Valerie Loftus explores the thorny topic of family estrangement.
In the weeks before the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle last year, the media was consumed with Markle family drama. Her father Thomas was walking her down the aisle, then he wasn’t; her half-sister Samantha was setting up paparazzi shots and complaining about Meghan to every TV network and tabloid that would have her; her half- brother wrote an open letter to Harry imploring him not to marry his “jaded, shallow, and conceited” sibling.
The familial onslaught only increased after she announced her pregnancy, and her detractors received it with relish, looking for any sign that the new Duchess wasn’t as lovely as she appeared. What kind of person doesn’t speak to their own family? Isn’t blood supposed to be thicker than water?
But it’s not as black and white as that old saying suggests – the people you love can be extremely adept at causing you pain and misery. Should you have to put up with it, just because you’re related to them? For many, cutting contact with family members is an entirely necessary decision, one that makes their lives happier and a great deal calmer.
For a better understanding of the causes of family friction, I spoke to therapist Karen Leonard. Karen says that each member of a family plays a particular role, and relationships can become strained when one person decides that role doesn’t fit them any more.
“At Christmas or other family occasions, people expect us to snap back into these roles, but you might find that you don’t want to do what’s expected of you any longer. If a family member can’t accept that, you need to take responsibility for your health and happiness.” And sometimes, taking responsibility for your health and happiness can mean either reducing contact or cutting it completely.
“My sister is a fair bit older than me – we were never close, and the time we spent together was never really equal. It was always her being very critical of me, my choices and my lifestyle,” says Beth, 26. “I would occasionally babysit for her when I was free, but then it became more insistent, more expectant. Eventually I told her I couldn’t be at her beck and call and she went spare, telling me that nobody was helping her, and nobody cared…”
I told her I’d watch the kids once or twice a month, but nothing more. It was never meant to be permanent, but over time, I realised that I was happier without the criticism and the pressure, so I decided the boundary needed to become a wall. at was a good five years ago, and I’ve never looked back. Honestly, I don’t think of her unless someone asks.
The thing to remember about estrangement is that it’s very often a last resort, coming at the end of a long line of disputes and disappointments. “If you’ve given them a lot of chances and things still aren’t improving, you can say to yourself that you’ve done all you can do,” says Karen.
For Christina, 35, this sadly rings true. “My brother and I used to have a great relationship growing up, he was always someone I could rely on and trust,” she says. “However, my mental health rapidly declined after I finished university and he struggled to understand how I felt. He used to tell me to snap out of it.”
Christina’s relationship with her brother deteriorated further during his marriage, and he would often put her down in front of other family members. “When he split from his first wife I supported him, despite him never supporting me – it was seen as something I had to do,” she recalls. After another year of being alternately humiliated and ignored by him, Christina decided enough was enough.
“I got a few horrible text messages telling me to RSVP to his second wedding, and a list of things I had to change should I attend. Many years ago I would’ve begged him to stop seeing me in that way, and blame it all on myself, but I didn’t. I simply replied saying I hope the wedding goes well and I never want to see him again.”
‘Cutting contact’ doesn’t always have to mean closing the door completely. There are different steps that can be taken, from limiting the amount of times you see the person in question, to having a ‘businesslike’ relationship in which you communicate only on certain family matters. Karen would always encourage talking it through or attempting to work out your differences with a family therapist – but she acknowledges that in certain cases it’s safer, both emotionally and physically, to have no contact at all.
“My mum would tell me I was ugly, then say that she loved me,” recalls Nikki, 21, who says her mother “destroyed” her self esteem. “As a teenager, her partner was abusive to me, and she did nothing. The final straw came when I realised she was neglecting and abusing other members of my family.
Now we have no contact, I’m getting therapy and slowly starting to build up my self worth. I’ve lived with the effects of what she’s done, but I’m out of it now – although every day is a struggle with my mental health, I’m finally in a place where I want to be.
Whichever path is chosen, there can be a lot of pressure from friends or other family members (or in Meghan’s case, the general public) to just let go of, or put up with, the hurt. “Remind yourself that your relationship with this person is very different to theirs. Accept that your experience with this family member is valid,” advises Karen. “It’s very easy to have an opinion when you’re looking in on a relationship from the outside.”
Beth agrees. “Generally people are like, ‘Oh right, okay’ when I tell them about my sister, but occasionally one or two will pass judgement. I tell them that while I appreciate their opinion is valid, I don’t really care what they have to say unless they’ve been in the same position.”
Many people can get by without ever having to think of or talk about their estranged family members, but when it comes to Christmas or life events like weddings or births, it can be unavoidable. Hayley, 30, hasn’t spoken to either of her parents for over a decade – her father left when she was a small child, and her mother moved to Egypt when she was 15, leaving her in the care of her grandparents. She’s getting married next year, which inevitably leads to questions about her family.
“When I was younger, not seeing my parents was hard, really hard. I blamed myself for a long time that they were the way they were. But as I have gotten older, it has shaped the person I am. I’m stronger, more independent, more motivated, and I do things for myself,” she says.
I’m getting married next year, and the main questions I get is whether my dad is walking me down the aisle. My response, ‘He isn’t even invited to the wedding’, often raises eyebrows. I think some people feel sorry for me, but there’s no need. I have a great family, and my aunt will be giving me away so nothing is missing.
As Karen tells me, a decision made today doesn’t always have to be a decision made for life. Estranged families often reconcile, and Meghan Markle may just reunite with her father and half-siblings one day. But for now she, and everyone else travelling down the difficult road of familial estrangement, doesn’t need sympathy or judgement – just understanding.