The coverage surrounding the royal rift this month was often gleeful: “If Prince Harry Can Divorce His Family, You Can Do It Too,” read one headline. Others offered tips on how to “consciously uncouple” from relatives and “write your own family story” – this after Prince Harry and Meghan announced they would leave their roles in the Royal Family and spend more time away in North America with their infant son, Archie, “providing our family with the space to focus on the next chapter.”
As the royal clan untethered, such celebratory public reaction underscored a major shift in thought around family distancing and estrangement, according to experts who study this issue. The old thinking was that families should mend their problems and stick together, no matter what. In today’s individualistic culture, more people are putting themselves ahead of family ties, setting boundaries and maintaining space from damaging relatives in a bid for self-preservation. As with the modern acceptance of divorce, those growing up in Meghan and Harry’s generation enjoy more societal permission to walk away from toxic dynamics, instead of toughing it out at all costs.
“You have generations that don’t feel obligated to obey the same kind of dictates that every generation before did,” said Joshua Coleman, an Oakland, Calif., psychologist who specializes in family conflict and estrangement. “Parent-adult child relationships mirror today’s voluntary and romantic relationships, where you build on platforms of happiness, personal growth and fulfillment – not obligation, duty or responsibility.”
The prevalence of estrangement is difficult to track because few families discuss it openly, experts say. Neither Statistics Canada nor the Vanier Institute of the Family, a research organization, keep data on estrangement in this country. According to the support group Alienated Grandparents Anonymous (AGA), which helps estranged relatives worldwide, the issue is a “generational epidemic.”
There are legitimate reasons why some cut the cord, according to a 2015 study from Stand Alone, a charity supporting this cohort, and the University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research. The justification can include a parent’s abuse, neglect or constant criticism, a mental-health crisis or traumatic event in the home, mismatched expectations around family roles, or personality clashes. Seriously differing values on child rearing, sexuality, gender identity or politics can also cause familial division, experts say.
Family members who walk away tend to do so in their late 20s and early 30s, according to the study of 807 people. Some 80 per cent said they felt more free and independent after severing ties.
“It’s often tied to a narrative of liberation, individuation, separation and overcoming hurtful people,” Dr. Coleman said.
Even so, estrangement is a measure of last resort: No one initiates it lightly, with adult children “trying for a long time before they give up,” the psychologist said.
In family rifts, there is often shame on both sides. Some 68 per cent of estranged adult children felt misunderstood, blamed or judged by the outside world, according to the 2015 study.
“The adult child hears that ‘families are forever,’” Dr. Coleman said. “On the parents’ side, they hear, ‘You must have done something pretty terrible for your own child to have turned against you.’”
Parents whose children push them away can feel stunned, humiliated, angry, isolated, depressed and helpless, according to AGA, which hosts support groups in British Columbia and Ontario, with a new chapter launching in Newfoundland. Many feel acute shame at having failed as a parent, as well as grief for the lost relationship – “a living bereavement,” as AGA puts it.
At AGA’s in-person meetups and online Skype sessions, estranged grandparents, parents and siblings relay their experiences, bolster each other emotionally, share what they’ve learned from experts and build resilience by telling success stories. For alienated relatives who hope to keep the door open, the advice is to reach out consistently with notes or gifts, said the Toronto group’s facilitator, a 65-year-old grandmother from Thornhill, Ont., who does social work (The Globe is keeping her identity confidential to protect her family’s privacy). After years of distressing separation from her child and grandchildren, the woman has slowly rebuilt a relationship with her family.
Experts note estrangement doesn’t necessarily mean zero contact: Some relatives communicate minimally, some talk on-and-off while others maintain contact but find themselves treading carefully, fearing the door could close any time.
Some cases see adult children setting firm boundaries with family, or scheduling time apart, as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have. Theirs is less a full-on estrangement than a distancing, with the Queen acknowledging the pair’s “wish to live a more independent life” at a family summit after the surprise announcement. Adding to the controversy last week were reports that Ms. Markle’s estranged father was willing to testify against her in a legal battle with a British tabloid.
Jane Isay, author of Walking on Eggshells: Navigating the Delicate Relationship Between Adult Children and Parents, said whether families stick it out or subdivide comes down to “emotional styles."
“There are ‘we’ll-go-through-hell-and-high-water’ families and there are breakup families,” Ms. Isay said. “With the breakup style, it’s very hard to have a habit of reconciliation. I know a number of families where it’s, ‘You cross me two times, you’re out of my life.’”
Added to the mix, Ms. Isay argued, is the modern concept of “chosen family," with many estranged adults building their preferred families out of partners, friends, colleagues and community.
For parents who hope to repair broken relationships, experts stress patience, humility and taking responsibility for hurtful actions or blind spots. “Listen for the kernel of truth in the child’s complaints, empathize, don’t be defensive and return fire with fire, reach out and show commitment,” Dr. Coleman said.
A serious challenge of family peacemaking is that it involves overturning power dynamics: The child who steps away calls the shots, Dr. Coleman said. That can be hard to swallow for parents and grandparents who are accustomed to wielding authority.
Of course, there are cases of estranged adult children fixating on issues that “in other generations wouldn’t be cause for conflict,” Dr. Coleman said, or wrongly blaming parents for their own failings. The psychologist asks them to consider offending parents or grandparents as three-dimensional beings with their own family traumas who may have lacked support in their era.
“It’s ultimately therapeutic," Dr. Coleman said, “for the adult child to see that the parent had their own challenges.”