The phrase fairy tale always seems to hover in the air whenever a marriage takes place within the English monarchy. And indeed, the three most high-profile royal weddings in modern history—those of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer, Prince William and Kate Middleton, and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle—have all involved the classic fairy-tale story line of a prince sweeping a young, beautiful woman off her feet into the luxury and high status of royal life.
Prince Charles and Diana did not go on to live happily ever after, but from the outside at least, Prince William and Kate appear to be doing something akin to that. Prince Harry and Meghan, meanwhile, have gone on to forge a new version of the fairy-tale-princess fantasy. With their recent decision to step back from the royal family and opt out of its press-access agreements in order “to focus on the next chapter,” their story is one of the prince distancing himself from life as a royal for the woman he loves. And not to be with her, à la King Edward VIII’s abdication to marry the American divorcée Wallis Simpson, but, seemingly, simply for the sake of their shared quality of life.
The public has long been aware of the Duchess of Sussex’s ongoing battles with the British press; as a result, many people have put two and two together and have commended Prince Harry for “doing the right thing” as a husband and father. Some have expressed admiration on social media for the degree to which Prince Harry apparently prioritizes his wife’s happiness. The approving responses demonstrate what contemporary society values in marriage—an egalitarian understanding of relationship-maintenance responsibilities, and a sense that partners should help each other grow.
Stephanie Coontz, a historian and the author of Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, told me in an email that for thousands of years, marriage was a way for families to solidify alliances, make economic connections, and maintain reputations. Marrying for love became the norm among the middle classes in the 20th century, but the aristocracy—and especially the monarchy—have held on a little more firmly to the old model of marriage. For example, as viewers of the latest season of The Crown know, Camilla Parker Bowles, the first love and now wife of Prince Charles, was initially rejected by the royal family in the ’70s as a fiancée for Charles because of her “unsuitable” status as a commoner. Charles later married Diana Spencer, a 20-year-old who had worked as a nanny and preschool teacher but was technically British nobility.
Both Prince William and Prince Harry made more contemporary choices of partners than their father did; both married women without noble titles and married for love. “But Harry and Meghan have taken it a step further,” Coontz wrote, in that they seem to have embraced the most modern form of the love marriage: the purposefully egalitarian marriage. In these marriages, both partners prioritize the other’s happiness (as opposed to the old-fashioned notion of the subservient wife, who puts her husband’s needs and wants above her own) and take on responsibilities that play to their strengths rather than to preconceived gender-specific roles.
“It’s not just that [Meghan] expects him to take account of her feelings and work to make her happy ... To make room for her to pursue a life that is not based upon her playing the ornamental wifely role, Harry seems willing (perhaps even relieved) to back out of his traditional class role,” Coontz wrote. “They certainly have moved a long way toward acceptance of the modern ideal of a marriage where each partner has to take account of the other’s desires, interests, and aspirations outside the family as well as inside it.”
Eli Finkel, a psychology professor at Northwestern University and the author of The All-or-Nothing Marriage, meanwhile, has a theory that over generations, couples have come to expect more and more from the institution of marriage. Early on, as Coontz noted, people married for economic security; later, people began to marry for love and companionship, but many also expected marriage to deliver economic security. Most recently, married people have added personal growth to the mix, expecting that, as Finkel told my colleague Olga Khazan in 2017, “our spouse will help us grow, help us become a better version of ourselves, a more authentic version of ourselves.”
In some senses, Finkel said, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are a perfect example of an ideal modern marriage, in that one partner has sacrificed a great deal to prioritize the other’s ability to live the way she wants. “We used to have these norms of responsibility to broader social units, these ideas that you were supposed to do what your community thought was appropriate. And if that meant that you were gay and had to hide your sexuality, well, then, that was the right thing to do,” Finkel told me in an interview. “Increasingly, the idea that we should have to live an inauthentic life is abhorrent. I think more and more of us view it as something close to immoral—like we shouldn’t force people to live a life where they have to suppress who they really are.”
“This is a story about either the norms surrounding British royalty or the tabloid media trying to force [Meghan Markle] to be somebody other than who she is. My understanding is that both of them feel like that’s not an acceptable ask,” he said.
Finkel also pointed out that less than a century ago, a situation like this might have been met with more of a “Shut up and do your job” response. Indeed, the inevitable ending of the traditional fairy-tale-princess fantasy is that the young woman’s old life and identity are eclipsed by her new role in the royal family. But to many people, it appears that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have inverted the formula, creating a new and more egalitarian kind of fantasy. “[Harry] owned the idea that it’s his responsibility to make sure his wife feels a sense of freedom, authenticity, personal growth, honesty,” Finkel said. Which is perhaps why Harry and Meghan are so often discussed in the same breath as a phrase that evokes the realistic and attainable: “couple goals.”