The Harry and Meghan interview might have taken down more than the royal family

Why Prince Harry's revolutionary definition of 'family' matters

You can't choose your family — or so the saying goes, though that might especially be the case when you're one of the biological heirs to a 1,000-year-old monarchy. But when Prince Harry defined his family to Oprah Winfrey in the bombshell interview with his wife, Meghan Markle, that aired on CBS on Sunday night, his language was limited and precise: "Now we've got our family, we got the four of us, and our two dogs," Harry said, including Meghan, their 1-year-old son Archie, and their daughter, who is due this summer, in his calculation of "four."

What the Oprah interview made abundantly clear is that so much of Harry and Meghan's suffering in Britain, prior to their exit from royal duties last year, stemmed from the couple holding on to their identity as part of the greater Windsor family for as long as they did. Meghan eventually admitted that her biggest regret was "believing [the royal family] when they said I would be protected." It took the couple physically and emotionally separating from Buckingham Palace in 2020 — and, in the process, forging a new definition of "family" for themselves — to find peace. "Now we're actually on the other side, we've actually not just survived but are thriving," Meghan explained.

The implications are broader than just what all that means for the Mountbatten-Windsors. By quitting the most famous household in the world, Harry and Meghan set a stunning example for everyone who is trying to make things work in a toxic family.

Not only are the Windsors one of the world's most prominent families, they're also quite traditional. Though a handful of divorces and remarriages over the years have scuttled the otherwise pristine lines of their modern family tree, for the most part all of the Windsors relate to each other in clearly-defined roles: the "grandmother," the queen; the "grandfather," Prince Philip; the "father," Prince Charles; the "grandsons," William and Harry; and on down to the "great-grandchildren," including Prince George, who is presumably the future King of England. Monarchies are — naturally — predicated on strict respect for these relationships and the prioritization of them above all else. The Windsors, though, are exceedingly conservative in their observations: the closest the family has come to a same-sex wedding was the 2018 nuptials of the queen's third cousin once removed, while Meghan is the first modern (and perhaps, the first ever) Black member of the family.

Harry and Meghan's choice to leave the royal family, and their nightmarish litany of reasons why, relayed to Oprah on Sunday night, exposes the unhappiness within Buckingham Palace. Life in the family was so unbearable for the couple that they described it as being "almost unsurvivable" due to the lack of support and other internal cruelties.

In exiting the royal family, though, Meghan and Harry also exited the Family — that is, an ideal of what a family looks like. In addition to considering their new unit to be just themselves, their children, and their dogs, the couple also shared in the interview the way their friends filled the support roles typically expected from family members. (This, apparently, has been a recourse for struggling Windsors for awhile; Meghan revealed she reached out to one of Princess Diana's best friends, because "who else could understand what it's actually like on the inside?"). When the couple finally left England, Harry and Meghan's friends were the ones who arranged places for them to stay, including Tyler Perry, who even offered the ex-royals his own home in Los Angeles. Meghan's friends have also been her fiercest defenders in the press, in the absence of the royal family standing up for her.

Last March, The Atlantic's David Brooks detailed in a cover story for The Atlantic his belief that "the family structure we've held up as the cultural ideal for the past half century has been a catastrophe for many." Attempting to make a toxic family work is the root of suffering for millions of people; societal and cultural pressures, as well as internalized guilt over family loyalty, keep members trapped in inherited relationships that actively harm their well-being. There has been a growing movement to validate "breaking up" with family (including by Oprah, whose magazine published an article in 2019 on how to know if your family is "toxic"). Though Meghan and Harry's choice to redefine the boundaries of their family is one of the highest-profile cases, these non-biological "found families" (also called "chosen families" or "forged families"), made up of friends, have been around for centuries, particularly in the LGBTQ community, where biological family members are often the main perpetrators of abuse.

As Brooks writes, "With friendship, there's less slotting people into particular roles or hierarchies, and more valuing people based on your own affection for them, or whatever matters to you." In Harry and Meghan's case, those hierarchies had been literal; Meghan, after all, is required to curtsy to her grandmother-in-law. But for normal people, in normally dysfunctional families, Harry and Meghan's exit from the royal family might be empowering and inspiring. If inherited relationships are making you miserable, the couple suggested, it may not be a matter of trying harder and harder to get them to finally work. Meghan and Harry felt they were never going to get the support they needed from their family, so they changed who their family was going to be.

The Sussexes haven't gone so far as to fully cut off Buckingham Palace. Harry is protective of his grandmother, and it sounds like even his father is talking to him again. The Duke of Sussex additionally feels "compassion" for his relatives, who he considers to be trapped in the unforgiving institution of the monarchy. Clearly, the couple has no hostility toward traditional family roles either: Harry celebrated the fact that he will have one boy and one girl, while Meghan shared that her most important title of all is "mom."

But being a part of a family — any family — is a complicated thing. Harry and Meghan's situation is one-of-a-kind, but also in no way unique. Their openness with Oprah didn't only produce juicy gossip; it also potentially showed someone in a similarly toxic family that those relationships aren't the only path to preserving your own happiness.

In this particular case, the relatives also happen to be princes and princesses, dukes and a queen. But at the end of the day, they're still moms and dads and siblings, as human and flawed as anyone else's can be.

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