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5 January

What Prince Harry teaches us about dealing with family trauma

Is the millennial method of airing grievances the right one?

By Terri Apter

In clips from his forthcoming ITV interview with Tom Bradby, Prince Harry declares that he wants “to get my father back, I would like to have my brother back”. Yet today (5 January) the Guardian cites from Spare, Prince Harry’s memoir published on Tuesday, that during an argument over Prince Harry’s wife Meghan in 2019, his brother the Prince of Wales “grabbed me by the collar, ripping my necklace, and he knocked me to the floor”. While Prince Harry expresses a desire for reconciliation, his worldwide audience may wonder whether this is possible.

Members of the royal family are mere mortals, but their lives play out on a gigantic stage. We weave what details we have into stories shaped by our own desires, deficits and ideals. As in most stories we construct about other people, we are confronted with profound questions about our own lives. When are we justified in distancing ourselves from our family? When conflict occurs between people we love, who should be tasked with making amends? Are some rifts irreparable?

There has been family estrangement in the royal family since the Duke and Duchess of Sussex moved to the US, and in their subsequent revelations about their experiences with the family. Indeed, estrangement is usually instigated by an adult child – and is painful for everyone. Yet from the adult child’s point of view, distancing themselves from their family is crucial to their psychological wellbeing – this may well be the case for Prince Harry. It is also more prevalent among millennials, many of whom believe that levelling accusations and airing grievances against their family may achieve a better version of themselves than they believe is possible if they remain in the orbit of those they blame (and may have been encouraged to blame by armies of therapists) for being obstacles to a desired self. There may be a deep reservoir of concern for their parents’ pain at the estrangement, and a genuine wish for their parents’ happiness, as Prince Harry has alluded to, but these are overlaid with fears of what they themselves feel or become in the presence of that family.

Estrangements – and the series of allegations that accompany family estrangement – change the dynamic of the entire family. Siblings who have been one another’s lifeline in childhood can become realigned by hostilities, as one seeks to show loyalty to the parents by pitting themselves against the brother who is rejecting them – this has arguably been seen with Prince William. Spouses or in-laws can come into the firing line and may be blamed for “turning our child/brother against us” – sometimes as a way of absolving their own child of “saying such things”, sometimes as a way of absolving themselves from deserving them. The accusations made against Meghan in the press, that she created Prince Harry’s vendetta, are reminiscent of this. But these defensive steps are never successful in repairing relationships or diminishing pain.

Reconciliation is difficult. When you hear that your best parental efforts are perceived as cruel, when your attempts to protect or advise are seen as controlling, and when your endeavour to include is seen as a travesty, you are outraged. “How unfair! Ridiculous! Unbelievable!’ you think. Of course, when these resentments are publicly exposed, as has been the case with Harry and Meghan’s Netflix documentary, his upcoming memoir, and the ITV interview – they become fixed and formal, like the clips and quotations replayed endlessly on news channels. It may be counterproductive for Prince Harry to air such grievances; the rigidity and permanence of such public accusations inflict shame, and as a result are much more difficult to overcome.

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Any steps towards reconciliation on the part of King Charles, Prince William or the wider family requires a special kind of courage. Relatives must set aside their defensive outrage and be willing to look for some truth in their adult child’s accusations. Even when they sincerely believe that Prince Harry’s account of their behaviour is distorted, perhaps even deluded, as a family they need to be willing to see his point of view. Unless they set defensiveness aside and adopt empathy, it is not possible to engage an adult child in the steps necessary for repairing the relationship.

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[See also: Spare by Prince Harry, review: a deeply uncomfortable read]