Finding Your Way Back After a Family Rift
In Oprah’s interview with Harry and Meghan, the Prince used one revealing word to describe his relationship with his only brother, Prince William: “space.”
“I love him to bits,” he said, “we’ve been through hell together, we had a shared experience, but we’re on different paths.” Harry said he hopes that one day things will change. “You know, time heals all things.”
I had “space” from my only brother for decades. We reconciled seven years ago. In my experience, a lot more than time is needed to heal an estranged sibling relationship.
Harry and William, sadly, fit into at least four risk categories for estrangement:
- Family trauma: The brothers experienced the death of their mother, a deeply traumatizing event.
- Parental favoritism: The monarchy presents the ultimate in favoritism. William will become king, with Harry always relegated to a supporting role.
- Poor communication skills: The monarchy is notoriously bad at resolving personal problems. Thus, the brothers probably never learned to negotiate their differences.
- Family values, judgments, choices: Harry married far outside the family identity. Some families simply won’t tolerate certain behaviors that resist or defy the family identity. Perhaps unwittingly, Harry chose a partner to help him establish distance – even a total break — from his family. As he said, until he met Meghan, “I was trapped, but I didn’t know.”
Not surprisingly, the royal brothers have teetered on estrangement before. Many siblings cycle through estrangement and reconciliation in chronic chaos. They push limits, trying to find a mutually acceptable level of involvement, testing the possibility of a total break.
Sibling relationships are most vulnerable to estrangement during certain life stages that require families to redefine their members’ roles. At such moments, minor clashes can push siblings beyond their ability to cope, tripping a kind of emotional circuit breaker. Seeking immediate relief, they change or abandon their familial role.
These turning points include:
- Adolescence: A teenage sibling, individuating and creating his or her own identity, leaves home for college or a job. He or she may change the established sibling relationships and dynamics in the family.
- Marriage: A new brother-or sister-in‐law may seek to reduce and/or control the couple’s involvement with one side of the family.
- Birth of a baby: As a sibling focuses on his or her new family, some family members may feel abandoned or betrayed. Siblings may even compete with each other through their children.
- Divorce or illness: The physical, emotional, and financial responsibilities of helping a sick or divorcing family member may overwhelm one sibling, creating resentment at an unevenly shared burden.
- Parental illness, death, or inheritance: Siblings may stage a last-ditch competition for power, love and family loyalty. Conflicts arise over health care and payment for an elderly parent, as well as inheritance of family treasures and assets.
Can the royal brothers ever reconnect? What will it take to get there? Here are my suggestions:
- Sit down together, face to face.
- Listen without interrupting, without challenging each other’s stories. The one goal is to seek understanding. Experts agree that reconciliation is impossible without true, genuine listening.
- Acknowledge, with empathy, the other person’s hurt, anger, or alienation. Give them the benefit of the doubt; assume they have sincere, trustworthy intentions. When each party accepts both parties’ experiences, neither feels devalued or shut out.
- Stress and act on your willingness, desire and hope to create a mutual bond.
The royal divide is more complex than two versions of “what happened?” The whole truth exists within a larger dysfunction that may not be fixable. But that doesn’t mean the brothers shouldn’t try.
Dr. Donna Hicks, of Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, has helped resolve some of the world’s most intractable conflicts as a third‐party facilitator. She has created the “Dignity Model” for communication that works for families as well as nations. The biggest lesson she has learned from these encounters is that “vulnerability is where the power lies. The magic happens when we expose the truth to ourselves and others and are ultimately set free by it… When we honor others’ dignity, we strengthen our own.”
In reuniting with my brother, I discovered that the process of reconciliation takes intent, commitment, good will, and mindfulness. One conversation can’t repair a deeply damaged relationship. Lasting reconciliation requires powerful listening, which is its own form of love and respect.
For William and Harry, space and time won’t suffice. Love, loyalty, and effort—three qualities that also describe the monarchy at its best—will pave the road to a royal reconciliation.