Prince Charles had a good line. Posing for engagement photographs with an embarrassed Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, he was asked by the press, "Are you in love?" to which he answered, "Of course!" He hesitated before adding, "Whatever love means!"
Everyone knows what happened in that particular fairytale. And yet all these years later and with the world watching, Prince Charles's son has, in turn, been publicly promising that he'll love his girlfriend.... forever.
These occasions are difficult for young people because they perpetuate the idea that you can confidently ‘know' whether or not you love someone. And not only can you know but you can know to the extent of promising to love them forever! It sounds so clear. And wonderful. And romantic. Uncertain young people are left feeling that this thing called ‘true love' must be passing them by and, as a result, they set about searching desperately for proof. They might begin with their parents,
How did you and dad know that you loved each other?
We just knew, okay!
You mean, because you fancied each other?
Well no, not just that....
I don't know! We just knew!
When defensive adults pretend that love is simple ("We just knew, okay!"), then young people expect simplicities and, when they don't find them, panic, feeling that they must be missing something obvious. So they continue their search for some way of being sure about love. If he buys me an expensive present, then it must mean that he loves me.... If I get butterflies when I see her, then it must mean that I love her.... If we get engaged, then it shows that we really do love each other.... If we're pleased to see each other.... If we have good sex.... If he begs me to go out with him.... If she promises that she loves me.... If we've been together for a very long time.... If we never argue.... If we make each other laugh....
We talk about ‘love' all the time as if we know what we mean. This just makes young people anxious, feeling that they must be missing out on something which everyone says is great. Because of this, in their frantic search for proof they often end up making mistakes which are hard to undo - getting pregnant, spending vast amounts of money, settling for whoever says the right things. So I spend a lot of time as a counsellor assuring young people that it's always hard to know exactly what we feel about another person and that love is hard to quantify. It's not simple and jumping to conclusions won't make it simple. Not knowing what we feel is normal and is inevitable when it comes to so many important things. What am I going to do with my life? How do I feel? Why do I do what I do?
In a famous letter written in 1817, the poet John Keats described, "Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." Keats described ‘the intense pleasure of not knowing'. Prince William and Kate Middleton may both have declared "I do!" with apparent certainty but, while not knowing can be unsettling for young people, "I don't know!" can sometimes be the more honest, more open-minded and better answer.