Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, were chosen to grace the cover of the 2021 edition of “Time100: The Most Influential People of 2021.” After publicly cutting ties with the British royal family several months ago and moving to America, the couple described the whole ordeal in a televised interview and, as a result, made this year’s list.
Many people have strong opinions about Harry and Meghan’s decision to leave Buckingham Palace; I don’t. My knowledge of British royalty is limited to the few seasons of “The Crown” I watched with Sarah before we canceled our Netflix subscription. What does interest me, however, is how their decision, which has been widely hailed as “brave” and “authentic,” mirrors something increasingly popular among modern young adults: cutting so-called “toxic people” out of their lives.
It’s also notable how quickly friends, relatives, and neighbors can be labeled “toxic” simply by holding different political, moral, or religious beliefs. Recently, a psychologist specializing in family therapy told the Atlantic that his practice is flooded with older parents mourning estrangement from their grown children, and with grown children angry and hurt by conflicts with their parents. Apparently, when it comes to family fractures, the royal family is far from exceptional.
In fact, according to a recent piece by Sarah Logan in The Guardian, you don’t even have to be “toxic” to find yourself cut out of a loved one’s life. It’s enough that you don’t “spark joy.”
In the article, Logan documents a growing group of young people practicing “relationship minimalism.” Inspired by home organizing coaches like Marie Kondo, these mostly urban, single adults are not only clearing their lives of excess stuff; they’re tossing out excess people. For example, 20-something YouTube star Ronald Banks says that living a minimalist lifestyle with only a few sets of clothes, simple furniture, and bare minimum electronics prompted him to go the next step and ditch meaningless relationships, too. Or, as he called them, “emotional clutter.”
Young adults like Banks are all about cutting ties. As Logan put it: “If the city they live in no longer sparks joy, they move.” Some keep apartments so sparsely furnished that guests can’t even sit down or have tea. One YouTube minimalist quoted in the article refuses to have a mirror in her apartment because, in her words, “Why would I try to impress people that I don’t even like?…I’d rather be alone than with people who make me feel alone.” Not to be too “judgy,” but that doesn’t sound much like joy.
This kind of utilitarian attitude toward other human beings is not only sad, it’s also darkly ironic given our culture’s epidemics of loneliness and suicides. Behind these cultural crises are a growing group of young people who think of relationships as dispensable and people as furniture. As the Director of Research and Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families put it, “Never before have family relationships been seen so interwoven with the search for personal growth, the pursuit of happiness, and the need to confront and overcome psychological obstacles.”
Anyone willing to walk away from parents, friends, or even an entire city, just because they don’t “spark joy,” fundamentally misunderstands the purpose and functioning of relationships. People are not consumer goods to be rummaged through, tried on, and returned if they no longer fit.
If anything, we need to be around people who rub us the wrong way or who demand something from us instead of serving our therapeutic goals. That’s part of what the Church is for! It’s a redeemed community united not by hobbies, career goals, or personality traits, but by allegiance to a Lord whose love transcends all of this.
In the context of such relationships, the Bible says that “iron sharpens iron.” Anyone who’s ever banged two pieces of metal together knows that sparks will fly—and not always sparks of joy! But in God’s eyes, and in the eyes of the author of Proverbs, the results are worth the friction.
No, we’re not called to put up with just anything, without limit. Sometimes there are situations in which cutting people out of our lives is necessary and wise. Contrary to what these relationship minimalists believe, our personal happiness is bound to our relationships but is not bound by them. In an age marked by historic loneliness, “relationship minimalism” sounds like a poor way to love both our neighbors and ourselves.