Much Duchess-dissing has focused on Markle's estrangement from her father. But sometimes, estrangement is the kindest thing we can do for ourselvesby Hephzibah Anderson / May 5, 2019 / Leave a comment
All being well, by the time you read this, the House of Windsor will have a bonny new addition, Meghan and Harry’s firstborn. Customary hoopla over the infant’s name, however, looks likely to be vying with more prurient speculation: will grizzled old Grandpa Markle get to meet the royal babe? Much Duchess-dissing has focused on her estrangement from her father. How heartless she is, how ungrateful! The possibility that he may not get to meet his grandchild has triggered another round of those interviews Meghan had requested he desist from, veering from guilt-tripping pleas to barbed put-downs.
Palace aides can console themselves with the fact that what they presumably view as a distasteful sideshow does at least keep the Duchess of Sussex relatable. Pain and shame may make people shy about owning up to it, but recent surveys suggest that family estrangement is both less dramatic and far more common than we care to imagine.
According to the charity Stand Alone, one in five families is affected by estrangement, and over five million people have severed contact with at least one family member. It’s worse in the US, where a 2015 study found that more than 40 per cent of participants had experienced family estrangement, making it seem almost as commonplace as divorce. These numbers tally with what novelist Hannah Beckerman encountered earlier this year when she opened up about her decision to cut off contact with her father. Suddenly, friends and colleagues were sharing their own tales of ruptured kinships—myself among them.
From fraternal cold war (promoted by a new spouse) to the filial allegiances that became collateral damage in parental feuding, my family tree would look pollarded if you factored in each and every truncated attachment of the past century or so. Some were temporary, others became permanent.
Estrangement isn’t unheard of in royal circles: just think of the Duke of Windsor, aka Edward VIII. That’s actually a comparatively rare example of a break triggered by a specific, intensely dramatic incident—the Duke’s obsession with Wallis Simpson and subsequent abdication. While barriers can be thrown up in response to horrific abuse or devastating betrayals, mostly the causes are more prosaic: differences in values and mismatched expectations about family obligations, emotional sabotage and the fallout from shabby parenting. Cambridge psychologist Terri Apter has found there’s a common feeling that the axed relationship always relied on falsity and dissembling for any semblance of functionality, giving rise to the sense that estrangement was there all along in its heart.
As a research field, estrangement has historically been neglected. That’s changing but the taboo persists. The idea that familial bonds—even those as elemental as the tie between a parent and child—might be dissolved is unmooring. Furthermore, the majority of parent-child estrangements seem to be initiated by adult children, and in this sense, they defy that thundering, eternal commandment to respect your parents. We cheer on escapees from bad romantic relationships, but try to “divorce” a blood relative, and you risk becoming an object of pity and suspicion if not righteous condemnation.
Of course, go back far enough, and even plenty of functional family relationships might as well have been estranged for all that folk saw of one another. Who’s to say how many of those who moved to another county or continent in search of better prospects weren’t also escaping unbearable family situations? It’s certainly true that erecting unbreachable boundaries is infinitely harder to do when texts can be sent daily from over 5,000 miles away, as is apparently Mr Markle’s habit.
But it’s not just technology that has ramped up the pressure on blood bonds. Families are smaller now and more inward looking. A few generations ago, there was a fluidity to family life that worked to the advantage of anyone who felt they’d been born into the wrong clan. A great uncle of mine, for instance, spent so much time with the boisterous brood around the corner that they might as well have adopted him.
Ultimately, it’s saccharine sentimentality that gets most offended by estrangement. Cutting ties with a close relation calls out one of modern life’s most persistent, warping fairy tales: the idea that sharing DNA with another confers hardwired love. The language of estrangement—talk of boundaries and toxicity and narcissistic personalities—may itself smack of controlling entitlement, but its underlying message is that family relationships are always more complex than any Fathers’ or Mothers’ Day card will let on.
As for the Duchess of Sussex, no, she wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her dad. But that doesn’t mean she owes him her firstborn, or even a text for that matter.