Americans have been flooded with fairy tales since the Brothers Grimm compiled their well-loved edition of them in 1812. Who would have believed that accepting these fables as an achievable goal could stunt a person’s independence and financial security more than 200 years later?
Many girls and women, especially, take these stories to heart, letting the tales dictate their own goals and desires. In her book, “The Cinderella Complex: Women’s Hidden Fear of Independence” (1981), psychotherapist and author Colette Dowling, considers why many female readers become dependent, passive women as adults. She believes they wish to be taken care of by others. As financial advisors, we know that a wish is not a plan. We are in the business of helping people think about, articulate and actively plan for their futures and achieve their goals.
Dowling based her book on her own early experiences as a young, unfulfilled wife and mother in a marriage that at first seemed to protect her from the world, but soon ended in divorce. In a 1981 review of ”The Cinderella Complex” for The Washington Post (titled “Some Day My Prince Will Come”), writer Angeline Goreau pointed out that, “Somewhere beneath the surface of even the most emancipated of women, Colette Dowling tells us, lives an indomitable Cinderella.”
More recently, professor and author Rhonda Garelick wrote in the New York Times of the Netflix series “Maid”: “Centuries of fairy tales … have conditioned us to expect that the beautiful, downtrodden young woman will be saved.”
The Downside of Believing in Fairy Tales
Both title characters in “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty” wished for someone to save them, from poverty and abuse in one case, and a sudden life change in the other. Yet they each paid a high price for their happy endings. Cinderella endured neglect, unhappiness and forced labor. Sleeping Beauty postponed 100 years of her natural lifetime and that of her family. The happy ending in each book seems one-dimensional, as the stories end with the arrival of a prince in love with a heroine whom he may not know, and an actual or presumed marriage. As part of the fantasy, we accept that they live happily ever after.
By choice, I specialize in advising, listening to and guiding women clients. This has taught me that, in today’s world, women who believe someone or something will come to save them from the ups and downs of life may be harmed in a myriad of ways:
- Women who relate to these fairy tales and fantasies are kept from reaching their potential, sometimes from undertaking careers or assuming leadership roles. Waiting for someone to save her can be a full-time pursuit for a woman. For example, one client of mine pondered whether she should move out of her home and take a high-level job. But she did not want to commit to involvement in something that might divert her pursuit of her ultimate goal: remaining available for the arrival of her own “Prince Charming.”
- Unrealistic expectations can keep a woman from acknowledging and participating actively in her own success and prevent her from taking necessary steps toward progress.
- A hope in a stronger someone coming to the rescue can keep a talented woman from competing for senior positions at her workplace.
- Some women may withdraw from becoming fully mature by not assuming responsibility for their own lives.
- Similarly, a woman may defer to someone in her life to make decisions about her future — and her finances.
What Can an Advisor Do?
After decades of advising women and widowed clients at our firm on taking the reins of their finances and destiny, I offer these suggestions.
- Look for signs of reluctance to engage in the reality of daily life, or to plan for the future. Many clients may be waiting for someone to notice their distress and to lend an engaged ear.
- Listen for your clients’ anxieties. Are they worried about something, or reluctant to take on a new role? Mentoring a client may not be what you think you should be doing, yet it can be an important step toward building trust and helping clients get back on track.
- Watch for clients who feel helpless among their peers. Talk to them about their stumbling blocks and whether they believe they have gone as far as they can go in their careers.
- Note whether clients yearn for something more in their lives. How are they filling that void? Think about whether you can help instill confidence.
- Ask open-ended questions and present reality-based recommendations. Sometimes taking clients’ fears seriously is enough; other times, clients need more guidance than we are trained to give. (One client asked me if she should get a divorce — definitely not what I am trained to decide. Yet I knew that our conversation about “Where do you see yourself five years from now?” was helpful to her. No one else had asked her that. And I listened closely to her answer.)
If a female client hopes each man she meets could prove to be her own “prince,” she may be avoiding responsibility. Women at this stage can be, as the author Dowling thought, “a girl child,” fearful of taking action, yet still wanting to control their environment.
Discuss each life choice with a client as something that might not be forever. For example, she might decide to embark on a challenging career track if she knows she can make changes to it later on. I have had great success at persuading clients to write their wills by mentioning that many people make several new ones during their lives.
Is There a Men’s Equivalent to This Fantasy?
In my RIA practice, I have not heard men mention a fairy-tale fantasy. As Dowling writes, men are more likely to have been brought up to face road blocks from an early age, while girls often have an “overprotected childhood.” After all, the men get to be the prince, the hero of these stories, confident, independent, successful (or born to wealth and position) and likely brave as well. If the fairy tale ends with a marriage, it is with the prince’s family’s blessing, while the bride may have escaped unthinkable circumstances or needed magical intervention to reach him.
Take a Step Back
The reverse of these stories is that some women fear they will end up homeless and alone, pushing a cart of their belongings in a park, no matter how successful they have been.
A variation of this view is imposter syndrome. They fear they faked it, they fooled their managers, they got the public to look away, but in the end who they really are will catch up with them. Many of my female clients try to convince me that they will hit rock bottom.
One, whom I will call Veronica, was unmoored when her beloved husband died suddenly. Yet when left with enough money to live comfortably for the rest of her life, she still remained too anxious about her finances to join her friends for their weekly dinner. I asked how much dinner would cost, multiplied it by 52 weeks, and told Veronica that she could afford to go out with her friends regularly, which she has done.
So what becomes of the Cinderellas among our clients? What are the attributes that make her a suitable match for her prince? She is patient, humble, kind, pretty from her small feet to her beautiful gown. Sleeping Beauty is particularly passive. In her sleep, she isn’t present in the next steps of the rest of her life, but we can imagine her dreaming of the prince who will awaken her, thus saving her from the curse she fell victim to.
For an updated version I recommend “Cinder-Elly” (1994) and “Sleepless Beauty” (1996) by Frances Minters (full disclosure: we’re related). These tales bring the story, the characters and the settings from the countryside and the castle into the city of today.
Meant to entertain and uplift children, they honor the original fables while illustrating how user-friendly and inspiring these stories can be.
The underlying moral of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales seems to be: Wait for your prince to save you, don’t complain, don’t try to change your situation, it will all work out. Yet this is not the positive and proactive advice we want our clients to remember. Life changes rapidly, leaving those who do not participate on the sidelines.
Today’s active woman client who makes comfortable choices, who participates in and creates her own future happiness — rather than pinning her hopes on being saved or sleeping through her natural life span — ultimately may live happily ever after, knowing that she saved herself from dreariness and dependence.
Karen Caplan Altfest Ph.D., CFP, is a principal advisor at Altfest Personal Wealth Management. She helps many of the firm’s clients on a variety of investment and financial planning issues and specializes in helping women clients and widows. Karen’s Financially Savvy Woman programs, including the Women’s Financial $pa, are popular with clients. Her focus is to educate and empower women.