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Royal relationships: the challenge of marrying someone from another country

Peter and Autumn Phillips have just announced their split

harry and meghan with autumn and peter
February 17, 2020
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The sad news that Autumn Phillips is divorcing from Prince Harry's cousin Peter is a stark reminder that marrying from abroad and moving to live in a new country for love can be tough. It's a reality Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are grappling with at the moment, as they relocate to Canada and step back from royal duties in a bid to find a solution to the challenges of uprooting for love, and finding their own place in a unique royal world.

But these challenges are not new to the royals. Before Harry and Meghan, came Queen Maxima, a beautiful Argentine, who tangoed her way into the heart of the Dutch king. And Princess Mary, originally from Australia, who crossed an ocean to wed the Crown Prince of Denmark. None of these vibrant modern women ever expected to have to contend with royal protocol or duties and there was certainly no rule book for them to follow.

WATCH: A look back at Prince Harry and Meghan's love story

On one level, royals have always made foreign matches but in centuries past their brides and grooms were drawn from the same minuscule marriage pool. Sometimes they were even cousins, since most of Europe's royals are descended from Queen Victoria. Now, though, Princes and Princesses can quite rightly choose their partner from across the globe, and from a wide variety of backgrounds.

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With one in ten marriages in the Western World classed as multi-cultural, the love stories of our favourite royals are just like our own, just a unique, intensified version. What can we learn from these relationships? The reality is that once married and ensconced in a new royal life, differences that once seemed fascinating can quickly become a source of angst, especially when other people weigh in. Meghan learned this to her cost. The Duchess of Sussex did her best to adapt to the way of life in Britain but found it a real struggle. So many little things go to make up a foreign culture. It raised eyebrows when she threw a lavish American-style baby shower, but also when she hugged instead of shook hands, or left her legs bare instead of wearing tights.

Settling in takes time and lots of family support. However much you adore your partner, this isn't just about the two of you. Counsellor and radio host Marta Rocha says that if you're thinking of marrying someone from another culture you should involve both families right from the start. Respect, of course, is key. "Be curious, be open," she advises. "You have to be prepared to say 'How come they're different this way?' It's interesting and I respect this."

queen maxima and family© Photo: Getty Images

King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima of the Netherlands

Buenos Aires-born Maxima, the wife of King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, has given us a masterclass in cross-cultural relationships. Her life with the then-heir to the throne didn't get off to an easy start. She walked into a firestorm the moment her Prince Charming presented her with an orange diamond engagement ring reflecting his title as Prince of Orange. That's when it emerged that her father had been a minister in the Argentine military dictatorship of the 1970s and 80s.

Luckily for her, not only Willem, but his mother, Queen Beatrix, stood by his vivacious fiancée, describing her as "an intelligent, modern woman". And Maxima, a privately educated banker, soon had the public eating out of her hands. The arrival of her and Willem's three lovely daughters cemented her popularity. "She came and she conquered," says Dutch historian Henk te Velde. "People were struck by the fact that as soon as she came she started to learn Dutch. We were impressed. It showed she has respect and was willing to make an effort to understand us. Now she even makes jokes in Dutch."

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He adds that the country embraced her differences, especially her shows of emotion at her husband's coronation and a funeral for Dutch citizens killed on a flight in 2014, when she was seen wiping away tears. "Maxima is exotic, she has passion and sparkle and flamboyance and she doesn't try to be distant like Beatrix," he says. "We love her for that, people can feel the authenticity."

princess mary of denmark family© Photo: Getty Images

Crown Prince Frederik and Crown Princess Mary of Denmark

The people of Denmark have also fallen in love with their Australian-born Princess Mary, who met her husband Prince Frederik at the Sydney Olympics. The couple went on to have four beautiful children together, who speak both Danish and English fluently, like their parents. On her arrival in Copenhagen, former marketing executive Mary enlisted the help of Lord Chamberlain Per Thornit to give her lessons in Danish society, politics, history and language.

