Beyond the Cinderella Complex

Against the Current No. 18, January/February 1989

Janice Haaken

The Cinderella Complex
By Colette Dowling
New York: Pocket Books, 1981.

Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them
By Susan Forward
New York: Bantam Books, 1986.

Women Who Love Too Much
New York: Pocket Books, 1986.

Letters from Women Who Love Too Much
By Robin Norwood
New York: Pocket Books, 1988.

THE AMERICAN MARKET for self-improvement manuals appears to be inexhaustible. The contradiction between promises of self-realization and personal fulfillment and the actual impoverishment of daily life apparently creates a state of perpetually unsatisfied need.

Since much of the psychological self-help literature is part of an endless stream of ideological drivel, many of us tend to dismiss pop psychology altogether. But from at least some of these books we can learn a great deal about popular consciousness — they are widely read — and about what women, who mostly read them, hope for and fear.

An effective socialist-feminist politics has to address people’s daily preoccupations and personal sources of anguish, connecting them to social structural realities and offering some strategy for change, a source of hope. In taking seriously this literature, we can learn something about the gaps in our own political categories and analyses.

My interest here is in describing some of the unifying assumptions and bases for popular appeal in recent books on women and love. Unlike the also popular “how-to-find-a-man” recipes for succeeding in the dating market, the self-help literature I review analyzes heterosexual intimacy in terms which presuppose many feminist aims.

While sharing a critical perspective, these books vary in important respects. My review takes up the implications of these different analyses from both psychoanalytical and socialist-feminist points of view. I argue that it is important to recognize the differing ideological implications of various kinds of psychologies and that substituting political for psychological explanations is an insufficient basis for a serious critique of pop psychology.

In the “new” psychology of women, women no longer struggle with sexual inhibitions or envy of men, as the classical Freudians argued, so much as they fear experiencing separateness and independence. Collete Dowling’s The Cinderella Complex, Susan Forward’s Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them, and Robin Norwood’s Women Who Love Too Much, and her recent Letters from Women Who Love Too Much share this theme of women and dependency. But while they all draw on the aims and insights of the women’s movement, their conceptions of the problems in heterosexual relationships vary widely.

They also appeal to different groups of women. This is partly an issue of class. While all the books speak in terms of universal concerns of women, they each refer to clearly different social and economic experiences, which are assumed as a basis for women’s capacities and opportunities for self-development.

The self-help “love” literature has always idealized heterosexual intimacy and the emotional self-sufficiency of the couple. But how advice books have understood the barriers to heterosexual intimacy reflects the tenor of the times.

The advice literature of the 1970s talked about open marriage, nonpossessive emotional commitments and reforming traditional gender roles, expressing and affirming the combined values of feminism and the human potential movement. (For discussion, see Ellen Ross, ‘”The Love Crisis” Couples Advice Books of the Late 1970s” in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 6, 1980, 109-122.) But the love literature of the 1980s is much narrower in its vision. The testimonies of disappointment, confusion and despair that fill these manuals are, in part, an expression of both the decline and the limitations of the social movements of the previous decade.

While the women’s movement provided new interpretations for women’s experiences with men and politicized popular discourse on sexuality in the 1970s, much of the current popular love literature retreats from any political critique of personal life. The remaining barriers to women’s emancipation are now, more often than a decade ago, located within the female psyche. Whether women are told that they make foolish choices, that they expect too much from men or too little, the message behind much of the love literature of the 1980s is that women must change something within themselves rather than insisting on change from men.

But the new love literature also expresses the success of the contemporary women’s movement, not only its decline. While the failure of feminist aspirations, that is, lack of equality and reciprocity in women’s relationships with men, is implicitly the central problem of these books, the very fact that they assume these aspirations indicates the extent to which feminism has influenced women’s ideals. As Dowling notes:

“Women today are caught in the crossfire between old and radically new social ideas, but the truth is, we cannot fall back on the old ‘role’ any more. It’s not functional; it’s not a true option. We may think it is; we may want it to be; but it isn’t. The prince has vanished.” (Dowling, 16.)

Many of the new books on women and relationships are written by and, often, for women who have achieved some measure of economic independence and success but who struggle with longings to be taken care of by men or with feeling enslaved by men.

Women’s economic dependency on men has always been central to feminist analyses of gender inequality. But the new cast to the theme of dependency is in the apparent contradiction, for many contemporary women, between objective conditions approaching greater parity with men, and a subjective lag in feelings of autonomy and independence. Much of the appeal of these women’s self-help books is that they articulate and respond to this subjective split between a competent, adult self, associated with work and public life, and a weaker, infantile self-associated with heterosexual intimacy.

