It seems like everyone is talking about the way Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, are paving their way out of the royal family’s traditional dynamics and into a life that works for them.
After a family meeting, Queen Elizabeth issued a statement that said that while she would have preferred that the two remain full-time royals, the family is “entirely supportive of Harry and Meghan’s desire to create a new life as a young family.”
And we should be just as supportive, according to therapists, because there are things we can learn from their decision to prioritize what is best for them.
“I think it’s really cool that they’re setting some new precedents,” said Lauren Cook, a therapist based in San Diego. “If they’re no longer serving the family and the mental health of all parties involved, it’s OK to re-evaluate traditions.”
Although few in the world find themselves in such a complex situation, the royals are not the only ones to face complicated family dynamics.
Whether it’s an estranged family member, siblings who have different relationships with each parent or simply a logistical challenge because not everyone lives in the same location, establishing new boundaries with family when not everyone wants the same thing can be difficult.
“This unfortunately happens quite frequently,” Cook said.
The family’s royal meeting, Cook said, was a good example of how families should meet in person and openly communicate when possible, “even though it’s uncomfortable, it’s kind of cringeworthy, and people want to avoid it,” she said.
“We joke about ghosting,” she said, “but families ideally don’t ghost on each other. I think when you can take the time to actually communicate and give each other closure, it’s much more healing.”
Many couples or individuals find they want a different set of expectations, she said. Perhaps someone lives far away and is no longer able or willing to visit as often; other people might be feeling hurt or entering a new stage where they want to spend less time with family.
Estrangement can be hurtful for all involved, said Linda F. Williams, a psychotherapist and founder of Whose Apple Dynamic Coaching and Consulting Services, based in Grand Rapids, Mich. For families, it can be tempting to consider whoever is taking time apart as the cause of the problem, but what is more helpful is to know each family member will experience estrangement differently.
“Give yourself a break, understanding that these are normal feelings and part of a healing process,” Williams said.
When possible, communicate that directly and in person, Cook said. Set up a relaxed environment, at someone’s home with coffee or snacks, “taking the wind out of the sails of the conversations,” she said.
And parents might be the ones who ultimately wish for less time together or setting new boundaries, for example, in a situation with a grown child living at home. “That can lead to some really challenging conversations,” she said.
Some situations might not require more elaboration, instead saying directly, “Right now, this isn’t working for me. I need to take a break from this.”
Remember that everyone will have an opinion, and it is not necessary to share your thoughts or situations with each family member or friend.
“You need to look internally at what’s best for you and your family dynamic, because at the end of the day, those are the only people who are truly impacted,” Cook said.
Decide how much you want to hear about, or discuss, the situation with others, Williams advised. Clearly communicate that and plan how you will handle any conversation arising.
If you’re the person who a family member is disengaging with, allow some time for self-reflection. If you have a trusted friend or family member who you know will tell you the truth, ask for input and be ready to hear feedback, Williams said.
Remember that in many cases, disengaging or resetting boundaries is a tough situation for all parties. Empathy goes a long way, Cook said.