The Royal Family Could Use Family Therapy. Here's What Therapists Would Tell Them.

·14 min read
Will these feuding royals ever patch things up? Here's what family therapists think.  (Photo: Isabella Carapella for HuffPost/Getty Images)
Will these feuding royals ever patch things up? Here's what family therapists think. (Photo: Isabella Carapella for HuffPost/Getty Images)

Will the royal rift eventually give way to some much-needed royal healing?

That’s been the question weighing on the minds of monarchists and avid Anglophiles alike, as tension between the Sussexes (Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex) and the rest of the British royal family reached a fever pitch this year.

It’s been on the minds of royals, too, apparently.

The situation is “very sad,” Prince Edward, Harry’s uncle and Queen Elizabeth’s youngest son, told CNN recently when asked about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s departure from royal life and the brouhaha over the couple’s decision to name their baby girl Lilibet, the queen’s childhood nickname. (The BBC claimed the Sussexes hadn’t received the queen’s permission. The couple adamantly said they did.)

“It’s difficult for everyone but that’s families for you,” Edward said, while also expressing sympathy for the scrutiny the Sussexes have been under since their 2017 engagement.

Public comments from the royal families have been few and far between since Harry and Meghan stepped down from their roles as senior royals in January 2020. That’s no surprise since “the firm” is famously tight-lipped; during her record 69-year reign, the dependably stoic Elizabeth II has maintained a “never complain, never explain” position when it comes to addressing her private life and various controversies surrounding her family. (And boy, have there been a lot of those.)

But Meghan and Harry are from a different generation ― millennials like them have been called the “generation of self-help and self-care” and “the generation of emotional intelligence.” “Sharing their truths” has been a huge part of the Sussex brand since the couple decamped to California and left royal life behind.

In March, the couple gave a bombshell two-hour interview with Oprah, where they revealed, among other things, that a member of the royal family had expressed concerns about their son Archie’s skin tone, that Kate Middleton had made Meghan cry in the leadup to the couple’s wedding, and that Meghan had suicidal ideations because of the pressures of royal life and the onslaught of racist coverage from the British press. (Plus, Harry told Oprah that his dad had “stopped taking his calls” following discussions about his exit from the royal family.)

In spite of those big, PR-nightmare reveals, the interview wasn’t all scorched- earth. Harry said he believed the interview came from a place of “compassion” and at times, it seemed like the Sussexes were leaving the door open for the royal family to issue an apology and recognize everything the couple had quietly endured.

The pair were careful in their criticism, differentiating between the family and “the firm,” but of course, “the firm” is the senior royal family, of which the queen is the most senior.

We’ll supply the royal Cliffs Notes of what happened next: The palace was, no surprise, said to be stunned by the interview. Days later, Gayle King, who like Oprah has been given unprecedented access to the Sussexes, reported that Harry had spoken to his brother after the interview, but the calls were “not productive.”

Prince Charles reportedly wanted to release a forceful rebuttal to the claims, but the royal family put out a more conciliatory statement, offering love and support to the couple, sans apology. Harry’s older brother, Prince William, awkwardly told reporters his family was “very much not racist” when the very awkward question was broached at an event. (“Can you just let me know, is the royal family a racist family, sir?” the journalist asked. Yikes, a lot to unpack there, guy.)

Since then, royal watchers looked on as the brothers reunited and made the smallest of small talk at their grandfather Prince Philip’s funeral in April. The next month, Harry granted Oprah another revealing interview and also told Dax Shepard on the actor’s “Armchair Expert” podcast that he sought professional help as a way to “break the cycle” of “genetic pain and suffering” in his family, for the sake of his own children.

Phew. That’s a lot ― and it leads us right up to this week’s big event: On Thursday, William and Harry put their differences aside to unveil a statue of their mother, Princess Diana, on what would have been her 60th birthday.

As The New York Times described it, the princes kept a “palpable distance” from each other during the minutes-long ceremony on Thursday. The homecoming was short-lived; Harry is expected to hightail it back to California after the event.

Still, for royal fans who’ve felt a secondhand sadness over seeing Diana’s sons have a falling-out, there’s hope that the statue could lead to some thawing out of relations between the brothers in the days and weeks to come. Surely, standing in the literal shadow of their late mother might cause them to reflect on what she might think of the sad, sorry state of their relationship?

