William, Kate, the Royal Wedding... and Camilla

A royal wedding is overshadowed by the ghosts of marriage past.

Posted Apr 24, 2011

 Why would a serious psychology professor like me weigh in on the royal wedding of William and Kate and its surrounding buzz? What could I possibly have to say, as an American, about people I have never met and don't follow closely -- except when I stand in a supermarket line and glance at tabloid headlines? As it turns out, quite a bit.

I am motivated to post, not about the royal couple getting married in a few days, but about the life and death of William's mother, Princess Diana, which this wedding evokes, along with the undercurrent of mean-spirited comments about Camilla that are proliferating online, on TV, and yes, in those supermarket tabloid headlines.

First off, doesn't Diana's son deserve a happy reception to his own wedding, free from bad memories dredged up in the media about his parents? He is inevitably processing thoughts about his mother's tragic death and her ruined marriage, and he doesn't need to feel worse with "Camilla bashing" staring him in the face (at least he doesn't stand in supermarket lines and see the headlines when he shops). His mum is gone; can we let him enjoy his father? But that's not why I am writing this blog.

I am writing to defend Camilla -- not all her actions, but I want to give some perspective about this triangle of Charles, Diana, and Camilla.

Camilla is reviled because of the affair and broken marriage of Charles and Diana. But is that all? Why do strangers take this so personally? What if Camilla were beautiful and Diana simply plain? Would we have a different reaction: Charles "couldn't help himself" because this beauty came along and Dumpy Diana couldn't compete? I bet, if the appearances of the two women were reversed, people would have less hatred for Camilla.

Diana was loved for her humanitarian causes and her youthful personality, but she was also loved for her fashion and beauty. She was objectified, and we all bought into the princess fairytale. But if Charles had married someone his own age (he was in his thirties and Diana was just 19) who looked ordinary, would the media have idolized her and vilified her rival? Think about it.

But still, that's not why I am writing.

I am writing to give some perspective, as the international researcher of rekindled romances; I have studied these reunions since the early 1990's. The affair of Prince Charles and Lady Camilla was not an ordinary affair. I am not condoning it; I just want to turn down the volume and give some compassion to Charles and the woman he loves, Camilla.

Prince Charles met Camilla in 1970, before either of them was married, and they fell in love. But Charles was not ready to marry and went off to military duty; Camilla, left behind with no promise of commitment from Charles, married someone else -- a typical scenario for many young women. When Charles returned, older and wiser, he wanted to marry her, but as a royal, he was not permitted to marry a divorced woman without relinquishing his claim to the throne. He was not free to marry for love.

In his thirties, his obligation was to marry a virgin - even in the 1980's, not an easy prospect if he wanted someone close to his own age. Diana was beautiful, royal, and at 19 still a virgin... perfect. And that set up the problem right there.

Perhaps you, or someone you know, was torn from a lost love by parental interference. Since 1993, I have surveyed more than 3,000 people who have tried to reunite with their lost loves. And the most common reason they separated in the first place: parents disapproved and tore them apart.

Not everyone has a lost love, although most people have an "ex" sweetheart or two; a lost love is a person who is longed for, with a strong obsession of wondering what might have been if they had been free to remain together. Many of the men and women in my surveys told me that they are still angry at their parents for this interference.

Sometimes people go all through life never mentioning their lost loves to anyone. Many of my research participants, and the men and women who write to me by email, tell me their lost love stories and say they never told anyone the details of that love and longing before they talked to me.
And sometimes that old bond becomes too strong to ignore. The lost loves contact each other. In my 2005 survey -- before Facebook existed and influenced relationships -- 62% of the participants said they had affairs with their lost loves while they were married, or their lost loves were married, or both. They stated (and I believe them) that they never had an affair before, and would never have cheated with anyone other than this one true, lost love.

Like the Prince of Wales (and Camilla), they entered into marriages with people they did not fully love after they believed their true loves were unavailable forever, often because of parental interference. Princess Diana was an adolescent when she met Prince Charles and had no love other than him, but his heart was always elsewhere. The problem existed before they married. In a way, Diana was the third person to enter into the love triangle, not Camilla.

I am not excusing extramarital affairs. These are devastating to all the people involved: the innocent spouses, the children, extended family members, coworkers, friends... and to the affair partners, the lost loves, themselves. When people fall in love, and parents intervene, the results are often disastrous.

There are rules of the monarchy that are centuries old, and Prince Charles was born into the duty to uphold these rules. Most parents have no excuse for forcing their children to leave sweethearts they truly love: in my research, I looked at the reunited couples whose parents had disapproved and stopped the initial romances, to see what the outcomes were of the reunions: I found that half of the time, the reunions broke up, and half the time the couples stayed together with their found true loves -- like the toss of a coin. And there was no way to predict the outcomes that future parents could find helpful.

The loss of a true love and then the reunion years later, when there may be children and spouses devastated by the affair, plus the continuing anger at parents who separated them years ago and unhappy intervening years with the inability to have children together (because of age) after the reunion, should make parents think hard before they do such potential damage.

So back to the royal wedding...

Let the day be happy for William and Kate. Let it not be marred with anger and hatred because of Camilla's life-long love for Charles and his for her; the loss of William's mother (which neither Charles nor Camilla caused) is hard enough for him to bear at this time.

What happened in the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales was tragic; Camilla suffered, too. How much kinder it would have been to divorce their partners first and then reunite! But the sadness began many years before Diana met Charles. If Camilla and Charles had married when they were young, Diana would not have been a princess but the story would have had a happier outcome for all.

The immense hatred for Camilla is out of proportion to the actual events. People have affairs, and outsiders forgive after a time. Even Diana moved forward and fell in love after her divorce. So it is worth stepping back and asking why this affair is so vilified in the media, compared to other affairs. I believe the beauty of Diana plays a large role -- and her early, tragic death -- compared to the older Camilla, in keeping the hatred of Camilla alive.

Despite the very wrongful way the reunion happened, the real fairytale belongs to Charles and Camilla, whose love endures.