Marrying 'The One'... and their family - How to deal with tricky in-laws like Meghan Markle
Since Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's engagement, a slew of stories have emerged about her estranged relatives. Tanya Sweeney advises on how best to deal with tricky in-laws
No sooner had Meghan Markle said 'I do' than the world's eyes all but swivelled towards her American family.
We all knew exactly what sort of family she was going to marry into, but what sort of in-laws was the People's Prince about to get? Anyway, anyone hoping for gossip, intrigue and a soupcon of soapy drama with the Markles was not left disappointed.
Meghan's parents separated when the actress was six years old: her father was a lighting director on the popular sitcom Married with Children, which Meghan described in an Esquire interview as "a really funny and perverse place for a little girl in a Catholic school uniform to grow up".
Mum Doria (Ragland), a yoga instructor and social worker, has gotten the royal stamp of approval: it was she who Harry asked for his fiancée's hand.
Meghan also has a half-sister on her father's side, Samantha Grant (now Markle - she changed her last name in a reported bid to get close to the actress). Grant has warned on many occasions to tell "all" to the press about her sister, from whom she is estranged, and is now reportedly seeking a publisher for a tome called The Diary of Princess Pushy's Sister. You might have already guessed, but it's not likely to be a gushing sisterly tribute.
Earlier this week, Samantha accused Meghan of turning her back on her family and criticised her for not making her bankrupt father "a priority". Referring to the Ralph & Russo couture dress Meghan wore in her engagement photos, Samantha said: "If you can afford $75,000 for a dress, you can afford $75,000 to help your dad. That's how I feel, that's who I am."
Elsewhere on the family tree, Tom Markle Jr, the actress's half-brother, was once arrested for allegedly holding a gun to his girlfriend's head. Last weekend, he gave an interview slamming members of his own family for trying to "cash in" on the Markle name.
Adding insult to injury, members of her extended family have told the press that if their names don't make it to the wedding guest list, they'll have no qualms in crashing the event.
Over Christmas, Harry found himself in hot water with the Markles when he described the royals as "the family (Meghan) never had" on a radio show.
He could do worse than look to his older brother for tips on how to work well within his new family. Prince William evidently gets on like a house on fire with wife Kate Middleton's parents Carole and Michael.
Early on in the relationship, Carole, and by extension Kate, found herself the butt of "doors to manual" jibes - a reference to her past life as an airline stewardess (according to one report, some of William's circle would even whisper this whenever Kate arrived into a room).
Yet whatever about Carole's erstwhile career, there was also Uncle Gary, who in November was slapped with a fine after pleading guilty to assaulting his wife outside their central London home. Gary has made headlines in the past for antics at his notorious Ibiza villa, La Maison de Bang Bang. And for the upwardly mobile Middletons, Uncle Gary is, well, quite the blot on the family tree. (Come to think of it, Kate and Pippa also have Partying Prince Andrew to deal with at Christmas).
Of course, as Kate has already found out, marrying into The Firm is no cakewalk either. By dint of her fiancé's family, Meghan's life has changed irrevocably. "The attempts by reporters and photographers offering substantial bribes to her ex-boyfriend, the bombardment of nearly every friend, co worker and loved one in her life," says Orla Brosnan, Director of the Etiquette School of Ireland (etiquetteschoolofireland.com). "The harassment is now set to get even worse. Harry is fifth in line to the throne, so the pressure of protocols (for him) is somewhat lessened."
Long story short: when you marry 'The One', you don't just marry one person - you marry their entire family, for better or worse. Ibiza villa, scandalous tomes and all. The Windsor boys are fortunate they have healthy relationships with their partners' parents, but many others aren't quite that lucky.
So what's a person to do when they marry into (cough) an interesting family?
"In Ireland - we're seeing it more and more - people are marrying into blended families with a parent that might have married more than once, and you end up with this hugely complicated history and background," says family psychotherapist Trish Murphy (trishmurphy-psychotherapy.com). "I see it a lot with students, where things like graduation ceremonies become very emotionally fraught.
"The thing is that the children of complicated family arrangements have learned very early on how to manage their emotions, and how to keep this thing from that person."
Rising over family drama is never easy, but at least with in-laws, the emotional intensity is slightly less.
"I'm a big fan of the 20-minute Rule," notes Trish. "If you're feeling raging, go out for 20 minutes to get some air and you'll find that you will respond much differently to things then."
The one thing that couples should do around a particularly colourful or dramatic family is to keep a united front.
"The rule is that the person whose family it is can criticise, challenge and demand from the family, but the partner is definitely not allowed to do any of that," she says.
"If you start criticising your partner in front of their family, or even your family, you create a dynamic and a situation that could go on for the entirety of your life together. Instead, support and stretch to your partner's needs, because you love them.
"Very simply, we can't change other people, but what we can do is we can manage ourselves, and our expectations of others," adds Murphy. "If we decided that someone drives us mad, it's almost like we've lost."
If you really want to limit your interaction with your partner's family, how best to handle sticky spots in the calendar like Christmas, family weddings or birthdays? Meghan probably doesn't have much elbowroom in this regard, but for the rest of us, is it a no-no to decline an invite, or is it better to put up with sporadic contact?
"It's not so much etiquette but more about what makes everyone feel comfortable," says Brosnan. "Most people tend to scattergun invites to family to include everyone, giving people the option to decline. One way around getting out of a family function is to divide up the invites. You go to one event, your partner goes to the other. You need to make sure if you're the one having an event, tell your family member that the person they don't get on with will also be there.
"In the case of a wedding where the parents are divorced, it can be tough having everyone there, but ultimately it lies with the mother and father to be courteous," she adds. "And if needs be, keep them on opposite sides of the room."