As each dramatic twist and turn of Meghan and Thomas Markle’s journey into estrangement is revealed, a new audience is beginning to understand the painful reality of some family relationships. They’re the ones that don’t look like fuzzy, festive television adverts: caring families gathered around joyful dinner tables. Instead, they’re characterised by conflict and pain.
As the founder of the family estrangement charity Stand Alone, I have often been asked for my view on the duchess’s situation. I respond by saying that for many thousands of us, perhaps millions of us, the turmoil that Meghan faces isn’t unfamiliar. It is the everyday reality of our own families, amplified and publicised. The royal family, her father and distant relatives were giving interviews to the tabloids. When Thomas wasn’t able to attend the wedding, he continued to release statements about his sadness at missing out on the big day. When news broke of Meghan’s pregnancy, there was even a report that her now estranged father may take her to court for contact with her child. Things got so nasty so quickly.
Last week, the latest chapter in the saga unfolded: Thomas leaked a letter from his daughter, imploring him to stop lying to the media, and to let her live her life in peace. It was a private letter in which she voiced how hurt she was that he’d fallen deep into the ‘rabbit hole’ of shaming her in public. It was one that clearly wasn’t intended for media consumption, and its publication is the very opposite of its intention. Although my life is not high-profile, there are many aspects of Meghan’s story to which I can relate.
My relationship with my parents broke down completely a decade ago when I was in my twenties, after years of issues that left my self-esteem in tatters. I had sent letters and emails imploring them to empathise and be more compassionate, but their behaviour continued unchanged. Now we have no relationship at all. It took years to allow myself to give up on that relationship rather than hoping it might improve, an agonising decision that is likely to be causing Meghan profound heartache now. I chose to cut o contact to protect my mental health and bring peace to my life, and I’m happier now. But it was deeply painful. I battled for years in counselling to come to terms with the loss of that parent-child relationship.
During the first few years after we became estranged, I struggled to communicate my decision to friends who had a ‘normal’ and close family set-up. Everything in their family lives seemed calm, loving and based around the pleasure of being together, so how could they possibly understand my situation? These feelings were heightened on Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and over the endless festive period, where good parental relationships are the focus. I felt so inadequate, and so ashamed that my family hadn’t worked out. After founding Stand Alone in 2012, which runs support groups for people who have experienced family estrangement, I have realised how many people feel isolated in the same way. Research reveals that one in five families in the UK are touched by estrangement – that’s millions of us in the same boat. I find it a comfort to know that I’m not alone, and that a sizable group of us share this situation.
There are always bystanders in every family breakdown. For Meghan, the world has now become witness to the toxic theatrics that have consumed one part of her wider family. For those of us without Meghan’s profile, it is often other family members and friends who must watch as the drama unfolds. It can be easy to apply sentimental platitudes from this sideline position – all families should be together, you only have one father, you’ll regret this when he dies – and judge those who don’t comply and reconcile.
But what is most dangerous? Is it those who choose to step out for their own survival, or is it the family myth itself ? The truth is that family relationships are not dissimilar to other relationships, and some simply are not healthy. Loyalty and closeness are not guaranteed. We should stand in sympathy with Meghan as she all too publicly faces this painful reality.
Visit standalone.org.uk for support in estrangement