Love, marriage and passionate friendships

Far from offering a model, the Prince Philip method offers a paradigm of betrayal
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The Independent Online

One of the delights of living in a celebrity-fixated culture is that one never quite knows which public figure will, by a mysterious process which no one fully understands, be held up as an example to the rest of us as to how to behave, or not to behave. It might be David Beckham, or Matthew Kelly or Joan Collins. The part of celebrity role model has only one in-built requirement: one has to be very famous.

One of the delights of living in a celebrity-fixated culture is that one never quite knows which public figure will, by a mysterious process which no one fully understands, be held up as an example to the rest of us as to how to behave, or not to behave. It might be David Beckham, or Matthew Kelly or Joan Collins. The part of celebrity role model has only one in-built requirement: one has to be very famous.

All the same, few would have predicted that a leading player in the great contemporary debate about the crisis in marriage would be none other than HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. His contribution is not, of course, at first hand - appearing on the caring couch beside Denise Robertson, daytime TV's queen of agony, is not quite his style - but is more by example. The manner in which he has conducted his 56-year partnership with the Queen has, it is said, provided a new answer to the increasingly urgent question of 21st-century life - how to stay married and sane.

It has been rumoured for some time that, from the 1950s onwards, the Duke has put himself about a bit. Film stars, society photographers, debs, the wives of obliging members of the aristocracy have all, according to scurrilous reports, been offered ample opportunity to enjoy a bit of royalty on the side. Now, thanks to his pal, the enterprising Gyles Brandreth, the record is about to be put straight.

In his forthcoming book Philip and Elizabeth: Portrait of a Marriage, Brandreth argues that, so far as he can discover, nothing unseemly has taken place outside the royal marriage bed. All that has happened - and this is a good thing - is that the Duke has enjoyed a series of "unconsummated amitiés amoureuses".

So when he was, over two decades, unusually close to the Duchess of Abercorn, an aristobabe some 25 years his junior, it was, in her words, "a passionate friendship, but the passion was in the ideas". Although they had been drawn together by an interest in the work of Jung, left-brain/right-brain theory and other matters, their relationship never became inappropriate. There was a highly-charged chemistry but no bang. The Duke had simply needed a "playmate and someone to share his intellectual pursuits".

Before the phrases "discussing Jung" and "sharing intellectual pursuits" enter the adulterer's lexicon of euphemisms, it is worth assuming that this account by the Duke's playmate is true. Could there be something to be said for this idea of passionate friendship? It does, after all, offer what many marriages lack. One of the attractions of sharing life with someone else - that their company offers a buttress against long-term loneliness - can, many couples discover, also turn out to be its greatest hazard. What is lost, as a person becomes part of a family unit, is precisely that quality which was once taken for granted - the capacity to be oneself, alone. Teams tend to distrust and to crush individuality.

A traditional way of rediscovering the solitary, mysterious, pre-team self is to have an affair, but it is a solution which will only work in the more loose-knit and evolved marriages. A less direct approach, but one which often leads to the same destination, has been revealed in recent surveys into the causes of divorce. People have taken to scanning the internet in search of friends, schoolmates and lovers from their past life. The attraction here is the Peter Pan effect: the relationship that is revived is one that has been frozen in time before the complications and mess of adulthood and responsibility took their toll.

The intention of many who have sought past lovers is probably not dissimilar to that Gyles Brandreth ascribes to Prince Philip - the need for a charged, intense friendship that will offset the dutiful, everyday routine of domestic (or royal) life. Few, to judge by the statistics, manage to keep their pursuits on a purely intellectual level.

But should they? Already, articles are being written in which it is argued that the Queen and her husband are providing a model of marriage which may be old-fashioned, but has much to recommend it. A spouse, recognising the other's need for the freedom to express individuality, allows him or her to enjoy friendships which may be powerful and significant but are physically chaste. The wanderer avoids abusing that trust by wandering too far. With this kind of relationship, we are told, people are given the freedom to be themselves without jeopardising a marriage. It is a grown-up, mature compromise between individuality and marital duty.

The argument is dangerous nonsense. Offered the unattractive option of choosing between betrayal by a marriage partner in the form of a quick bunk-up or a 20-year passionate friendship, most sane people would take the adultery.

There is something strange about a society in which a long friendship based on unfulfilled desire is regarded as honourable and healthy while the brisk, frank fallibility of sexual contact is culpable. Far from offering a model of how to sustain a marriage, the Prince Philip method offers a paradigm of frustration, hypocrisy, loneliness, dishonesty and betrayal. Not for the first time, the private life of the Windsors is offering a bad example to their subjects.

terblacker@aol.com

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