One of my clients spent her most recent therapy session sharing her frustration with her in-laws. Her husband’s parents were taking their family on a trip to Israel and had just sent out an itinerary. It looked like a military training schedule. Every hour of the 10-day trip was accounted for including van rides, restaurants for all three meals and daily excursions.
“They’re treating us like children,” she groaned, “We told them we wanted at least some time on our own and they’ve scheduled us for every minute of the trip like we’re kids at camp. My husband already wants to cancel.”
We took our time walking through her options and how she could try to balance competing priorities and demands. My client frequently finds herself caught in the middle between her husband, who feels like his parents infantilize him, and her in-laws, who desperately want to have more of a relationship with their son. She shared that her biggest goal for this trip was to try to keep the peace.
The first option was directly communicating her needs and requesting some changes to the itinerary. She’d observed her husband attempt to assert himself in the past, and this typically resulted in conflict and hurt feelings. Not ideal while in another country. We then shifted toward going with the flow for the sake of harmony and making this trip about connecting with her in-laws. This would mean my client would be shoving down her own voice on a long trip that was costing her both time and money.
No path seemed perfect. We finally both sat back and acknowledged that families are just plain hard. It’s challenging to figure out how to honor your needs versus that of the group and know when it is an appropriate time to rock the boat. “I think that’s why everyone is so invested in Harry and Meghan’s moves right now” she commented, “we all want to know how they pull it off.”
Unbeknownst to my client, this was a personal lightbulb moment for me. I’ve been strangely preoccupied with Meghan and Harry’s bombshell boundary-setting and all of the subsequent updates over the last two weeks. I say strangely because I’m really not a Royals aficionado. I’ll happily admire baby pictures and wedding dress reveals, but I’m not the person is who is up on all of the latest goings on. In fact, Kate Middleton’s third pregnancy and birth totally passed me by.
However, Meghan and Harry’s initial announcement hit something in me and I’ve found myself preoccupied with this story. Each day, I scan the internet trying to figure out what’s going on, any details about what led to the decision, the specific variables they were considering, and how the conversations took place. In my daydreams I get a chance to sit them down in front of me and ask them how they’re feeling, what was this process like for them and if they have any regrets.
My client was exactly right. I want to know how a seemingly perfect couple with a seemingly fairy-tale life is handling a situation that most of us, including myself, struggle to pull off in smaller ways and on a much less public and consequential stage. If they are effectively setting boundaries with the Queen of England, surely there must be something for all of us to learn.
We can all relate to the simultaneous anguish, grief and liberation that can take place when affirm our autonomy with family members, forge our own path or shake up the stasis. This can even come up during positive changes. One of my younger clients became tearful when she discussed sharing with her parents that she was moving in with a boyfriend for the first time. They were fully supportive and excited for her, but she felt sad that their dynamic was changing and that they would no longer see her as their little girl.
Saying “no” or drawing a hard boundary can be even more painful and complicated, even if it is warranted. Most families are neither all good nor all bad. Our on-going work as family members is to navigate how much bad are we willing experience for the sake of all that is good, and how much good we are willing to lose for the sake of our own self-protection. For most of us, this is a constantly shifting equation.
Much of the coverage of Meghan and Harry’s decision to step back from their roles in the Royal family, particularly in the mental health space, has focused on the importance of setting boundaries and putting yourself first. Their exit has even been compared to leaving a toxic work environment. This perspective seems to take a fist-in-the-air, everyone-else-be-damned attitude toward a complex decision. Yes, setting boundaries is hugely brave and empowering, but it’s okay if it doesn’t feel that way all the time.
The twists and turns that this story has taken over the last two weeks validates the universal challenge of struggling to find your role, asserting your needs and making it work within your family. I don’t view Meghan and Harry as provocateurs, role models or anything in between. They are human, like my client and like myself, balancing competing demands and trying to find the best path forward.