• Isabelle Morley, PsyD

The Empress (Season 1)

Netflix's new series about the fascinating Austrian royal couple gives us a chance to look at accepting your partner for who they are, enjoying the balance that they can provide, and being realistic about the challenges ahead.



Welcome to the Realistic Romance series, where I analyze and assess popular relationships in television and film. In each post we will explore an on-screen couple and look at relevant psychological concepts to better understand the quality of their relationship, and determine if these partnerships are setting realistic expectations for a good relationship.




Spoiler Alert!


For each of these posts, I will be discussing examples and plots, if you haven't seen the movie or show, you may want to watch it first and read this after.



Struggling to Accept Balance

This show is a great example of how the very thing we are first drawn to in a partner becomes the thing that we later struggle with or dislike.


The traits we admire in our partners are often traits that we lack, and thus a relationship would provide balance.


For example, perhaps you're extraverted and you find yourself attracted to a quieter partner. They let you have the social spotlight so that you can chat to your heart's content and provide a nice counterbalance to your social energy. Plus, they love that you're willing to do the heavy lifting with small talk and they like that you encourage them to go out more than they would on their own.


Seems perfect, doesn't it?


And it is, except that the differences that first draw us to our partners can easily become points of contention. The balance can quickly turn to discord.


It was nice to have all the air time at first, but maybe you start getting annoyed that your partner doesn't speak more. You wish they'd join conversations and not just stand there, letting you do all the talking. Maybe you get frustrated that it's always you suggesting plans because they'd default to staying home.


Maybe you even start to see them as holding you back. And maybe they become equally disgruntled, seeing you as excessively energetic, dragging them out to events they don't care about, and pushing them to be someone in a social setting that they're just not.


This very dynamic unfolds during the first season of The Empress.


Franz is captivated by Elisabeth's unfiltered authenticity and impulsivity. She savors life, following her desires without worrying about decorum. He tells her that he needs someone like her in his life, someone who can make him feel alive and unburdened as he did before becoming emperor. When she challenges him with the idea that he doesn't know her, he describes her:


"You tell the truth when no one else will. And you don't see things like the others. I need someone like you."


That is a truly lovely sentiment. The only problem is that her vivacious lust for life is not a quality an empress should embody. And Franz knows this, having been encumbered with the sober duty that comes with leadership.


While Franz loved her spiritedness, this very trait becomes the main reason for conflict in their marriage. She doesn't follow the rules and causes confusion (or even outright chaos) as a result. Suddenly the reason that he fell in love with her becomes something he needs her to change.


Anticipating the Future (or Failing to)

Their relationship is further complicated by the fact that neither of them is realistic about what their marriage will be like. The idea of being with the person you love is very exciting, but their life is that of royalty, and royalty comes with rules.


Franz picks a partner to awaken a part of him but fails to anticipate that she too will have to bear the burden of leadership if they marry.


And Elisabeth is responsible as well. She is not unfamiliar with the burden of royalty. As a Bavarian duchess, she already felt suffocated by her status and the expectations that accompany her position in society. She must have known that increasing her rank to empress would come with more restrictions, not less.


Why would the girl who longed for freedom, who avoided engagement to any prior suitor, who protected her autonomy despite the conflict it caused with her mother, willingly agree to become the Austrian empress?


Love, that's why.


But both Franz and Elisabeth allowed themselves to be blinded by their intoxicating infatuation and ignored or avoided the reality that they knew was awaiting them post-marriage. Elisabeth would have responsibilities as soon as they were wed, and she would not be able to pursue the life of limitless joy and disinhibition that she dreamed of.



You Can't Change Your Partner

Sometimes our partners do change, sometimes they even change for us, but it must be of their own doing. You cannot force your partner to change, especially if it's changing a part of themselves that they love and is connected to their core values.


I'd go so far as to say that trying to force your partner to change is abusive. It's controlling their feelings or behaviors, and there's no place for control in a healthy relationship of equals.


You can make requests of your partner. You can observe problems that need attention. You can ask that they get help, and you can support them if they're receptive to that. But you cannot force them to change. And if your partner can't or won't make a change that you need, then you either have to accept it or leave.


Franz doesn't directly try to change Elisabeth, at least not at first, but he allows others to do so. His mother and her minions are on a mission to turn Elisabeth into their idea of an empress. They work in unison to make her bend and when that doesn't work, they attempt to break her. This sounds dramatic but Franz's mother uses these exact verbs after first meeting Elisabeth, "If something won't bend, it must be broken."


Elisabeth's lively qualities become liabilities in their marriage, even though it was these very qualities that Franz loved so much at first. Instead of accepting her for who she is, Franz agrees that Elisabeth needs to give up some freedoms as Empress of Austria.


His mother's offer is fair, or at the very least direct. She gives Elisabeth an out from the life she dislikes- go home to Bavaria and live as you please, or stay in Vienna and be a model Empress (with no freedom). This was always the choice she faced, but she overlooked (or willfully refused to accept) the reality of what being empress would be. So Elisabeth takes the secret third option, which is to fight the societal norms while being empress.



OVERALL ASSESSMENT

All relationships go through hard times, and it's no surprise that Elisabeth and Franz face turmoil as newlyweds. They had, after all, only met once before getting engaged. They had a lot to learn about each other. That, coupled with the tumultuous political and economic situation of the time was a recipe for stress.


This couple earns an A- and that's because I see a willingness to work on the relationship. They might not have handled all the challenges with the most understanding or flexibility, but they're young and they're stressed, and I think they can learn to be more empathetic and make compromises.


Both Franz and Elisabeth seem invested in the marriage, they just need to work on sharing their feelings instead of faulting the other's choices (i.e., "I was scared when I found out you went into the foundry," instead of something like, "You can't do whatever you want and disobey everyone's requests"). They could also work on negotiating and making compromises, particularly Elisabeth who has had difficulty letting go of an ounce of autonomy. She needs to see it as her choice to follow the rules (at least sometimes) because it helps her marriage and her country, rather than seeing herself as being forced into compliance.


If the show is renewed for another season I hope we see their marriage grow with better communication, more acceptance, and listening more to each other than to other people.




Want More Like This?


Let me know if you have a favorite on-screen that you'd like to be a focus of this series! I'll be writing on all couples, from the obviously healthy to the clearly destructive, and everything in between.