting dreams and fantasies as well as reality. Join a consciousness-raising group or just get together regularly with some trusted friends to look at yourselves honestly and openly. Once we begin to identify our phobias, we can begin to challenge them—slowly, perhaps painfully re-educating ourselves and realizing our potential.