In a heartfelt speech on their wedding day, Frederik recognised the sacrifices Mary had made and promised to look after her. The groom addressed his new father-in-law, mathematics professor John Donaldson, who had moved to Denmark from Tasmania to join Mary. "What a privilege, what a thrill, what an extraordinary feeling of happiness you've given me in allowing me to marry your daughter. "One may say that Mary belongs to you – but as of today: she belongs to me – and I belong to her. I love her and I will protect her with all my heart. I will do my best to make her feel confident and at home in her new country."

princess charlene of monaco and family© Photo: Getty Images

Prince Albert and Princess Charlene of Monaco

Seven years later, at the wedding of Princess Charlene, formerly an Olympic swimmer of South African origin, and the reigning Prince Albert of Monaco, her national flag fluttered alongside the white and red of the Mediterranean principality. During the ceremony, guests swayed to The Click Song – a song of the Xhosa tribe, performed at weddings to bring good fortune.

Of course, Prince Albert, as the son of American icon Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier, knows a thing or two about multicultural marriages. His mother's poise and glamour became part of Monaco's enduring legend, but not at the cost of her American heritage. Psychologist Foojan Zeine says: "If you're going to go into another culture you really have to be able to learn it and love it. But you also have to blend cultures. You don't have to give up your own culture."

There was speculation that Charlene at times seemed to struggle with life in Monaco. She spoke of the challenges, saying: "I missed my family and my friends, as much as the simple style of life in which I was raised. Happily, I quickly found new friends here who have remained very dear." Among those new friends were her sisters-in-law, Princesses Caroline and Stephanie, whom Charlene praised as "great women who have achieved much in their lives," adding: "They've always been incredibly supportive and kind."

And like Princess Mary, her relatives moved to her adopted country. Charlene's brother Gareth Wittstock and his wife Roisin live in the principality, so their children can grow up together. "She needs her family and our bond is really close," Gareth told HELLO! "I see her regularly, we visit each other and my daughter plays with her twins, Jacques and Gabriella. It's a beautiful sight and it's really special."

queen noor and king hussein© Photo: Getty Images

King Hussein and Queen Noor of Jordan

A generation ago in Jordan, Queen Noor faced the difficulties of adapting to a new culture when she married King Hussein, father of the current King Abdullah. Born Lisa Halaby into an American Arab family, she met the King while working on architecture projects in his desert kingdom. She had her doubts about the relationship because he was a widower with eight children from three marriages, but he won her over by singing Abba songs – and apparently Take a Chance on Me featured heavily in his repertoire!

For privacy, the couple would take motorbike rides through the dunes. "I had found myself spellbound," wrote Noor in her book Leap of Faith: Memoirs of an Unexpected Life by Queen Noor. "By the serene expanse of desert landscape washed golden by the retreating sun at dusk. I was overwhelmed by an extraordinary sensation of belonging, an almost mystical sense of peace." On her marriage, she changed her name to Noor Al Hussein, the "Light of Hussein". She also converted to Islam and began to learn Arabic in earnest.

peter and autumn phillips family© Photo: Getty Images

Peter and Autumn Phillips announced their split in February

Of course, neither Meghan, nor Autumn Phillips, had a new language to learn, but that doesn't mean there weren't cultural differences, as Julie Montagu, an American who married the future Earl of Sandwich, explains. "There is a real difference between Britain and America. We may speak the same language, but it's two completely different cultures, and more so with the royal family. We're very open and that's what makes Americans, in my view, so wonderful. We're vulnerable. We open up. It's different over here."

Which brings us to the final words of wisdom from relationship experts. As they point out, in reality every relationship involves two completely distinct worlds meeting. In that sense, we're all in inter-cultural relationships. You just need to be even more empathetic when you and your partner come from different countries. Dr Alicia Clark says: "Listen to any anxiety that is created when there's dissonance, or distress. You will know when something isn't working. Anxiety is the signal that this matters. It's important to listen and not just fight. So that's advice that I would give to a couple in a mixed relationship. In fact it's good advice to give any couple!"

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