Self-help books typically begin with the author’s personal testimony of adversity, written in a confessional tone. The reader is led to identify with the author in facing common problems in life and coming to a critical moment of realization that new understandings and a different course of action are required. Self-help books also often consist largely of accounts of personal experiences which illustrate a unifying theme. Complex problems are reduced to a single explanation, pointing toward a step-by-step path to recovery. Women’s “hidden dependency” or women’s “love addictions” become an umbrella under which everything troublesome or problematic can be subsumed.

Dowling’s The Cinderella Complex was the first of this series of popular books on women and relationships with men. The women Dowling describes are seemingly capable, bright and accomplished; they are liberated women, drawn to liberated men with egalitarian ideals. But these women undergo a mysterious transformation when they pair up with these seemingly egalitarian, liberated men. They begin to whither intellectually, become socially phobic and preoccupy themselves with trivial domestic pursuits.

The Cinderella Complex refers to these women’s fantasies of being chosen by a powerful man who protects them from the hardship and difficulties of public life. But Dowling views this idealization of, and dependency on, men as part of a larger unconscious conflict over relinquishing childish dependency:

“Personal, psychological dependency-the deep wish to be taken care of by others-is the chief force holding women down today. I call this ‘The Cinderella Complex’ — a network of largely repressed attitudes and fears that keeps women in a kind of half-light, retreating from the full use of their minds and creativity. Like Cinderella, women today are still waiting for something external to transform their lives.” (Dowling, 21.)

There is some truth to Dowling’s claim that women are far more personally invested in domestic life than are men and that absorption in domesticity can be a defense against dealing with the larger social world. So too, it is not simply external coercion that maintains the sexual division of domestic labor. Dowling offers a partial analysis in arguing that women use control over domestic life and achieving greater competence than men in this sphere as compensation for what men more readily achieve in the world of paid work.

However, her tendency to trivialize women’s domestic responsibility as “escapist” denies the social necessity of much of women’s unpaid work. It also denies the reasonableness of many women’s ambivalence about their paid work, the tremendous difficulties that remain for many women in the work world.

Dowling universalizes in describing women’s problems, as do self-help authors typically, but her psychological formulations are somewhat compelling — particularly in thinking about class differences in women’s psychological experiences and conflicts. She describes women who were intellectually precocious girls, who had early achievements and recognized accomplishments, but whose development seemed to come to a halt in early adulthood. Stories of lost ambitions and abandoned dreams are part of our legacy as women. But the “Cinderella Complex” refers to both an infantile desire to be rescued and taken care of by men and, I suggest, a grandiose preoccupation with being prized and chosen.

Implicit in Dowling’s analysis is a Freudian model of the female oedipal configuration. The oedipal period in Freud’s model of development refers to the conflict between the child’s infantile, narcissistic claims to the mother’s love and the child’s growing recognition of a larger social world that also claims the mother’s attention and affection-a world in which the father, as agent of patriarchal culture, prevails.

The daughter’s entry into the oedipal period is marked by her renunciation of infantile grandiosity and her turning from the mother to the father as the preferred (and more socially powerful) love object. The boy resolves his oedipal conflict by renouncing his infantile love for the mother and replacing it with an active identification with the phallic power of the father.

The girl does not have this avenue available to her. As her early identification with the powerful mother of early childhood gives way to a recognition of the mother’s social “impotence” she renounces her active libido and learns to love anaclitically (out of clinging dependency). By being chosen by men, she can experience phallic power vicariously.

Freud’s account, as well as Dowling’s, may be descriptive of middle-class family dynamics particularly, where the emotional identifications with a powerful, idealized father and a socially and economically dependent mother have different consequences for daughters and sons. Many of the women Dowling describes were raised in middle-class families where performing for adults was relentlessly emphasized. Often there was a memory of an erotically toned relationship with the father who cultivated a sense of grandiose specialness and precocious accomplishments in the daughter but who subsequently undermined her achievements and capabilities, distancing himself emotionally from her.

A logical extension of Dowling’s interpretation would be that Cinderella’s prince symbolically re-establishes the relationship with the good and powerful father who returns to claim the princess.

While Dowling focuses on women’s passive, dependent longings and tendency to idealize men, expressed through the fairy tale, there are further psycho-dynamic parallels between the women Dowling describes and Cinderella. Just as Cinderella’s virtue and superiority are concealed behind her tattered clothing and degradation, the women Dowling describes conceal grandiose fantasies behind crippling self-doubt.

