In less than three weeks, we’ve witnessed the highest highs and lowest lows of fairy-tale weddings.

It was just 19 days ago that more than 22 million television viewers in the United States alone watched Prince William make Kate Middleton his queen in waiting, according to the Nielsen Company. The wedding had all the hallmarks we’ve come to expect from fairy tales: a prince in full-dress uniform, beautiful gowns, a spectacular setting, horse-drawn carriages, cheering crowds, even the odd hat or two. Cinderella and Snow White had nothing on Kate Middleton, now known as the Duchess of Cambridge.

The perfectly scripted event sparked envy in some – “How could she be so lucky” –good wishes in others – “I hope they live happily ever after” – and even a few comedic jabs here and there. A wedding is a time of hope and optimism that celebrates one big idea: love conquers all.

But in many cases, it doesn’t.

Hints of that could be found in the repeated references and video clips showing the wedding of Prince William’s mother, Diana, to his father, Prince Charles. Theirs was a marriage that showed not everything is as it appears.

And now, like a slap in the face, comes the news that Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger have separated and that Schwarzenegger fathered a child out of wedlock before he ever ran for governor of California.

To call the Shriver-Schwarzenegger nuptials on April 26, 1986, a fairy-tale wedding is no exaggeration. Newsweek magazine described the couple’s engagement this way:

‘BARBARIAN’ TO JOIN KENNEDY CLAN proclaimed one headline — not a very gracious way to announce the engagement of bodybuilder turned actor Arnold Schwarzenegger to Maria Shriver, the “CBS Morning News” reporter and niece of Sen. Ted Kennedy et al. Such jokes notwithstanding, the story of the betrothal sounds more like a fairy tale than one of Schwarzenegger’s “Conan the Barbarian” scripts. “I have felt all along that Maria was the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with,” says the muscleman, who met his bride-to-be eight years ago at the Robert F. Kennedy Pro-Celebrity Tennis Tournament. “I thought it would be romantic to propose in my hometown and get married in hers.” So Schwarzenegger, 38, popped the question during the couple’s recent trip to Austria, and Eunice and Sargent Shriver announced that their daughter would marry the ex-Terminator next April in Hyannis Port, Mass.

And even though the wedding was private with no TV cameras inside the church, it was covered by news media across the country. After all, a Hollywood movie star was marrying into the Kennedy family, which in the eyes of some people – at least back then — was the closest thing America has to royalty.

Over the years, it appeared that Shriver and Schwarzenegger were living out the fairy tale. Their family grew, with the addition of four children, as he continued making movies and she gained more and more respect as a TV journalist. When he ran for governor of California in 2003, there were whispers and rumors of sexual misbehavior, but his wife stepped forward to insist that she knew him better than anyone else and the rumors could not be true.

And now we learn from Schwarzenegger himself that he did much more than inappropriate groping of women. He fathered a child with a woman who worked in his home and kept it secret from his wife, his family and the rest of the world for years.

For most people, what goes on inside their personal relationships and marriages stays fairly private, if you overlook the occasional Facebook status update. And most people recognize that marriages are harder to navigate than a walk down the aisle is. As Jessica Valenti put it in The Daily on April 30:

We’re grown-ups, and though waxing romantic about the royal wedding may give us some momentary respite from stressful or relatively mundane lives, it also suggests that we’ve bought into a prepackaged fantasy meant to distract women from the reality of our relationships and lives.

She added, “Fairy-tale weddings don’t guarantee fairy-tale marriages.”

We all know that on some level. Yet we still want and expect our public figures, especially people in the political realm, to have perfect marriages and perfect families.

Maybe what we really need is separation of family and state. Let political figures run on their own accomplishments in the public sphere, not on how perfect a family portrait they can show to the TV cameras.

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  • Amnah Khan October 29, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    It really is sad to see any marriage fall apart. I don’t understand why Arnold did this to such a lovely woman as Maria. The Kennedy women seem to be a bit unlucky when it comes to this, but I think it is also normal as being on the spotlight, it looks like everything happens to them. But if you would look around, its the case with most people. Not that there are no more good couples left, but that marriages are not as ideal as thought.

  • dr pat allen May 19, 2011 at 10:10 am

    It seems that Maria Shriver has enough pain and suffering that must be lived out now in the public realm. She could use our kind thoughts. I do know as a physician who knows the private lives of many women that each of us makes choices in our relationships and unless we are walking the walk of the woman in this relationship, we need to be at least non judgemental.

  • eleanore May 18, 2011 at 7:10 pm

    Was this ever really a fairy tale? Only if one covers one’s eyes and ears really tightly for a very long time. Arnold has been rumored to be a serious womanizer for as long as they’ve been together. (No, I don’t know them personally, but in this case I know there’s lots of fire where there was smoke). Maria really pissed me off when she called those women “liars” when they accused him of ugly behavior through the years. She doesn’t deserve this, but she’s not innocent for looking the other way for so long.