Cinderella Syndrome: Signs You Have It and How to Overcome It

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Cinderella syndrome, Cinderella complex, and Cinderella disorder all refer to a psychological condition in which a woman fears true independence and secretly expects a “knight in shining armor” to come along and take care of her. The term “Cinderella complex” was coined by Agatha Christie in a murder mystery novel, but the book by this title written by Colette Dowling brought the condition worldwide public attention. Cinderella syndrome is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as a diagnosis, but women who feel abnormally dependent on others may be interested in learning more about this condition.

What Is the Cinderella Complex?

In her book, The Cinderella Complex: Women’s Hidden Fear of Independence, published in 1981, Dowling theorized that women traditionally are conditioned from birth to be dependent on others—particularly men—for their emotional and physical safety and security. Dowling used the analogy of the fairytale character Cinderella, who cooks and cleans for her abusive stepmother but ultimately is rescued and taken care of by “Prince Charming.” Women with a Cinderella complex may likewise feel most comfortable living in the “safe haven” of homemaking while a man takes care of them.

Dowling described the experience of discovering her own Cinderella complex when she decided to move in with a man after she had been living independently for several years:

“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.”

Cinderella Syndrome Warning Signs

Even seemingly independent women may experience signs of Cinderella syndrome. Though no comprehensive list of Cinderella syndrome symptoms has been compiled, a woman with this complex may:

  • Defer to her partner’s choices and decisions
  • Feel anxious living on her own
  • Find it difficult or impossible to make major life decisions on her own
  • Have difficulty supporting herself or in holding a job
  • Prefer the traditional role of homemaker and mother
  • Prefer to always be romantically partnered with someone—usually someone who could be described as “strong”
  • Rarely or never operates outside her emotional comfort zone
  • Secretly or openly express a strong desire to be taken care of

Some women with Cinderella syndrome may feel they were mistreated or neglected by their parents, further cementing the comparison to the fairytale character. These women may long for a rescuer—a Prince Charming—to arrive and take care of them.

When to Seek Help for Cinderella Disorder

Not every woman who exhibits the signs listed here has Cinderella syndrome. Many women in traditional roles enjoy a healthy partnership with their spouse, in which each person is mutually dependent on the other. Many women participate in equal decision-making with their partners, even if it’s not visible to the outside world.

However, if your fear of living on your own and being wholly responsible for your own life and well-being causes you great anxiety, then you might seek professional counseling. A psychotherapist or licensed clinical social worker can help you discover ways in which you might overcome your fears and improve your emotional quality of life—whether you have Cinderella syndrome or not.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Sep 2
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. The Cinderella Complex. Women’s Wellbeing and Mental Health. http://www.womens-wellbeing-and-mental-health.com/the-cinderella-complex.html
  2. Psychology Behind the Cinderella Complex. HER. https://www.empowher.com/mental-health/content/psychology-behind-cinderella-complex?page=0,1
  3. Cinderella Syndrome: Do you or your partner suffer from it? (Indian case-study). The Health Site. https://www.thehealthsite.com/diseases-conditions/cinderella-syndrome-do-you-or-your-partner-suffer-from-it-indian-case-study-ai0518-567955/
  4. Dowling C. 1981. The Cinderella Complex: Women's Hidden Fear of Independence. New York: Summit Books.