Cinderella is ultimately chosen over her less attractive stepsisters and stepmother, suggesting the girl’s oedipal fantasy of having a more legitimate claim to her father. Within the middle-class family, these daughters are heir to something that sets them apart from, and above, other people, but which they cannot directly realize or act on in the world. Their social power must be mediated by men. As a result, bourgeois women are more apt than working-class women to develop a sense of specialness cultivated in early childhood; they are also more apt to expect to be rescued and cherished by powerful men.

For Dowling, the essential conflict for women is between autonomous self-realization and realization through men. But there is another level to the Cinderella tale that Dowling also fails to recognize.

No less problematic for women than the idealized fantasy of the prince is the primitive fantasy of the wicked stepmother (and the evil stepsisters). This tale has mythic power because it mobilizes an archaic representation of the “bad mother,” who is not able to nurture her daughter. Out of a sense of deprivation and abandonment by the mother, the girl turns to the prince.

From a psychoanalytic perspective, part of this disappointment in and hostility toward the mother is based on wanting to escape her fate. The “good mother” of early childhood who is experienced as nurturing and capable is emotionally lost, while the memory of her lingers on. In the fairy tale, the good mother is literally gone. The socially impotent mother becomes the “bad object” — the wicked stepmother.

Dowling’s conclusions are ultimately simplistic psychologically and conservative politically. She interprets all of women’s striving as based on neurotically toned dependency conflicts. Indeed, even the political and economic gains made by women are reduced to “counterphobic facade” (the defensive pursuit of the object of one’s fears).

Feminism itself is seen as secondary and external to the core conflict: “Her work in the fight for women’s rights might alleviate her sense of personal isolation. But none of these external changes will untangle the confused and self-destructive attitudes lying within,” the result of “our past conditioning in a sexist society.” (Dowling, 57.)

The path to emancipation offered here is based on self-analysis and a purposeful “breaking free” from irrational fears and self-doubt, the taking of responsibility for one’s own happiness. In these prescriptions, Dowling draws heavily on the clichés of the human potential movement. What Dowling ultimately offers is a dare-to-be-great pep talk cloaked in feminist garb.

But what is the tremendous appeal of this book, beyond its superficial inspirational tone? I think that Dowling does identify, in the lives of the women she describes, a common set of conflicts in women who have achieved or aspire to professional or petty-bourgeois success. In describing female ambivalence, however, Dowling fails to consider that women are often ambivalent for rational reasons about achieving “success.”

Managerial women must relinquish alliances with co-workers, often in a context where sexual harassment, unequal pay and limited opportunities for advancement continue to make them politically vulnerable. Professional women enjoy greater freedom from alienating work, on the one hand, but face the anxieties, competitive pressures and self-absorption that often accompany these pursuits on the other.

There is also a historical basis for women’s conflictual responses to bourgeois success. The legacy of women’s marginalization from socialized production has held women back politically, but at the same time has provided them the ground to develop a sense of self and human need separate from the marketplace.

While most college women today expect to have a career, and are not apt to see marriage and family as alternatives to working, the work imperative is qualitatively and quantitatively different for women and men. Women are less apt than men to accept the compulsory and repressive aspects of work discipline with their necessary renunciation of all values external to the marketplace. By holding on to some of the traditional feminine values associated with domesticity, women preserve some emotional and social distance between themselves and the marketplace.

While Dowling draws on Cinderella, Norwood, in Women Who Love Too Much, finds the essential truth of women’s experiences with men in the fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast. Here women’s mythic power is in being able to transform men through love, rather than in becoming the object of transformation.

Norwood also begins with the contradiction many women experience between their public accomplishments and their private pain, particularly the sense of failure in love relationships. Like Dowling, Norwood locates women’s misery in parent-child relationships, emphasizing what she sees as women’s disturbing, distant relationships with emotionally withholding fathers.

But beyond this, the two authors describe quite different women and family backgrounds. Whereas Dowling’s women are often affluent middle-class in origin and ambition, Norwood analyzes women with working-class or lower-level professional jobs, e.g. nurses, teachers and social workers, who are less preoccupied with recreating a sense of lost specialness and dependency than they are with repairing others.

These are women who don’t expect to be rescued, but rather, have a sense of mission in loving needy, broken men. They didn’t grow up in Dowling’s world of powerful fathers; theirs is a world without phallic heroes, where women, like Beauty, enable men to recover their lost humanity. The stories in this book are quite moving, stories of women who are stalwart in their efforts to keep going, to do what is necessary in life.

But Norwood is no romantic, and her emphasis on the pathology that underlies romantic love gives the book its subversive edge. Norwood points to the pervasiveness of songs and literature which equate suffering and love, e.g. “Baby, baby, please don’t go; I think I’m getting high on feeling low.” (Norwood, 1986, 47.) Overinvestment in a sexual partner also often diminishes other social, emotional and intellectual capacities.

