There’s a lot the public doesn’t know about the Royal Family and its evolving and dissolving relationship with Harry and Meghan. However, the Sussexes recent interview with Oprah Winfrey seemingly revealed a lot. And while the average couple might never be able to relate to escaping royal life in England, many can relate to balancing loyalty to one’s family of origin and loyalty to a partner.
Despite the fairy tale beginning the Sussexes and most couples enjoy on their wedding day, the fantasy tends to wear off. It certainly did for the Sussexes. Within a year of their wedding, Harry and Meghan relinquished their royal duties and benefits and moved to the United States. Theories about why the rift and separation occurred abounded, ranging from Meghan’s contentious relationship with her sister-in-law to a desire to pursue their interest without the oversight of the royals.
The recent Oprah interview shed some light on and validated those who believed the problem was with Meghan’s in-laws. It’s an issue that many married couples face: difficult in-laws and their tendency to be part of the marital stew that leads to the estrangement between a person and his or her family of origin. Disruptive in-laws cause stress and tension, and in worse-case scenarios, break up families as seems to be the case with Harry and Meghan.
The two are not the first couple to experience serious concerns about negotiating loyalty between their family of origin and their new spouse. Stereotypes about aggressive and poorly behaved in-laws abound in popular culture. But this isn’t to say the concerns aren’t warranted or based on reality.
Research shows that quality relationships with in-laws are an important part of marital satisfaction. It’s been proven that positive relationships with in-laws offer insight into how long a marriage will last. Couples able to create and enforce strict boundaries with difficult in-laws often must resort to distance to make their relationship better – which appears to be at least part of the case with Harry and Meghan.
Relationship experts point out that in-law issues might not be the fault of any single person involved. For many families, the issue is the systems they’ve created. Bringing a new person into an existing structure when they aren’t familiar with it is difficult no matter the individual personalities. In the case of the royals, Harry knew what he was dealing with and had a history of dealing with it. He knew what to expect. To Meghan, it was new and there was no shared value system with her husband’s family.
Meghan also dealt with a situation far more complex than the average new husband or wife. She was entering a new family that was a royal family from a different country. Expecting someone to understand, accept, and ingratiate into her new family so much that is different from what she’s known is asking a lot of anyone.
Harry and Meghan shared their approach with the media and expressed a desire to commit to the values of openness, innovation, progressivism, and entrepreneurship. Some in the media also believe Meghan encouraged Harry to embrace sensitivity, as opposed to the emotionless approach many believe the royal family adopts.
No longer fitting the role one’s family of origin has them in is one of the most common patterns in estranged families. Additionally, the “pulling away” that occurs due to non-acceptance leads to the new person in the family being perceived as aggressive, hostile, or difficult.
Some relationship experts believed that physical distance would be enough for the Sussexes and predicted that time away would eventually lead them back to England and closer to the family. They believed that once they’d determined the course of their own lives and their new boundaries had grown to be a habit, it would be easier to be back with Harry’s family.
Following the Oprah interview, this appears not to be the case.
Although the average couple won’t have the same challenges as those faced by royals, the addition of a new person and, if a couple chooses to have children, new people, is always a challenge. Just how much of a challenge depends on the existing system into which the new person enters.
This isn’t to say one situation is healthier than another. Sometimes families aren’t that close initially and the introduction of new people and new values or expectations isn’t that disruptive. In other cases, the existing family structure is healthy and everyone involved knows and accepts change will occur.
But with more emotionally intense, enmeshed, or distressed family systems, the introduction of new people triggers an our-way-or-the-highway response.
When a couple finds themselves faced with constant conflict over the in-laws, it’s important for the partner feeling stuck in the middle to check-in regarding that unequal balance of loyalty. Feeling stuck means it’s time to shift your focus. It’s within your ability to shift the urgency you feel about your family origin to your spouse and new family.
According to Lynne Silva-Breen, MD, MA, LMFT, “One can be loyal to both one’s family of origin as well as to a new spouse, but the most successful marriages have partners who transfer their primary loyalties to their new partner. Mom or Dad may still be core relationships, but if there is any important conflict, decision, schedule, or issue to decide, the default must move to the spouse and couple.”
Most would agree, after the Oprah interview, this seems to be what Harry is working on.
And most would also agree that adjusting to something new is never easy, but it is worth the effort when it comes to your marriage.