Prince William and Prince Harry after they unveiled a statue they commissioned of their mother Diana, Princess of Wales, in the Sunken Garden at Kensington Palace, on what would have been her 60th birthday on July 1. (Photo: WPA Pool via Getty Images)
Prince William and Prince Harry after they unveiled a statue they commissioned of their mother Diana, Princess of Wales, in the Sunken Garden at Kensington Palace, on what would have been her 60th birthday on July 1. (Photo: WPA Pool via Getty Images)

We can’t say, but we tapped some family therapists to venture a guess. Below, they share the advice they’d give the British royal family if the whole group sat down for some much-needed family therapy. (If you’re a non-royal watcher reading this and struggling to understand why people care about any of this, this article on parasocial relationships is worth a read.)

To keep the peace, speak for yourself and only yourself.

Now that baby Lilibet has been born, there have been numerous reports that the Sussexes are hoping to mend fences with the rest of the royal family. (Some reports say that it’s Harry who’s most willing to admit fault.)

A source said to be close to the couple told Us Weekly in June, “All is not forgiven, but after all the backlash regarding their interviews — which by the way, the pair have no regrets about — they’re trying their utmost to maintain a good relationship with the queen in order to keep the peace.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, it sounds like the rest of the royal family is walking on eggshells to avoid sharing too much with Harry. No one wants to have the contents of their conversation end up in another Oprah tell-all and William is reportedly keeping Harry very much at a remove.

We’re not holding our breath for any olive branch to be extended any time soon but if healing were to begin, a good first baby step would be for the Sussexes to speak for themselves and only themselves in any forthcoming interviews, said Erika Martinez, a psychologist in Miami and a big royal watcher.

“If I were counseling Meghan and Harry, I’d say, speak about your feelings and experiences, but leave it at that and don’t perpetuate hearsay,” Martinez said. “Don’t speculate about how other people view and feel about their roles within the organization.” (In the interview with Oprah, Harry said “my father and my brother are trapped” within the monarchy but a source close to both brothers said William found those remarks “way off the mark.”)

Don’t get stuck on who is to blame.

No one is 100% victim or 100% evildoer royal family villain either, reminded Rhona Raskin, a family therapist and advice columnist. (That may seem obvious but as a public, we’ve only really heard one side of the narrative.)

“Even if you could figure out who is the bad guy, it will change nothing,” she said. “If Harry really wants change, he should use his time and energy to forge the future. The past is stone. It cannot be erased but it can be reinterpreted.”

Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex in better times. (More specifically, a ceremony to mark the centenary of the Royal Air Force in July 2018.) (Photo: Max Mumby/Indigo via Getty Images)
Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex in better times. (More specifically, a ceremony to mark the centenary of the Royal Air Force in July 2018.) (Photo: Max Mumby/Indigo via Getty Images)

Understand where each side is coming from.

Here’s why royal historian Robert Lacey thinks a tidy reconciliation isn’t in the cards after the Diana statue unveiling: The brothers aren’t even on the same page about what they’re fighting for, though each is fighting for their core beliefs. While William is defending the monarchy, Harry is defending his wife.

“It’s a matter of love versus duty, with William standing for duty and the concept of the monarchy as he sees it,” Lacey told The Associated Press this week. “And then from Harry’s point of view, love, loyalty to his wife. He is standing by her. These are very deeply rooted differences, so it would be facile to think that there can just be a click of the fingers.”

If inroads are ever going to be made on the reconciliation front, William might try to understand why Harry ― a man who’s had to live with being called the “spare to the heir” for 35 years ― wanted to forge his own path with his new family, especially given the rough treatment Meghan endured from the British press. He might try to understand why the couple were scared for the safety of their mixed-race son and why they were so adamant to gain security for him.

As for Harry, since Meghan herself admitted to some naïveté about the workings of the royal protocol, Harry might want to reevaluate his older brother’s earlier advice to “slow down” with his then-girlfriend. (Lacey said that cautioning was where the friction began with the brothers.)

Harry also should recognize the unique pressure William is under, as the future monarch of a country increasingly disinclined to having a monarchy at all. According to a 2021 survey by YouGov, 41% of those aged 18 to 24 thought there should now be an elected head of state compared to 31% who wanted a king or queen supported by tax dollars.

“William is protecting the monarchy with his actions,” Martinez said. “What a parent, child or brother may want privately may be vastly different than how the head (or future) of state may need to decide for the good of the organization.”

It’s easy to see why William might be resentful: First, Harry drummed up interest in the royal family when he met and married Meghan, a sunny American who lent a little Diana-esque star power to the stiff-upper lipped royals. Now he’s doing the opposite: painting the royal institution as retrograde, racially backward and probably not worth propping up financially any longer.

They're all trying to get their various needs met, while perhaps overemphasizing the need to save face, rather than just being human and family to one another.Kirk Honda, a psychotherapist in Seattle

Recognize that the family script may be worth “breaking,” as Harry put it.

