Abusive Relationships: The Cinderella Effect in Myth and Reality
One of the most popular fairy tales is that of Cinderella. The story of Cinderella tells the story of a young woman whom is absorbed into a new, reconstructed stepfamily after her own mother has died. Her father has married another woman, a widow with two children from a previous relationship. After the wedding, Cinderella finds herself in a reduced state. Once she was the favored only daughter. Now she is judged harshly and belittled by her stepmother. Nothing Cinderella does is good enough in comparison with her stepsisters. Cinderella cannot work hard enough in her stepmother's estimation, even when she is scrubbing away the cinders of the family's burnt-out fireplace while her stepsisters live a life of leisure upstairs. Rather than display Cinderella at an upcoming ball at the palace, her mother refuses to let her attend.
Everyone knows what happens to Cinderella. Magic intervenes. Good is rewarded and evil is punished. The good girl's tiny foot fits the discarded glass slipper, Cinderella's evil stepmother and sisters have their eyes pecked out by birds when they cast their jealous eyes upon Cinderella's wedding to the prince. However, what happens to modern-day abused Cinderellas in the real world?
What happens in a world without fairy godmothers?
The title of Anne C. Bernstein's essay "Women in Stepfamilies: The Fairy Godmother, the Wicked Witch, and Cinderella Reconstructed," from the volume Family in Transition attempts to answer this question. It provides powerful testimony to the fact that the Cinderella myth often has its roots in reality. The myth's existence in our culture also perpetuates the disharmony and even the abuse that often occurs when new members of a family began to cohabitate with one another.
In a study of full-time stepmothers who were sharing many child-reading activities with their husbands and struggling to establish good relationships with their stepchildren, Santrock and Sitterle (1987) found that despite the stepmother's persistent efforts to become involved, their stepchildren tenaciously held onto the view of them as somewhat detached, unsupportive and uninvolved in their lives. Not surprisingly, stepmothers seemed to have reached a similar conclusion about their role in the family system. (Bernstein, 2001, citing Santrock and Sitterle, 210)
Bernstein wryly notes that few little girls go to bed at night, hugging their pillows and dreaming that 'someday I'll be a stepmother.' Rather they dream of being the princess saved from the wicked stepmother. (Bernstien, 2001, 210) Stepmothers are wicked, say the common cultural myths, now favorite childhood stories, of Hanzel and Gretel and Cinderella. Mothers must be like Fairy Godmothers, perfect, giving, and serene. "This results in a 'deficit comparison' model, whereby the stepfamily is seem as a less effective constellation," as opposed to the four-part family structure of breadwinner father, loving mother, and two perfect (genetically related) children. (Bernstein, 2001, 203) However stepmothers often create an emotional situation where they are rejected, paradoxically, because they expect to be rejected. They lash out in defense rather than seek acceptance.
Cinderella's struggle, her sense of detachment from her family may result in a sense of polarization between herself and her stepmother that increases her stepmother's feeling that she has nothing in common with her young, non-genetically connected 'new' daughter.
Even though men such as Cinderella's father may marry because 'a girl should have a mother,' Bernstein notes:
review of the literature by Zaslow (199, 1989) concluded that girls with remarried mothers showed more externalized symptoms (behavior problems, hostility, acting out) and internalized symptoms (anxiety, depression, withdrawal, dependence) than did boys in the same family configuration...[This was] a reversal of the pre-remarriage picture of the boy's more negative responses the parental divorce. (Bernstein, 2001, 208)
Bernstein traces this discomfort to the stepmother-stepdaughter connection evidenced in Cinderella. However, she nuances the simplicity of the fairy tale, not stating that both mother and daughter are he receptacles of cultural norms of femininity. "Having once been a girl herself," and assuming a certain level of feminine knowledge, a stepmother may be more apt to attempt to parent the girl before the girl is ready than she might be in the case of a boy. A girl may be used to being her 'real' mother's confidant and be angry at the intrusion of a stepmother into her relationship with her custodial mother. She may see a stepmother as a rival to her mother; even after the divorce, even after her own mother has died. "Children, especially girls, need their mothers' permission to accept their stepmothers." (Bernstein 2001 221-214) When this permission is not given, or, as in the case of Cinderella, cannot be given because the girl's original mother is dead, conflict results.
