Karen Gless, Ph.D.
Now that it is twenty years since the death of Princess Diana, I have been thinking about the meaning of those events. I cried as I watched the funeral. I had a deep inner sense that not only had we lost a valuable and special person, but also that the dream of a fairy tale romance was being laid to rest along with her. Over time I realized that the starry-eyed idea of ‘true love’ was fading away, and that was scary at first?
On July 23, 1981, when Lady Diana Spencer married Prince Charles, the world watched a spectacle that seemed to be a fairy tale come to life. Like the storybook princess, she arrived in an actual glass carriage. She was resplendent in an exquisite wedding dress with an incredibly long train. The Prince had picked a beautiful, somewhat shy, young woman to be his bride and mother to a future king.
From the outside it appeared that the marriage progressed according to the formula. Diana was learning the routines of the royal life and coping with the constant intrusions of the press with charm and grace. Their marriage seemed frozen in time, a royal relationship secure in traditions, completely disconnected from the concerns of ordinary people.
The birth of her first son, Prince William on June 21, 1982, brought a sense of fulfillment to Diana. Before she had felt insecure in the royal household. Now she was mother of the heir to the throne. Slowly she began to develop a sense of personal strength and independence.
Breaking the Glass Slipper
But the modern world began to intrude into their seemingly idyllic world. Diana would soon be a perfect example of both the problems and the possibilities women experience today. Women struggle to break through the glass ceiling in the corporate world. Diana had to break the glass slipper syndrome and become more than a storybook princess.
In her biography of the princess, Anne Edwards recounts an incident during a tour of Wales after they were married, when Diana had her first experience meeting the public as a royal. It was pouring rain, but she went straight to the crowd and took the hand of an elderly man, commenting on how cold his hand was and thanking him for coming to see them. (1) This was very uncharacteristic behavior for the royals and Diana’s direct contact with ordinary people made her extremely popular with the public.
She was developing a sense of herself and finding the courage for independent thought. In her charity work, she supported anti-landmine efforts in 1997 despite the opposition of conservative political elements. She visited Angola and was filmed holding and hugging children who had lost arms and legs to landmines. Her efforts had a significant effect on promoting the international anti-landmine treaty. Throughout her brief career she was the “people’s princess.”
Behind the Scenes
The underlying story was not so beautiful. For years before he met Diana, Charles had a lover, Camilla Parker-Bowles. Because Camilla was a married woman, he could never marry her and hope to take the throne someday. He chose Diana in part because she appeared naive and compliant. She was also beautiful and had the grace to carry off her public role as a royal. During their courtship he apparently became genuinely fond of her.
Diana, trying to cope with the situation she found herself in, dedicated herself to more and more charity work, including leprosy and AIDS. Her human touch made her immensely popular with the photographers, while her contact with AIDS patients irritated the royal house because it was controversial and not seemly for a princess. But the real problem for the royal family was Diana’s popularity. She had greatly overshadowed the prince, who was seen as somewhat cold and isolated in contrast to her.
As their relationship deteriorated Charles pursued his scholarly interests and in 1986 he resumed his affair with Camilla. Eventually Diana took on a lover of her own as well. Finally the whole mess erupted in the press. Lurid details of the love lives of both Charles and Diana were published in the press and they separated in 1992. The royal family rallied around its son and engaged in a campaign to discredit Diana. In the wild world of the tabloid press, the more the royals attacked her, the more interested and supportive the press became. Their divorce was finalized on August 28, 1996.
The Death of the Dream
Her horrifying death on August 31, 1997, in a car with a drunken chauffeur fleeing the paparazzi, was more than the tragic ending to a modern fairytale. The astonishing depth of sorrow that erupted worldwide indicated that her death had a greater significance than the passing of a popular princess. In a deeper sense, her death also marked the symbolic end to the dream of true love.
Over 32 million people in the United Kingdom and 2 billion worldwide watched her funeral on television. Both figures are near records for televised events. In contrast, her wedding to Prince Charles was watched by about 750 million worldwide. (2) These numbers tell us how important her marriage was and how deeply her death affected so many on the planet.
How ‘True Love’ Works
In the true love model, couples in love are destined and expected to “live happily ever after.” When you marry your true love, you are supposed to be perfect for each other. Then you slip into your respective roles, have children and bask in the joys of family life. ‘True love’ doesn’t make room for change or growth. Some hope that a soulmate can give them lasting love, but painful experience shows that soulmates are no more reliable than ‘true loves’.
