If you’ve ever dealt with toxic family members, you’ve probably felt for Meghan Markle, now the Duchess of Sussex, in the last few months.
Weeks before her May 19 royal wedding, her half-brother Thomas Markle Jr. made headlines with a scathing letter released to the tabloids that claimed she’d cut off her family and urged Prince Harry to reconsider the marriage.
In July, her half-sister Samantha Grant ― the most vocal of the ever-vocal Markles ― escalated the family feud with a series of angry tweets on her private account targeting the former actress. Multiple outlets captured screenshots of the tweets.
“My father is not an embarrassment for loving his daughter! The Royals are an embarrassment for being so cold,” Grant wrote on June 17. “You should be ashamed of yourselves @KensingtonRoyal.”
“How about you pay tribute to your own father?! Enough is enough,” Grant continued. “Act like a humanitarian act like a woman! If our father dies I’m holding you responsible, Meg!” (Grant is reportedly appearing on the upcoming season of the U.K.’s “Celebrity Big Brother,” so prepare for more of this “scorned sister” act.)
The tweet tirade occurred two days after the Duchess of Sussex’s father, Thomas Markle, told The Sun that he thought his daughter looked “terrified” to be a royal and that she hadn’t spoken to him since the day after her wedding to Prince Harry. (To follow the ongoing saga with the loose-lipped Markles, head here.)
It can be hard to watch family drama playing out on such a public stage ― even more so if you have equally difficult family members and can relate. It can’t be easy on the new American-born royal, either.
With that in mind, we asked family therapists to share the advice they’d give the Duchess of Sussex ― and anyone else with toxic family members.
1. Sometimes the best line of defense is continued silence.
Save for a carefully worded statement released through Kensington Palace just before the wedding, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have stayed quiet on the subject of her family.
That may be for the best; when you’re dealing with toxic family members, disengagement is usually your greatest form of protection, said Sherrie Campbell, a psychologist in Southern California.
“Toxic people usually don’t change. Even their kindness can be a form of manipulation,” Campbell said. “I don’t think she’s cut ties with them to hurt them, but for the purposes of protecting herself. Meghan needs to remind herself that she deserves to be loved without games, manipulation and scapegoating.”
2. Set fair but harsh ground rules if you do decide to engage.
Marie Land, a psychologist in Washington, D.C., told HuffPost there’s no way the Duchess of Sussex’s family doesn’t realize how hurtful their one-sided public spat is. When dealing with family members who seem intent on lashing out, it’s completely appropriate to disconnect, or at least set some harsh-but-fair ground rules for communication.
“Meghan is an adult, and she can tell her family she is open to talking and engaging under certain conditions,” Land said. “It could be saying something like, ‘I’m happy to talk to you and work on our relationship as long as you do not speak to the media.’ I’d say that’s a pretty low and reasonable bar for the other Markles to meet.”
3. Recognize that it’s common for adults to have to distance themselves from family.
Many grow up and realize that their family of origin doesn’t have their best interests at heart. Emotionally distancing yourself from people you want to love is “one of the hardest human tasks” out there, but it’s sometimes necessary, said Carrie Barron, a psychiatrist and director of the Creativity for Resilience Program at Dell Medical School in Austin, Texas.
“Grieve for what you did not have, but then move on,” she said. “Fighting the natural urge to be close to your toxic family of origin, to try to work it out, is important. Detach. If others judge you because you did not invite these people to your home or wedding or you blocked the phone line, so be it.”
4. Lean into the friends and family who have supported you.
Sources say the Duchess of Sussex’s relationship with her siblings has always been strained. She seems to be keeping her dad at arms’ length, too, after reports emerged that he staged paparazzi photos before the nuptials.
Meanwhile, her relationship with her mom seems to be a close one.
“We can just have so much fun together, and yet I’ll still find so much solace in her support,” she said of Ragland in Glamour this past August. “That duality coexists the same way it would in a best friend.”
That natural inclination toward one parent is perfectly fine, said Tina B. Tessina, a psychotherapist and author of It Ends with You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction.
“It’s OK for her to prefer being connected with her mother, who seems to understand how to behave,” Tessina said. “It’s OK for anyone to respond well to people who respect them and treat them well, and keep their distance from anyone who doesn’t.”
5. Embrace your new family, too.
The royals have no shortage of experience dealing with unruly family members. (Remember that time Edward VIII voluntarily abdicated the throne to marry the American divorcée Wallis Simpson?) Their reluctance to comment on the Duchess of Sussex’s relatives’ antics is likely intentional, Land said.
“Rather than responding to each story, if they want to support her as best as they can, the royal family should focus on listening to Meghan and asking her on occasion, not constantly, if there is any way they can help,” Land said.
The therapist added: “She’s lost a sense of control of her life with all the gossip her family has publicly spread. She needs to feel like she has some power in the situation and that she doesn’t have to deal with the additional stress of feeling guilt because of how this reflects on the royal family.”
6. If people judge you for disconnecting with hostile family members, try to take it in stride.
There’s no shortage of judgment when someone makes the decision to disengage from a family member. The Duchess of Sussex has had her fair share of critics, most notably Piers Morgan. Earlier this month, the TV personality wrote an op-ed in the Daily Mail chastising his “former friend’s” “stony silence” toward her father.
It’s easy to judge from the outside, though, said Baron. More often than not, those who didn’t grow up with toxic family members don’t understand that family separation can feel like an act of survival.
“It takes enormous courage to let go,” she said. “Meghan needs to identify with people who elevate her with their good character, kindheartedness, vibrancy and humanity ― in her case, people like her mom. Then, she and anyone else with toxic family should follow poet Mary Oliver’s words and live their ‘one wild and precious life’ without guilt or fear.”
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