While many feminists would reject Norwood’s claim that women are often drawn to destructive and self-destructive men, she is clearly describing a problem that we as feminists have difficulty talking about. The women she describes recall their sense of excitement or challenge in being with unpredictable, irresponsible men. She also notes the grandiose component of this self-effacing, self-sacrificing position in relationships. The good self maintains its goodness by connecting with and attempting to control an externalized bad self. Norwood does not resurrect “female masochism” to explain women’s psychological identification with abusive or self-destructive men. Instead, she recognizes the positive impulses for mastery and control behind the tendency to recreate the traumatic experiences of childhood.

Women do not simply “invite” abuse from men in recreating the past. In seeking a new resolution to those situations that are associated with childhood memories of destructive vulnerability and lack of control, they become vulnerable to situations that remind them of the past. Women who “love too much” become self-sacrificing and overly nurturing as a means of controlling a chaotic and disturbing inner and outer world.

Norwood recognizes the futility of these efforts for women. While there is pleasure in becoming “the strong woman in charge of a man’s welfare,” and in finding “someone who needed me enough not to go away,” women are ultimately absorbed by these relationships in a way that leaves them empty. Moreover, focusing on men — and the need to repair them — can serve as a defense against being conscious of one’s own personal interests and difficulties in the world.

On the other hand, Norwood’s advice that women simply free themselves from emotionally damaged men fails to recognize the complexities of family life-the interdependencies and positive experiences with men that often co-exist with destructive tendencies. Moreover, Norwood fails to address the social forces that impoverish men in their ability to love. Therefore, she fails to appreciate that women may have some understanding of these forces and may stay with men out of empathy.

In Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them, Susan Forward also takes the position that women are often drawn to emotionally needy men. Like Norwood, she describes the disturbing side of romantic love and interprets women’s reparative efforts as being based on the need for control over an emotionally chaotic inner world.

But the pathology of men is central to Forward’s analysis. According to Forward, men are in fact emotionally limited. Women’s tendency to take care of them is more reactive than internally motivated. In responding to men, women have not learned to protect themselves emotionally from male abuse.

The neurotic tendency for women is to allow themselves to become projective objects for men. Men unconsciously attempt to “get rid of” their own dependency conflicts by externalizing them, projecting them onto the female “other.” They come to fear independence in women because they fear abandonment; they despise dependency in women because they despise passive, dependent impulses in themselves.

In accepting these male projections, Forward points out, women end up taking responsibility for men’s destructive behavior. She encourages women to establish greater emotional distance from men, to recognize that “his behavior is not o.k.” and “has very little to do with you.” Women must stop serving as the emotional receptacles for the displaced, bad feelings of men, and must “re-project” the bad back onto them.

Forward does offer women a great deal of practical advice in diagnosing, dealing with, and leaving, destructive relationships with men. One of the strengths of her approach is in recognizing that there is a range of ways of responding to these situations beyond the polar alternatives of either tolerating abuse or leaving.

Both Forward and Norwood, however, ultimately medicalize women’s over-dependency on emotionally abusive men, seeing it as a disease process, not analogous to addictions, but an actual addiction. Norwood elaborates on the parallel, stressing the common urgency and aggressive nature of all addictions:

“The first step in treating a woman with this problem is to help her realize that, like any addict, she is suffering from a disease process [Norwood’s emphasis] that is identifiable, is progressive without treatment, and that responds well to specific treatment….”

To wait for [the addicted woman] to figure out on her own that she is a woman who loves too much, whose disease is becoming progressively severe and may very well ultimately cost her life, is as inappropriate as listening to all the typical symptoms of any other disease and then expecting the patient to guess her condition and her treatment (Norwood, 1986, 205.)

Forward and Norwood have contributed to the current popularity of” addiction theory” in explaining a broad range of miseries over which people feel little control. The comparison between a physical dependency and emotional dependency on another person is compelling because it suggests an underlying causal unity behind seemingly disparate and varied forms of human behavior. The solution requires only recognizing one’s addiction and taking the necessary steps toward recovery.

Self-help groups are increasingly popular for “love addicts,” offering a new lexicon for pathological relationships, for example, co-dependency, enabling, rescuing, recovery. Robin Norwood’s books have become the guiding texts for many of these groups. Her recent book, Letters from Women Who Love Too Much, illustrates where this analysis can take people.

