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A Key to Harry and Meghan's Estrangement

Research on family rifts suggests why they left their royal family behind.

Mark Jones on Wikimedia Commons
Harry and Megan
Source: Mark Jones on Wikimedia Commons

To hear the press tell the story, the romance of Prince Harry and the actress Meghan Markle had the makings of a fairy tale. The prince, after years of rowdy army life, was ready to settle down. One of the most eligible men in the world, he falls head over heels for a commoner (and an American). A wedding occurs in Disney-like splendor that was watched by 2 billion (yes, billion) people. Initially, the new Duchess of Sussex feels welcomed into her new—royal—family.

However, there was no fairy tale ending, as this spring Harry and Meghan (now using the last name Mountbatten-Windsor) broke with Harry’s family, relinquishing their royal duties and moving halfway across the world. It became one of the most public family rifts of our time.

News media—from the infamous British tabloids to the staid New Yorker and New York Times—have analyzed the causes of the estrangement. Reporters and pop psychologists have settled on the concrete and obvious issues of relentless negative media attention and the desire to pursue their own business interests, as well as a sign of weakening family bonds in contemporary society.

However, as research grows about the thorny problem of family estrangement, we are learning more about the root causes. In particular, estrangements can have their source in fundamental components of human relationships, as discussed in detail in my book, Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them. Studies suggest that Harry and Meghan have fallen into the disruptive pattern of the problematic in-law.

In my research on estrangement, difficulties with an in-law were a common pathway to estrangement among parents and children—and among siblings, as well. It’s a classic problem that often leads to stress and tension—but also may result in a family rift.

Popular culture reveals deep-seated worries about negotiating loyalty to one’s family of origin with that toward one’s spouse. Movies from Meet that Parents to Monster-in-Law to Crazy Rich Asians have portrayed in-laws as aggressive and threatening characters who prey on hapless newlyweds. These images reflect a deep-seated ambivalence about the in-law relationship.

This worry is not an irrational one; research demonstrates that in-law relations are a key determinant of marital happiness. Studies also show that the quality of in-law relations affects spouses’ predictions of whether or not their marriage will last. When differences are too great, couples are likely to set boundaries—including the clearest of all boundaries, physical and emotional distance.

It’s important to remember that the problematic in-law relationship isn’t necessarily the fault of those involved. Instead, the way family systems are designed can produce conflict. In-law relations tend to be ambivalent, with strong positives like family values and support battling with a push into traditional roles and interference in a couple’s life. As Lucy Rose Fischer put it succinctly in a classic study, the struggle for a daughter-in-law and a mother-in-law is the need to be close to a stranger.

One of my interviewees explained:

I figured out a long time ago that the only trouble with in-laws is that they are not you. They don’t have the history you have. That’s what makes your family easier to deal with, because you know what to expect. But your in-laws’ biggest sin is they’re not you and they’re not your family.

A core difference that can promote distance among in-laws is a lack of shared values. I found that pattern in my hundreds of detailed interviews with estranged family members for Fault Lines. A social scientist who treats the many media reports as “data” on the Mountbatten-Windsors will quickly see value differences as a powerful undercurrent. It rings out clearly in the couple’s initial statement about the break-up:

After many months of reflection and internal discussions, we have chosen to make a transition this year in starting to carve out a progressive new role within this institution.

Subsequent reports show that this preferred new role embodies values of openness, innovation, progressive political stances, entrepreneurship—none of which are generally associated with the royal in-laws.

And Harry’s values have shifted over time, deepening the rift. He began to value self-understanding and greater sensitivity, which his family seemed unable to understand. As described in The New Yorker, “in the years since his mother’s death, Markle was the only person close to him who persuaded him to exchange a stiff upper lip for a trembling lower one.”

In estranged families I interviewed, the balancing act between in-laws and spouse proved to be impossible, and a rift resulted. A common pattern occurs when a new spouse attempts to distance the partner from his or her family. The tie to the spouse almost always wins out, sometimes resulting in not only emotional distance but also a physical move away from the extended family. Compounding the situation, the new spouse is perceived as demanding, difficult, or hostile, which repels in-laws from interacting with the couple. Then add to the mix the family’s rejection of a new partner because of differences in personality characteristics, values, or political views.

From five years of studying estrangement, I could easily recognize Harry and Meghan’s dilemma. The available evidence suggests that Meghan and Harry fell prey to the problematic in-law estrangement pattern, and are now negotiating what the new, distanced relationship will be like.

Is there good news in all this? I believe there is. First, the ties have not been cut off completely, and the Mountbatten-Windsors remain emotionally and financially tied to Harry’s family. Second, paradoxically, by establishing clear boundaries and differentiating themselves, the couple is likely to more easily find their way back in. In my studies, it took time and distance—and patience on the part of the parents-in-law—for couples to determine the course of their own lives. Thus, if what I observed in the family reconciliations I studied holds, Meghan and Harry may well find themselves back with the family in the end.