Adding to Bernstein's notions of female competition one must also consider that the daughter herself may be perceived as a rival to the father's affections as a younger woman, and an extension of her husband's first wife. To return to the Cinderella family dynamic as well, the young girl may also be seen as a rival to the new children born into the reconstructed family, or to children born to the stepmother before the marriage.
Although Bernstein is an academic, writing to fellow academics, more and more in the popular media, the difficulty of dealing with reconstructed unions is being dealt with in an explicit manner. As divorce becomes more and more common so does advice given to stepparents in the popular media. A news article in Parenting magazine by Hilory Wagner deals openly not only with the tension caused between stepmothers and stepdaughters, but also between stepsiblings. "Many children consider new stepsiblings an intrusion," Wagner quotes Jerry Bigner, Ph.D., a professor of human development and family studies at Colorado State University. Often this begins as a 'turf war,' where the new sibling encroaches on another's physical space -- her room, her play area, even her seat at the dinner table. Wagner also cautions that parents in newly created stepfamilies shouldn't expect new stepsiblings to bond with each other right away or even during the first year. She also quotes Rachelle Goldberg, a marriage and family therapist in the Boston area who says that "it takes two years or more for stepfamilies to really gel." (Wagner "Suddenly Sibling" Parenting Magazine)
Wagner is particularly adamant that stepmothers in particular should avoid disciplining the children of their partner to avoid potential conflict. She does not note, however, that this parental style could potentially create conflicts between the new siblings, when they note that the two groups of children in the home are being treated in a different manner. This could quite easily result in a 'reverse Cinderella' effect where stepsiblings are put at odds because they perceive that the original parent seems to favoring the new children in the family. Abuse does not always take the form of a stepparent disciplining a child, after all. Stepsiblings, another phenomena exhibited in the Cinderella myth, can also inflict abuse upon one another, both emotional and physical. One of the reasons that Cinderella's sisters despise her so much is that they see their mother treating her in a cold and disdainful fashion, thus they mimic their mother. However, they might also see the girl as a potential rival to their new father's affections, just as later in the story their sister proves to be a very real rival to their marital prospects.
One aspect of abuse in stepfamilies not dealt with in the Cinderella myth, however, is the relationship between stepfathers, stepsons, and their daughters. The absence of wicked stepfather in fairy tales may have its roots in historical circumstances a hundred or more years ago. Then women were less likely to survive childbirth and men were more likely to remarry young, fertile women who perceived themselves as rivals to their new husband's pre-existing daughters or who were likely to give birth to daughters themselves to rival the original, older offspring. Today, stepfathers are equally likely to be a reality in the lives of individuals as stepmothers.
Stepfathers pose additional problems to the stepfamily dynamic. In the Cinderella story, the father of the title character is distant, neither protecting his daughter from his shrewish new wife, nor showing much of an interest in his new wife or daughters. Today, however, a more involved parenting style is demanded. At Parentsplace.com, an Internet advice column, a poignant letter from a new stepfather reads "I don't have any kids of my own so I don't have any parenting instincts. Should a marriage end because of my inability to love my spouses' child?" The difficulty of men, in a culture which still prizes female nurturing and male stoicism, to automatically feel fatherly towards a strange child can result in a distant and emotionally alienated relationship between the father and a stepchild. In an even more difficult set of circumstances, an inappropriate attachment or relationship between a young daughter and a stepfather (or an older stepbrother) can result in the absence of models of appropriate, nonsexual male nurturing behavior. (Peterson…