When attempting to understand any family, it’s helpful to understand the concept of “family scripts” developed by the pioneering family therapist, John Byng-Hall. Byng-Hall suggested certain family dramas play out again and again, as if they were actually “scripted” in a drama.

The “scripted” nature of family life is taken to another level with the royal family, according to London-based psychotherapist Ajay Khandelwal. (Quite literally when you consider dramas like “The Crown” and “The King’s Speech.”)

Harry’s recent criticism of his father and grandparents’ hands-off parenting begs the question, Khandelwal said: Should the modern generation of royals, replicate, reject or simply revise the family “scripts” that have been passed down?

“Maybe Prince Charles could reflect on his own experiences to fit it with family expectations ― the pressure to perform at a physically demanding boarding school and to get married the first time around, which backfired,” Khandelwal said. “Thinking about this might make him more sympathetic to Harry and Meghan, who are trying to chart their own path.”

As for the brothers, he thinks they’ll continue to express their own versions of the family script when they give speeches about Diana or their family’s legacy: William, the oldest, will continue to abide by the unofficial family motto, “Don’t complain, don’t explain,” but Harry will continue to rebel.

“I think he’s looking to honor his mother’s unofficial family motto, ‘do complain, do explain,’” Khandelwal said. “He sees himself as a disruptor, addressing ‘unconscious bias.’ He sees it as his duty to speak up to the world at large.”

Princes William and Harry with their mom, the late Princess Diana, in 1995. (Photo: Antony Jones/Julian Parker via Getty Images)
Princes William and Harry with their mom, the late Princess Diana, in 1995. (Photo: Antony Jones/Julian Parker via Getty Images)

Find a way to give each other “off ramps.”

In the midst of conflict and high tension, we often make rash decisions or say things we later regret. Then we double down on them instead of apologizing because the shame and embarrassment that accompanies an apology is too great, David Colarossi, a Denver, Colorado-based psychologist who offers pop culture commentary on his YouTube channel.

“At this point, we are fighting more to justify the behaviors and comments made during the argument, than the actual issue we were discussing in the first place,” he said.

To overcome this dynamic, Colarossi said we need to give each other “off ramps”: ways to exit the argument that allow us to preserve our reputation.

“With the royal family, I think their best bet at an ‘off ramp’ is to lean into these critical moments they’ve experienced as of late: the death of Prince Philip, the birth of Lilibet, the unveiling of Princess Diana’s statue,” he said. “These events may have helped them independently recognize the importance of family.”

The boys with their father Prince Charles during a 2005 ski trip in Switzerland. (Photo: Pascal Le Segretain via Getty Images)
The boys with their father Prince Charles during a 2005 ski trip in Switzerland. (Photo: Pascal Le Segretain via Getty Images)

Understand that distance and some remove is sometimes for the best.

It would be unfortunate if the only times the two families came together were for funerals, remembrances and the occasional wedding but the fact is, adult siblings do sometimes grow apart ― and that’s not only OK, it’s sometimes the healthiest option available.

If peace is hard to achieve, it might be best for both sides to go their separate ways: William as the future king of England, Harry as the chicken-raising, Netflix-deal-signing fresh prince of Montecito.

That arrangement should also probably include a truce that requires each party to abstain from airing any more dirty laundry, if only for their grandmother’s sake, said Becky Whetstone, a marriage and family therapist in Little Rock, Arkansas. (The queen is 95 years old, give her a break!)

“I think both Harry and William should recognize that it’s OK to set boundaries here,” Whetstone told HuffPost. “We all have the right to protect ourselves from any and everyone who does not have our best interest at heart or violates us in any way, even family.”

“Harry and Meghan, who may well have legitimate beefs about the royal institution, may not be viewed as safe to share any concerns with now,” Whetstone said.

In spite of the distance, always keep the door open for family.

Boundaries are healthy in families, but full-blown alienation is rarely the right answer. It’s almost impossible to cut ties with your family of origin entirely ― and in most cases, that’s probably for the best. Those relationships are meaningful and powerful in our lives and worth protecting in some form, even if they’re not serving us in the current moment, said Kirk Honda, a psychotherapist and host of the Psychology In Seattle YouTube channel.

“As a family therapist for 25 years, I can attest to how deeply we are connected to our families of origin whether we like it or not,” he said. “Often, our parents and siblings help form the foundation of our personality while also providing the narratives of our lives, consisting of both joy and tragedy.”

Honda’s advice for the royal family is simple: Each member should try to fully appreciate the human need for connection, love and understanding, no matter what their titles are.

“From there, they might find the motivation to put the tabloids aside and simply listen to each other,” he said. “I suspect they are all good people, all trying to get their various needs met, while perhaps overemphasizing the need to save face, rather than just being human and family to one another.”

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.

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