It’s no surprise this classic fairy tale endures. Who doesn’t love a good rags-to-riches story? How could we not root for the downtrodden damsel who falls in love with a dashing prince and is whisked away to a grand life to live happily ever after? But how many women have bought into the Cinderella notion that our lives lack joy, value and purpose until we are magically rescued? That we are incomplete without a prince in our life?
I know I did.
And it almost destroyed my life.
I’m a recovering love addict.
For over half of my 57 years, I was trapped in the torturous cycle of love addiction, endlessly craving, searching, scheming, obsessing and agonizing for love.
Many of us children from abusive, neglectful, addictive, codependent or otherwise dysfunctional families created alternative universes to cope. When I was 5, I unknowingly conjured a fantasy life of being rescued by a majestic king who adored me. By age 10 and 11, most girls outgrow their infatuation with all things fairy princess. But my attachment to romantic ideals wasn’t just an innocent girl’s passing dream. It governed my entire adult life as my addiction to romance and love played out in relationship after relationship.
Cinderella in reverse
In 1981, when Colette Dowling’s book The Cinderella Complex: Women’s Hidden Fear of Independence was published, controversy sparked, especially among working women like me striving to climb the corporate ladder. Regardless of how far we had come in advancing equality in the workplace and at home, Dowling said that many of us were still waiting for something external, i.e., a man, to transform our lives. Our fear of independence and unconscious desire to be taken care of by others was what really held us back. The backlash from feminists ignited.
But it was my truth.
Looking back on my relationships, the magnitude of my dependency on the men I was with was astonishing.
Equally dismaying was how rapidly I transformed my persona. After the first month, the super-successful, confident and independent career woman who initially captivated them with her executive presence transmuted into an insecure, weak and needy girl.
Yes; I was a walking contradiction. Here I was, a successful corporate woman who, by all appearances, had it so together. But in matters of the heart, I assumed a new identity, shrinking into a subservient and dependent role. I was Cinderella in reverse. Rather than ascending from rags to riches, powerless to powerful, I devolved, deflating and delegating all of my power to the man of the moment.
As a poster child for Love Addicts Anonymous, I mainlined fantasy and romance. Modern day Cinderella movies like Pretty Woman and Maid in Manhattan were my crack. I was a mistress of distorting and ignoring reality. I only saw men as I wanted them to be, not as they were. Even when I was not in a relationship, I fantasized about love continuously, stuck in my 5-year-old dream of the perfect prince who was going to sweep into my life someday. For love addicts unable to distinguish between a dream and delusion, fairy tales like Cinderella can be perilous, only fueling our obsessiveness.
The fact that Cinderella, a tale written in the 1600s, is still relevant in 2015 — indeed, it’s the current box-office champion — is proof that it teaches many timeless and universal lessons: Courage, humility and kindness are virtues that are ultimately rewarded. And the ability to reinvent oneself by overcoming obstacles and never giving up on dreams is an empowering message for any age.
But for those of us who grew up love-starved and consumed with rosy romantic ideals, we need an alternative ending to Cinderella: True happiness comes only when we stop looking for someone else to bring it and we start cultivating it within ourselves.