The politically conservative elements latent in her previous book are floridly manifest in this sequel, which relentlessly emphasizes the sickness that underlies women’s futile attempts at control in relationships. The only path to salvation is in publicly acknowledging one’s “disease” as a relationship addiction, recognizing one’s lack of control over the disease process, and following the Twelve Step path to recovery. The Twelve Step program, based on Alcoholics Anonymous, is akin to a conversion experience, where public confession of one’s “sins’ and yielding to a “higher power” are necessary steps in finding redemption.

Demonstrably, various “recovery” groups provide valuable social support in helping people overcome self-destructive behavior. Recovery groups based on the Twelve Step model emphasize many good commitments such as rotation of leadership tasks, the equal value of participants’ contributions, and non-hierarchical group processes. While “submitting to a higher power” is considered essential to recovery, the religious message has no doctrinal content and is ecumenical.

Paralleling the “equality among sinners” in the religious experience of conversion, recovery programs stress the common basis of participants’ suffering. The group creates a sense of the potential for goodness in people and a commonality of purpose through which members can transcend the limits of each individual’s own experience.

The destructive aspects of Norwood’s message reflect what is destructive in much religious thought. Recognizing one’s disease, like accepting Original Sin, is understood to mean relinquishing human pride and negotiating human agency in the world. Finding redemption is a subjective act that frees us from the torment of our own limitations, the damaged humanity of other people and our own disappointing efforts to change them.

Norwood concludes that essential to recovery from a “relationship addiction” is to recognize that “I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to change in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and my attitudes.” (Norwood, 1988, 258. Excerpts from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, third edition. Anonymous World Services, Inc.) Her vision of health and inner peace involves renouncing struggle and conflict. “When confronted by a foe, praise him, bless him, let him go.” (Norwood, 1988, 264. Excerpt from Alcoholics Anonymous.)

This message fails to provide a meaningful way of distinguishing between rational and irrational aggression and confrontation; it cannot offer a healthy way of thinking about human reparative efforts in the world.

For women, it is often the case that achieving emotional distance from men is a necessary part of achieving some measure of personal adjustment in adult life and that this does include being less angry with men. Feminism often romanticizes women’s tendency toward “connectedness and care,” on the one hand, and affirms the rationality of women’s anger toward men, on the other. But recognizing and resisting the myriad ways in which men oppress women do not require us to romanticize women, nor does it mean that we deny our own destructive impulses. When our feminism rests on feminine idealization, we leave an opening for self-help literature and groups that focus on the self-destructive side of caring and giving voice to women’s destructive impulses in relationships.

Feminists needn’t deny the importance of a personal past as a cause of abusive relationships in order to assert the limits of psychological explanations. Human experience has multiple determinants and occurs on many levels. We need to go beyond the tendency to explain all self-destructive behavior as “lack of alternatives.” But we must also be wary of “cycles-of-violence” arguments that abused children become adults who recreate those abusive relationships. Such arguments do not take into account the limited possibilities, within this society, for reparative experiences.

In a good society, the vicissitudes of early development perhaps would be less crucial; both men and women would have ongoing possibilities for rebuilding a wounded sense of self.

In arguing for a different vision of society and human need, we must not counterpose psychological and political explanations. The problem with much of the self-help literature is not its attention to the psychology of personal life, but its replacing limited political explanations with impoverished psychological ones.

This literature appeals because it articulates shared longings, as well as the anguish and disappointment, that many women experience in relation with men and offers a path for deliverance. In critiquing pop psychology, we should recognize the he impulses that lead people to seek self-help literature and recovery groups.

We need to develop modes of political work that permit the expression of both personal concerns and anxieties about political change. As radicals, we need to often better at critically responding and “putting out the message than we are at “taking in” or listening carefully to what others are saying. To some extent this capacity to hold onto a critical interpretation of the world — a kind of narcissistic self-certainty – is an emotional requirement of radicalism in a society which delegitimizes and undermines any alternative vision. As a result, there is a tendency to develop emotional defenses against uncertainty, doubt or confusion in ourselves and others. And yet, our ability to empathize with these experiences is a necessary part of organizing.

As socialists and feminists, we tend either to immediately transform human emotional misery into political categories or, looking beyond, hope that the irrational and disturbing expressions of human consciousness will wither away, along with religion, after we’ve achieved socialism. We are also prone to emphasize rational human impulses toward mastery and control or “empowerment” and tend to say little about fears of change that dominate many people’s lives

By articulating fears and emotional defenses against personal change that many people experience, the self-help literature does speak to the conflicts and contradictions in the human project of transformation, while offering a message of hope. As radicals, we need to draw on those left and feminist traditions that provide means of understanding and dealing with uncertainty, despair and defeat, while simultaneously maintaining the need to create a better social world.

January-February 1989, ATC 18

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