Meghan Markle
Photo: Getty Images

OPINION

We must respect Meghan Markle’s decision to cut out her family

Estrangement is usually the last resort – a painful and measured decision to remove yourself from behaviours and people that consistently make you feel unhappy and chaotic, says Sali Hughes

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By Sali Hughes on

Whether they care or not, everyone in the world now knows that Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, is some 12 weeks pregnant. Including, sadly, her estranged, dial-a-quote half-sister, Samantha, who is still cross with Meghan for not speaking to some family members while they innocently sell stories on what an awful person she is. Regarding her father Thomas’ estranged relationship with his youngest daughter, Samantha said this week, “If he is excluded, I won’t be happy. It is in the best interests of the baby for my dad to be included,” followed by, “A baby changes everything and softens everyone. I would only hope that there would be some adjustment or some way of including him.” Indeed. What says family trust and loyalty like a spectacularly passive-aggressive statement made publicly in The Sun? Make that woman a godmother.

Meanwhile, on breakfast television, the Duchess was branded "narcissistic" by reality-TV-contestant-for-hire, Lady Colin Campbell (admittedly, such a stranger to narcissism that she goes by the name of a man to whom she was briefly married over 40 years ago). She said, in glib agreement with Piers Morgan, "I think less of Meghan now than I did initially. I think the way she shooted [sic] her family is appalling.”

By this rationale, I, too, am appalling. During my own life, I have been estranged from family members for extended periods of time. And so, the scornful reaction to Meghan’s own difficulties comes as no surprise. People – even the nice ones – are so horrified by an adult child’s decision to sever ties with their parent(s), or to simply take an extended break, that they immediately tell you what they think you don’t already, very painfully, know. “It’s so sad!” (yes, it is); “Is anything that bad that it can’t be fixed?” (yes, it would appear there is); “You’ll be heartbroken when he’s dead” (of course); “Oh, I love my parents” (me too, but not at my own life’s expense) – I’ve heard them all. As people struggle to imagine something so at odds with nature and common experience, they invariably settle for judgement and decide you must simply be not very nice.

What doesn’t seem to have occurred to any of Meghan’s critics is the notion that she may be happier, healthier and calmer without her dad and siblings in her life. Family estrangement is, in my fairly considerable personal experience, very rarely a grudge. It’s not about punishing someone, or teaching them a lesson, or refusing to back down. And it’s certainly not about needing to win. Far from it – it is a loss so huge to everyone concerned that it feels much like a death. It’s neither flippant nor entered into lightly. More often than not, estrangement is the last resort, a painful and measured decision to remove from your daily life behaviours and people (and it’s easy to forget they really are just people, albeit with shared blood) that consistently make you feel unhappy, chaotic and upset.

What doesn’t seem to have occurred to any of Meghan’s critics is the notion that she may be happier, healthier, calmer without her dad and siblings in her life

It surely can’t be that hard for people to imagine which behaviours might have upset Meghan. Having reportedly asked her family never to speak about her to the press, she saw her father pose for, and profit personally from, paparazzi images in the run-up to his daughter’s wedding, which he consequently declined to attend, then share his fatherly perspective on the royal marriage on a trashy tabloid site. She has endured her half-sister’s relentless and pernicious commentary to anyone offering platform, resulting in a lucrative book deal (touching original title: The Diary Of Princess Pushy’s Sister) and near-residency on the couches of ITV. Even before you get to the half-brother no one really cares about – but who nonetheless put the boot in, effectively saying Meghan would make a dreadful royal-family member – it’s clear why Meghan might feel a tad "let down" and unkeen to hang out en famille.

There will, of course, be other events and words, past and present, which contributed to this deeply personal estrangement. There always are. It’s irresistible for the public and media commentators to process the complex histories and dynamics, inherent in any family, into digestible pellets, reducing its members to soap-opera characters who exist only on a public set. But we all know from our own families that, in reality, patterns are formed early, resentment runs deep, roles are entrenched. Estrangement doesn’t bolt out of nowhere – it builds from unthinkable to unavoidable. Royal, commoner, rich or poor – at which point is family loyalty permitted to buckle under the weight of betrayal without someone being branded a narcissist for saying "Enough"?

Naturally, one always hopes it won’t get that far, that any broken family will one day be mended. Estrangement can last months or a lifetime, and even I’ve learned to never say never. And it’s no doubt true that the birth of a baby can spark forgiveness and reconciliation in some estranged families. But it can also, very often, galvanise an expectant or new parent into stopping the cycle of family dysfunction, for the sake of the next generation. Pregnancy and new motherhood can be a time when the victim of an abusive parent finally has someone they care more about, and takes action to protect their child from hurt in a way they felt unable to do for themselves. That isn’t narcissism – it’s responsible parenting.

Maybe at some point, Meghan, Thomas, Harry and baby will happily or tentatively reunite, but since we can’t begin to understand the familial complexities that contributed to the split, we’ve no right to expect everyone to simply kiss and make up purely for a simpler storyline. If the thought of family estrangement horrifies or baffles you, then instead of judging, feel grateful that your family got that part right. Be happy that your situation isn’t alien to others, that you’ll be able to join in normal social conversation, that you won’t feel embarrassed when you meet your partner’s family, that you won’t feel like a freak for not having a relationship with those who raised you, in whom you are expected to tolerate anything. Be thankful that, in your case, that’s not much, and respect the heartbreaking decisions of others.

@salihughes

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