Fixing a family feud is a tricky balancing act at the best of times. Doing it when most of the world’s media are eager to keep it going as long as it sells papers and drives traffic, is like trying to glue a shattered vase back together on a trampoline.
Unfortunately for Meghan Markle, that’s where she’s found herself. As soon as the British press got a sniff that all wasn’t rosy in her relationship with her dad, Thomas, they were never going to let the royal couple – or their butler – quietly sweep the issue under the carpet.
The headlines came thick and fast. To recap: Thomas was a recluse who – clutch your pearls – drank beer. He was going to walk her down the aisle. Then he wasn’t because he’d been caught staging paparazzi shots. Then he was. Then he wasn’t because of emergency heart surgery. In the end, as we all know, Prince Charles got the job.
A steady stream of gossip has followed from relatives and anonymous sources on both sides. The truth lost somewhere in the fog of familial war. The latest shots have come in the form of a People Magazine feature in which Meghan’s friends paint her as down to earth and undeserving of all this emotional trauma. Her dad fired back by releasing to The Mail last Sunday a personal letter she’d sent shortly after the wedding, the contents of which he describes as “a dagger to the heart”.
Amid the clamor, it’s easy to forget there is a parent and child at the heart of this. Both, no doubt, struggling with feelings of rejection and bafflement at what they perceive as the other’s hurtful behavior. But their situation isn’t uncommon, although the intense public scrutiny they have to cope with obviously is.
According to UK charity StandAlone one in five British families will be affected by estrangement. And Dr Reenee Singh, chief executive of the Association of Family Therapy and director of the Child and Family Practice in London, says cases of adult estrangement are becoming a more prominent part of her work.
Singh puts this down to several factors: “There has been an increase in intercultural couples and when people marry outside their faith or community it can cause difficulties. Blended families are also more common today, and the sometimes tricky relationship between a child and a new partner can lead to estrangement later in life.” Once a schism has been created, it’s much easier to widen it by moving away from the community we grew up in, than it might have been in the past.
If that sounds like it’s all the fault of the modern world, Singh says it has its advantages too. Social media has made it easier for families to reconnect and people are more aware of, and likely to access, therapy. Indeed sometimes, explains Singh, “a breakdown is necessary to reset a relationship, to reassess the closeness that exists between a child and their parents.” But once that’s happened how can bridges be rebuilt?
Firstly, says psychotherapist and author of The Phone Addiction WorkBook, Hilda Burke, the desire has to be there because there’s no point doing it unless you’re committed. “Then,” she says. “It’s about taking responsibility and acknowledging the part you’ve played in the problem.” A conciliatory response is more likely to come if you appear open to sharing, rather than apportioning, blame. Even if you feel you’re the wronged party, she advises starting the process by admitting you could have reacted differently to the situation, rather than going in hard with a list of all your parent’s faults.
Instinctively that isn’t always easy. Reopening old wounds can also relight an angry urge to refight old battles. But, points out Burke, “which is more important to you, that a relationship flourishes or that you win? If one person loses you both lose, because ultimately one person will be dissatisfied in that relationship.”
Then it’s about setting boundaries and building trust. Something which the Markles seem to be particularly bad at. “If you do want someone to be part of your life express that, but tell them what you expect from people who are in your inner circle. And ask what they need from you – it’s an exchange that requires maturity on both sides.”
Meghan reportedly asked Thomas not to speak to the press. Which, says Burke, seems a reasonable request — and one Thomas appears to have completely ignored — since confidentiality is a vital part of any close relationship. For others it might mean having clear boundaries around when, where and how they see each other. Perhaps it’s once a week at a set time. Perhaps it’s twice a year in a public place.
How about just ignoring the problem and hoping it goes away? The default setting for conflict-averse people everywhere. On the whole, not a good idea says Burke. “People have such a desire for harmony they’ll often patch things up and say something doesn’t matter,” she says. “When, in actuality, it does. Trivial matters don’t necessarily need to be thrashed out but this false patching up can be even more destructive. It’s better to explore what the issue is in a calm way.”
Very occasionally though, giving up is the only way to get on. “Where there has been violence, abuse or mental health issues it might be wise to try and accept, for your own wellbeing, that reconciliation may not be possible at the moment, although it might be in the future. This rarely happens but sometimes you have to cut your losses and move on, and we help people find a way to live without that relationship,” says Singh.
That’s not really an option for Meghan – it’s hard to move on from someone who has a habit of appearing on newspaper front pages. Luckily, if there’s one family with lots of experience handling complicated parent-child relationships, it’s the Windsors.