The problem is that both the true love and the soulmate approaches assume that the two of you are “perfect for each other.” The unfortunate reality is that nobody is perfect. Every relationship will run into conflict and troubles. When change comes in the door, the relationship survives or fails on the ability of the partners to handle it. And there have been some big changes how relationships operate these days.
One change is that women are more independent now and, speaking as a woman, we realize that we need to be able to take care of ourselves in a marriage or committed relationship. . We are cautious of being “swept off our feet” only to find ourselves in a miserable relationship. We have to be able to survive economically if it fails
Additionally, the economic power balance in marriages and committed relationships is shifting. About 60% of married women work outside the home and, as of 2014, 37% earn more than the husband. (3) The old idea of the man being in charge is quickly fading away. Marriage is now a union of equals and we need a new vision of love to guide us. So what can take the place of hoping that a perfect Prince Charming will show up?
The Growth of Love
When I work with couples, both those who are married or living together and those who are dating, I assume that a relationship is a living, growing thing. And if it isn’t growing, then it is withering away.
This was a large part of the problem with Diana and Charles. She was growing and learning how to shine in the public light. She was discovering that her caring about others could make a positive difference in their lives. Charles appears to have resented her increasing popularity. He saw no reason at all to change. On April 9, 2005, almost eight years after Diana’s death, he married his long-time mistress, Camilla, now The Duchess of Cornwall, who was by that time divorced and free to marry Charles.
For a moment, imagine that Charles had changed and joined his wife on her charitable journeys. They could have shared the adventure of helping others and explored areas of life that were almost completely unknown to him. It’s one thing to know that people are suffering in an intellectual way. It is a completely different experience to meet them where they live and begin to understand what their lives are like.
Likewise Diana could have spent time learning about Charles’ interests, such as public architecture, and spent more time with him and his friends. But the truth is that they were so different in personality and style that it would have been almost impossible for them to find common interests. To her, his friends were stodgy, while she was a bit of a party girl with friends that were much too wild for him.
There are those in Britain who see the royal family as an archaic relic and would like to eliminate the monarchy. The royals can benefit from making better use of the media and becoming more relevant to people’s lives. Diana’s sons appear to have more control over their images and generally work better with the press.
How does your Garden Grow?
I see today’s couples as equal partners in a relationship and that calls for making a lot of adjustments together. Let’s face it. The true love model took hold in the 19th century when there was a shift from arranged marriages to the idea of marrying for love.
Back then the man worked and the woman took care of the home. Now it is much more likely that you are both working. That means you have to bring two lives together and get coordinated.
That’s why one of the major complaints women have about relationships is that the household chores and childcare responsibilities aren’t shared equally. If you both have careers, then you both need to take care of things on the home front and not work one of you to death.
Along with love, you need relationship skills so you can deepen your partnership and overcome the crazy things that life throws at you. It is true that catastrophic problems or conditions such as depression or addiction cannot be handled without professional intervention. Nevertheless, many couples could have a successful, happy, lasting relationship if they embraced this new paradigm that actually is already upon us. The world has changed and couples have to cope with it.
There are some basic skills that couples need to keep their relationship thriving. You need to know how to keep your love light burning. I see too many couples who raised a family and now find themselves living as strangers. They were so busy that they lost touch with each other. One of the first things I have a couple do is spend some special time together and go on a date. If you don’t have a basic, loving connection with each other, then it is difficult to go on.
Surprisingly conflict is one of the ways that a couple grows. If you can have conflict and actually work things through, you become stronger and closer. Successful, loving couples aren’t terrified of conflict. They can stand up for themselves and listen to each other. And that’s a very valuable skill in friendships and at work. Being able to bridge our differences and work together really does make us more powerful.
Embracing the Adventure of Love
Today’s couples are entering a new, uncharted world. We don’t know exactly what men and women are supposed to do. We are creating new patterns of living and growing together. Parents are finding new ways of raising a family. That can be a messy, difficult process. But it is a tremendous adventure and well worth the struggle.
That’s why I say, “Your relationship has to grow.” You can’t just fall into the classic roles of breadwinner and homemaker. You have to be real partners and work things through. In a very real sense the idea of true love died with Diana. That may seem sad, but it leaves you free to embark on the adventure of finding your own way to deeper, lasting love.
Love hearing your comments. Let’s start a conversation.
- Edwards, Anne. Ever After: Diana and the Life She Led. 1999: New York, St. Martin’s Press. Pp. 150-151. Other details about Diana’s life are also drawn from this book.
- Urry, John. Global complexity. 2003: Wiley-Blackwell. P. 134.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics. Wives who earn more than their husbands, 1987-2014. https://blsmon1.bls.gov/cps/wives-earn-more.htm