A family is a small kingdom. Their house is the castle, to be cliché. It is mutable, its location flexible. But the royalty, the humans that live within it, define the kingdom. Small children understand this very well. The idea of father as king, mother as queen, themselves as princes and princesses, resonates inside their hearts. It becomes, in the best situations, a kind of fairy tale made real.

The family kingdom is a complex dynamic. Too often considered authoritarian, with a king who does just what he wants and others who bend to his will, it is really, in its glory, a place where the king leads and protects his royal family, always looking for ways to increase its honor. It is a place where the good queen civilizes and counsels her king and her children, and is herself treated with gentility and respect. And it is a place where children get wisdom, nobility and learning without fear.

This kingdom is meant to be a safe haven. The basic family unit, in more modern terms, is designed as a small enclave where couples come together in love, and in that love support one another. The family is a thing through which the whole world is made safer by small increments. Ideally, it leaves the world richer by populating it with sane, productive, creative citizens. Ultimately, each generation supplies society with young men and women who go on to create new kingdoms of their own.

But not all kingdoms are good, not all are safe, and even the best kingdom is always in danger of collapse, either from inside or out. Anyone who has read history can cite examples of the fall of kingdoms, good and bad. There were kingdoms that decayed because subjects were treated worse than enemies and ignorance was desirable to promote slavery. There were kingdoms of awful intrigue, where emperors were murdered by princes for power and empresses beheaded for producing no heirs. There were kingdoms so horrible that the only option was escape. There were also royal families in which monarchs were not really cruel, just heartless or without joy. And there were golden kingdoms destroyed by jealous invaders.

Not all families are safe kingdoms either. In medicine, we see their citizens every day. We see lonely, overworked wives whose husbands left them for the excitement of what they saw as a kind of dark rebirth, disguised in the language of passion and adventure. We see devoted husbands whose wives were tired of marriage and moved on to different lovers, led away by the phantom of false romance. And we meet children whose kingdoms collapsed around them, through no fault of their own, but who always wonder what they did to make their dream end.

What all children want, what all adults want, are the defining boundaries of love. Everyone desires the interlocking arms of parents and children whose love for one another is so great it flows over onto everyone who touches them. What everyone wants is a kingdom intact.

Nonetheless, like dangerous empires, some marriages have to end. Violence and substance abuse drive husbands, wives and children to safer lands. Deep betrayal and distrust also end families. In these settings, children and wounded parents have to find security and peace of mind.

But in too many cases marriages end, beautiful kingdoms dissolve, for reasons that are poorly examined and for imaginary dreams that never become as real as the life left behind. In the end, when the ink is on the page, the agreements arrived at, the houses sold, the money divided, the children parceled out, what really happens is much more painful.

When the family kingdom dissolves, everyone becomes an exile. They may stay in the same town, or same house, but everyone, husband, wife, teenage son and infant daughter, is forever banished from the place they wanted most to be safe. Even the ones who leave become lonely expatriates. Their freedom never gives them real contentment.

Those who leave or are left all wander the world looking for what they lost, always lonely for the spouse or parent they expected to have for a lifetime. Some find new love, some re-establish the joy of their kingdom that passed like Camelot. But whether they do or not, the pain of their exile remains for life. And no one, no matter what, is ever the same again once it all falls to dust.