The royal family has proved yet again that it's rather good at weddings. At marriage, however, it sucks. While it was a safe bet that the nuptials of Prince William and Catherine Middleton would come off without a hitch, it's an open question whether their lifelong union will be quite as silky. After the royal horses have been watered and the bridal gown sent to the dry cleaner, there are still two people who have to figure out how to spend their lives together, under epic scrutiny, in an era when more than 40% of first marriages go belly-up.
Unfortunately, one of the best predictors of marital dissolution is whether the couple come from homes of divorce. Kate Middleton's parents appear to dwell together amiably enough among the hedgerows of Bucklebury. But William's father, the Prince of Wales, is divorced and remarried. His mother you may have heard about this died in a car accident with her then boyfriend, a man many said she was dating only to irritate her former in-laws. William's uncle the Duke of York is divorced. His aunt the Princess Royal is divorced and remarried. The Queen's sister Margaret was also divorced. The only British institution that can rival the House of Windsor for spectacular splits is the Royal Ballet.
On Diana's side, William's uncle Earl Spencer announced in February that he was getting married for the third time. So it's safe to say William does not have a lot of what marital therapists call model relationships on which he can base his wedded life. Or even his potential divorced life.
But before we all send pre-emptive donations to the Kate Middleton Postmarital Comfort Fund, the differences between William's marriage and his parents' should be noted. Diana was just 20 and had been going on furtive dates with Charles for about a year, not exactly an ideal way of getting to know someone. He was 32 and getting hitched for all the wrong reasons, including that he was expected to sire an heir. William was born less than a year after their wedding. Not only were there yawning gaps in their expectations and backgrounds, but they also had little time to figure each other out.
Kate, 29, is older than William, 28, by a few months. They've known each other for nine years and been a couple for seven. While Diana had no idea what she was getting herself into, Kate has had time to get used to her fiancé's family business not to mention the paparazzi.
And while one can never really be equal with a future King, the two met on even ground: they were students at St. Andrews university in Scotland. They graduated the same day. Her family has money, and she had a preamble of a career.
Royal pains notwithstanding, statistics are on their side. College-educated couples who wed after age 26 split up more rarely than those with less education. (Diana didn't finish high school.)
More important, probably, is Will's wealth. Well-off couples marry more often and divorce less often than those who are broke. While the stresses on the newlyweds will be legion, they won't include tiffs about who's washing up or whether they can afford a sitter so they can sneak off for a quickie in the Throne Room.
Which brings us to the other bogeyman in contemporary domestic life: infidelity. Charles' feelings for Camilla Parker Bowles, his former mistress and current wife, played a big role in the unraveling of his family. But it's hard to imagine either William or Kate having a bit on the side without being detected by someone in the omnipresent swarm of paparazzi, tabloid hacks, royal retainers and random citizens with smart phones and Twitter accounts. The British secret service is just not that adroit.
The erstwhile Kate Middleton will have a steep learning curve as she grafts herself onto her new family. But the royals have had something of an education too. The status of women was transformed between the Queen's marriage and that of her children, taking the transaction of marriage with it. Charles and Diana divorced in 1992, just a year before divorce hit its highest level in Britain and just as many of the gains women had made during the earlier years of the feminist movement were hitting home, literally.
No longer were princesses prepared to sit quietly by, turning a blind eye to concubines or crankiness for Queen and country. And no longer did the women of Britain expect them to. What might ultimately save Kate and Will's marriage are the royal wives who went before. When they willingly walked out the castle doors and took the people with them, the Queen learned a little something about female power.