Imagine this: You fall in love with someone who lives in a different country. He’s handsome, funny, charitable, great with kids — a true prince, if you will. But there’s one big problem: his family. The first time you attended a family Christmas party, his cousin wore a racist brooch — and you’re a woman of colour. Your partner’s grandfather has a history of making racist comments, too.
That’s not all. Your new partner’s uncle has been accused of sexual assault by a woman who says she was a 17-year-old sex trafficking victim at the time. Oh, and that same uncle allegedly uses racial slurs, too. You hear a rumour that an employee of the family business was pressured to quit because he’s gay. Then, after your wedding, you get more involved with the family business yourself — but the job requires you to constantly interact with representatives from media publications who write a lot of racist, sexist, and just plain infuriating things about you. (They even take issue with you closing your own car door.) Throughout all this, your partner stands by you, but his family does nothing — even after you have a baby. You feel miserable. It’s "really challenging," as you once tearfully put it.
By now, you’ve probably guessed that we’re talking about Meghan Markle — or as she's now known, the Duchess of Sussex. Last week, she and Prince Harry (now the Duke of Sussex) announced that they “intend to step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family and work to become financially independent, while continuing to fully support Her Majesty The Queen,” and to “balance our time between the United Kingdom and North America.” And while we don't know that any of the above incidences informed their departure, the move definitely made us think a little harder about how the couple might have been feeling these past few years.
The decision was immediately dubbed “Megxit,” a play on “Brexit.” In a statement, the couple explained, “This geographic balance will enable us to raise our son with an appreciation for the royal tradition into which he was born, while also providing our family with the space to focus on the next chapter, including the launch of our new charitable entity.”
Reportedly, the Queen isn't happy with them either; on Monday, her office put out a statement saying, "Although we would have preferred them to remain full-time working Members of the Royal Family, we respect and understand their wish to live a more independent life as a family while remaining a valued part of my family."
But when examined from Harry's and Meghan's perspective, the move makes a lot of sense, says Moraya Seeger DeGeare, MA, licensed marriage and family therapist and the co-owner of BFF Therapy in Beacon, NY. “It’s really all about boundaries,” she says.
She points out that, while we don’t know the full story, it’s very likely Meghan and Harry tried to resolve the issues that led to their decision behind-the-scenes before going public with their announcement.
DeGeare specializes in culturally diverse counseling, and she says that while some people get a sense of what they’ll be getting into with their partner’s family, others don’t realize how bad it will be before they get married. “I've worked with couples where it really started after the wedding,” she says. “Maybe your partner really protected you from it. Sometimes you might even be like, ‘If I had known about this, I might have made a different choice, but now we’re here.”
If it’s simply a matter of not getting along with your in-laws, or not understanding their culture, DeGeare suggests that you “lead with empathy.” “Learning some of the traditions, or if there’s a language barrier learning some of that language, can be huge,” she says.
On your partner’s end, they should sit down with their family — and often it’s more helpful if you’re not there. “Sit down with mom or dad and say, ‘This is what I’m seeing,’ and have a heart-to-heart conversation,” she says. “The parents are more likely to talk candidly with their kid, rather than with the new spouse sitting there.”
Honesty, however, is key. “To keep the connectedness of the partnership, that spouse really needs to be open around what their limitations are, rather than trying to placate everyone,” DeGeare says. “Something I see in couple’s therapy a lot is the person will say all the right things to their partner, and then go to their mom and say all the right things to their mom, and then six months later, it blows up, and the partner feels like they were being lied to.”
Setting a boundary and holding firm is a great choice, DeGeare says — and in fact, we can all take inspiration. “For couples to take a stance and say, ‘This racist comment or brooch, or that homophobic T-shirt you’re wearing, is not okay, and that’s why we’re not coming to the next family dinner,’ is the only thing that’s going to change our culture,” she says. That personal connection is vital: “Your uncle might be like, ‘All these millennials are so P.C.,’ but if his niece is saying, ‘I don’t want a relationship with you anymore because you’re really racist,’ he might actually listen.”
Similarly, stepping back from their royal duties is a logical decision — particularly taking a stance against the “Royal Rota,” the 40-year-old tradition requiring royals to give exclusive inside access to specific British media publications, including tabloids that have printed bigoted stories about Meghan. “It’s like if you had a homophobic person next to you in your cubicle and they kept making lewd comments. You might decide, Well, this paycheck’s not worth it. I care about my own existence. It’s the ultimate form of self-care.”
The newly-launched website (designed by the same company that worked with Meghan on her former blog The Tig, BTW) and statement Harry and Meghan released show that they’ve put thought into this decision, DeGeare says. “Clearly they’ve taken the time to be intentional with their actions. This isn’t, ‘We’re done!’ after getting mad over a meal. They’ve decided the consequences are worth it, otherwise, they wouldn't do it.”
As Harry and Meghan move forward, the most important thing they can do is to maintain their united front, DeGeare says. And the same goes for any new couple dealing with toxic in-laws. “Honour the fact that you have a couple identity now, and really daydream about what that couple identity is going to look like,” she says. “That’s going to bring you back to how you handle all these situations. Ask, 'Does this fit in with this identity we want to form?'” And if their new website is any indication, Harry and Meghan seem to know exactly what their couple identity is — free from centuries-old traditions.