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The Cinderella Complex: The Dangers of Giving up Control of Your Money and Your Life


Written By: Sarah Carlson

In the “Lean In” era, it can be a surprise to learn that as many as one-fourth of American women choose not to work. This is less than the number of non-working women in 1950, when 63 percent stayed at home, but it’s clear that the “Cinderella complex” is still very much with us.

And that isn’t good for women. Not at all.

Not familiar with the “Cinderella complex”? It dates back to 1981, when author Colette Dowling coined the term in her book by that name. Many women, she said, grow up expecting that a man—a “Prince Charming”—will provide for all their financial needs.

“Women are brought up to depend on a man and to feel naked and frightened without one,” Dowling wrote in a New York Times Magazine article. “We have been taught to believe that as females we cannot stand alone, that we are too fragile, too delicate, too needful of protection.”

Looking for our ‘sugar daddy’

This yearning for security and safety that someone else provides—a “Daddy” figure—can rob us of our adulthood, rendering us dependent “little girls” throughout our lives. Although we know that money is power, we may be OK letting the man control the purse strings (and everything else) if it means we don’t have to worry about our or our children’s survival.

The reasons for this mindset are many. Perhaps you were raised in a home where your father worked and your mother didn’t, and so this situation feels normal to you. Perhaps you.

The price, though, can be steep. Giving up control of your finances and your future may mean that, when you need to take charge, you feel helpless. What if your husband or partner dies or wants a divorce? What if you want out of the marriage?

It’s time to get real

If you are like most people, you’re inclined to shrug off the possibility of divorce. After all, you both pledged to love, honor, and cherish “till death do we part,” right?

And few of us get married intending to divorce someday. Weaned on fairy tales, we count on “happily ever after.”

But fairy tales are make-believe—the same as the children’s movies that instill in girls the dream that, someday, their prince will come.

Reality can be much more harsh. Roughly half of marriages fail. For people over 50, the chances of divorce are even greater: the “gray divorce” rate doubled between 1990 and 2010. Twenty-seven percent of “gray” divorced women live in poverty.

You don’t have to be one of them.

The wise woman will prepare herself now, when the marriage is sound, against that day when she finds herself suddenly single.

Getting your finances in order doesn’t mean you have to divorce, not at all. But just as you prepare for life’s other contingencies—drawing up an escape plan in case of a house fire, for instance, or purchasing health insurance in case of illness—it makes sense to learn about money and how to manage it in case you need to take care of your own finances someday.

Related: The Power of Contrarianism to Long-Term Investment Success

Breaking the spell

Every woman needs a “suddenly single” action plan, one that lays out what to do should she find herself alone in the world.

Don’t know where to start? I’m here to help. In a series of articles, I’ll provide pointers and checklists for protecting yourself and your finances in case of divorce. Follow my advice, and you will be in a much better position than if you did nothing.

Doing nothing, in fact, is not an option—not in this day and age. As more and more women work, become financially savvy, and take care of themselves, Cinderellas risk being left behind, the glass slipper broken along with their dreams of a secure future.

In this series, I’ll explore:

  • Get organized: first steps to take before you pursue divorce
  • Get help: who to see and what to do when you’ve decided to leave
  • Get with the program: how to execute your divorce agreement and take care of you

No matter what the fairy tales say, your “prince” is not going to arrive someday. He is not on the far horizon, riding up on a white horse to whisk you away. He is not by your side, ready to break the spell of your helplessness with a kiss.

Your prince is here, now, and has been all along. To find the one who can best care for you now and in the future, you need only open your eyes a little wider and look—within yourself.

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