Haunted by the sound of her mother’s footsteps on the gravel drive as she walked away…
Lady Diana Spencer was reported as saying that she was haunted by the sound of footsteps on gravel, receding into the distance. They were the footsteps of her mother walking away, defeated, having lost a bitter child custody battle to Diana’s father. The children were to remain with him, and visit their mother on alternate weekends.
How much did that experience haunt her future relationships? Did it in some way contributed to her early death? How much weight should anyone put on our childhood experiences, in relation to those relationship choices we make?
We could say that the experience of the child, and their perception of it, is ‘the truth’. It is immovable and can’t be changed. But I disagree. The situation the child is in may be beyond their control, but the sad fact is that their perception of that situation is invariably – according to psychologists and psychotherapists – completely false. The torment of their parents battles is often perceived by the child as being their fault. That they are somehow to blame.
As a child, you are the centre of your own universe. Of course everything must relate to you? And protracted angry custody battles can only reinforce a sense of inherent culpability.
But the real truth is that the conflict is the responsibility of the adults alone, not the children. So a mis-perception has been born – and for many children that misperception has negative impacts on the rest of their lives.
In her marriage to Prince Charles, Diana believed her erratic emotional behaviour to be neurotic. She blamed herself for the relationship breakdown on one level – just as a child will invariably blame themselves for their parents breakup. But guilt, no matter how misperceived, is uncomfortable to live with. It’s so much easier to project it onto someone else.
And we love to do that, don’t we? But do we blame the spouse who has lied to us? Made us feel betrayed and abandoned? No! We keep the full force of our blame for “that bitch he ran of with” or “that bastard she shacked up with”. I see it often. My guess is that it is more convenient to attribute the blame on someone you are disconnected from. You can perceive whatever you want about them without reality getting in the way. They can’t defend themselves as you don’t need to listen. How convenient.
Diana’s blaming of Camilla for her marriage failure may well have been justified, but it didn’t help heal the damaged child that still lurked within her. Much easier to escape into the thrill and excitement of new relationships. Have you ever used a relationship to escape? I have. All that passion. The thrill, a sense of freedom from the person you believe yourself to be – trapped by an intolerable situation – transformed into the person you think you want to be.
No one can say whether Diana would have gone on to lead a happy life if she had survived the accident. But the choices we make, the relationships we choose, are often driven by a desire to run away from a misperception of the past.
Diana was a seeker – she searched for solace in many therapies – even Colonic Irrigation. Now – I know that mind and body are connected and a good clear out can be as effective psychologically as it is physically. But come on! Colonic Irrigation is not going to take away the haunting footsteps of a mother’s shoes on gravel, is it?
As adults we can’t change the details of the past, but we have enormous power to change perception of what these events mean to us.
If Diana had perceived the truth – that her parents bitter relationship was not in any way her fault – would she have believed herself to be so ‘neurotic’ in her marriage, under pressure from playing a public roll that would be a massive challenge to even the most emotionally secure? Would she have needed to escape into the arms of lovers, one of whom ultimately drove her to her death? We can never know.
The renewed interest in Diana’s past has revived two thoughts in my mind. The first is that as a parent – now that my children are young adults – should I be paying attention to any misperceptions they may still hold about the past? Should I ask them what haunts them still?
The second thought is to wonder how my own parents’ relationship may have affected me and how I should choose to perceive the beliefs I formed as a consequence of that? Perceptions that may well be as unstable and malleable as a distant sound from long ago, that holds a meaning laden with false beliefs.
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