There’s been a lot of buzz about the royal wedding: What will Meghan Markle’s dress look like? What kind of flowers will they have? Did you see the ring?! But among some of the fluffier topics is a serious one people can relate to a whole lot easier than a 3-carat diamond and a dress that cost six figures: family estrangement.
Markle’s family has been in the spotlight ever since her engagement to Prince Harry back in November, with people speculating about whether or not her father and siblings will be invited to the royal wedding. (Markle’s parents are divorced; she’s close with her mother.)
Kensington Palace recently confirmed Markle’s father will indeed walk her down the aisle, but her siblings aren’t expected to attend. And they’ve had some harsh words for their sister: Her brother wrote an open letter to Prince Harry telling him to call off the wedding, and her step-sister is writing a book called The Diary of Princess Pushy’s Sister. Yeah, they probably shouldn’t plan on going to the UK anytime soon.
Family estrangement is more common than you think: 1 in 5 UK families will experience estrangement, according to research from Stand Alone, a charity that supports people experiencing estrangement.
And it can come in many forms. “Some researchers have considered parents and adult children to be estranged if they don’t have contact with one another, but more commonly, researchers have focused on the quality of the relationship,” says psychologist Dr Lucy Blake. “For some, there may be no communication or contact. But for others, contact might be infrequent or unsatisfactory.” See: Markle’s relationship with her dad. He’s attending the wedding, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re no longer estranged.
Sound familiar? Read on to learn why family members become estranged, plus what you can do to deal with the distance. (Pro tip: Don’t write a memoir about how much you hate your sister.)
Why estrangement happens
Of course, traumatic events like abuse, neglect, or drug abuse can lead to estrangement, but the causes aren’t always so cinematic. “Estrangement also happens when there’s an underlying issue that has built up over time,” Blake says. Some common issues: money, homophobia, favouritism (in the case of siblings), differences in values, and feeling a lack of support.
Holidays and special occasions are the hardest
Holidays and birthdays are the most difficult time to be estranged from your family, according to a report conducted by Stand Alone and the University of Cambridge. “These times are harder because the gap between what we wish our family relationships looked like, and the reality of what they actually look like, may be put into focus,” Blake says.
Blake says it’s important to remember that you’re not alone during these times. “A great number of people experience challenging family relationships, even if estrangement isn’t often talked about openly,” she explains. Seek out friends in similar situations, or find an online support group. “There are numerous Facebook support groups for people who are estranged from a family member,” she says.
Both sides experience loss, but in different ways
Blake says parents often feel like they’ve lost their role in the family, and sometimes, their identity. “Parents who’ve attempted to contact their estranged children describe feeling like they’ve lost their voice since they can’t apologise or find out why the estrangement happened,” she says. “Adult children feel the loss of a family, and miss the emotional, financial, and practical support that family members can provide.”
There’s stigma surrounding estrangement
Sixty-eight percent of people in the Stand Alone survey said they felt stigmatised. “Parents report feeling awkward discussing the issue with other family members, and adult children go to great lengths to keep this information private,” Blake says. “People fear that they may be shamed, and are often told that they should act a certain way or forgive the family member.”
While you don’t need to shout the status of your relationships from the rooftop, a solid support system is important. Remember: Estrangement is not rare, so there’s a good chance people in your social circle will be able to relate.
Estrangement isn't always set in stone. Cycling in and out of estrangement is common.
Social media makes it worse
You know all those cute family pics you see every Mother’s Day and Father’s Day? You won’t be surprised to learn that they don’t help. “Social media could make you feel more isolated and alone if you’re estranged from your family,” Blake says. “You only see perfect images of families on Facebook and Instagram-no one’s posting pictures of meltdowns or long, hard days when things just aren’t going right.”
Take a break from social media if you’re feeling low, with the exception of the support groups mentioned above. “These communities could help you feel more connected and less alone,” Blake says.
It’s not all bad
About 80 percent of people surveyed for the Stand Alone report said there were some positive aspects to estrangement, like feeling more free and independent. If a family member is abusive, or affecting your health or other relationships, it might be time to move on.