As Prince Harry sets fire to his relationship with brother William, Arlene Harris talks to other families who are no longer on speaking terms
"He grabbed me by the collar, ripping my necklace, and knocked me to the floor.”
These words could relate to most siblings at some time or other throughout their lives (maybe replacing the word necklace with T-shirt), but as most people know by now, they were written by Prince Harry about his older brother William in his recent tell-all memoir, Spare.
Whether you’re royalty, rich or poor, siblings the world over invariably argue, fall out and eventually make up. Some feuds are even captured on camera, such as when Kim and Kourtney Kardashian came to blows on Keeping Up With The Kardashians.
Harry and William are a world away from settling their differences, their sorry tale of bickering, petty jealousy and supposed fisticuffs has been shared far and wide, with the repercussions making any chance of reconciliation seem slim.
We’ve all, whether we like to admit it not, been engrossed in the drama because, although they are royalty, the arguments and subsequent falling out, is reminiscent of pretty much every family at some time or other.
Indeed, Dubliner Teddy* can totally relate to the saga unfolding in the House of Windsor as his siblings haven’t spoken to each other for “several years” due to a “series of selfish acts”.
“My youngest sister was the baby of the family and, in a way, it’s our own fault that she is used to having an easier ride than the rest of us,” he says. “It was always a bit of a joke that she was spoiled rotten by our parents when she was little, but it stopped being funny when we were all adults and she still expected to be treated differently.
“It was little things at first, like never helping out with anything or being there if one of us (me, my brother and other sister) needed support. She said she couldn’t handle any stress, which we accepted, but we were expected to listen to every issue she had and find a solution.
"Then my dad went into a nursing home and she refused to help us or even visit, saying it was too depressing. Afterwards, instead of being supportive to our mother, she only visited when she wanted something and rang whenever she had a problem.
“When my dad died, she fell apart and then two years later, when our mother died, she moved into the house and has pretty much taken it over, saying that Mum told her she could live there, and we can’t sell the house without her permission.
“My siblings don’t speak to her now and my older sister wants us to start legal proceedings to evict her so we can sell the house. I have found myself caught in the middle as the negotiator between everyone — it’s exhausting, and I’d love to just wash my hands of it all.”
Kerry* is also the youngest child in her family and knows she was spoilt by her parents. As one of a large family with many siblings, she acknowledges “benefitting from her father’s full attention”, which upset her sisters, who “were not the gentlest” with her, and she often felt animosity from them and from her brothers for receiving too much attention.
“When my parents went away for a weekend, they always brought me with them, which created resentment amongst my siblings and even to this day, some of them call me ‘Princess’,” she says.
“I know I was spoiled, but until I grew up, I couldn’t understand why they were sometimes so horrible to me. Today, I have a cordial relationship with two of my brothers, but very little contact with my eldest brother as I don’t really like him and try to avoid him on family occasions because after my parents died, he spread rumours that I had fleeced my father [for money], so I don’t think he’s worth my time.
“My eldest sister died in 1997 and my relationship with my next eldest sister is fairly hands off, but I have always got on well with two of my sisters and have a fairly good relationship with the rest.
“But I realise now that I was not an easy child to be a sibling to — I was spoiled and precocious and ran rings around my family. Starting secondary school and realising that the world did not revolve around me was an eye-opener.”
Being spoilt by her parents definitely caused a rift for the Cork woman and her siblings and today, she has limited contact with them, even those she is close to. She simply drifted apart from her family, but *Liz has purposefully cut all ties.
“When my sister and I were left alone in the house (during their teenage years), she could get violent — I remember being afraid of her and once barricading myself in the bathroom as she tried to hammer down the door,” she says.
“As a society, we have a lot of work to do around forcing people to reconcile or forcing families to be around each other where it’s just unhealthy”
“She would scream and shout and I would complain to mum when she got home from work, but she was tired and didn’t want to listen to me complaining.
"After spending a bit of time in therapy, I now know that my mother didn’t handle the situation well — I’m not saying it’s her fault, but she did get it wrong. I was neglected, my sister [who is less than a year older than Liz] was my mother’s confidante and there was no healthy growth in the family.”
This continued as the siblings grew up and “came to a head” a few years ago when Anna’s sister called her and “started screaming at some perceived injustice”, which she supposedly inflicted on their mother.
Ending the call, the Galway woman responded with an email asking her to “let go of her anger”. Unfortunately, this resulted in a “hate letter full of disgusting allegations” being sent to her workplace and the two women haven’t spoken since.
But although Liz hasn’t ruled out seeing her sister in the future, she has had an “absolutely awesome” two years of peace.
“As a society, we have a lot of work to do around forcing people to reconcile or forcing families to be around each other where it’s just unhealthy,” she says. “The phrase ‘blood is thicker than water’ is crazy when my only sister made me feel so bad about myself.
“Both she and my mother kept saying ‘look what we did for you’ because I went to a good college and earned good qualifications, but I earned those myself despite the fact that I lived with a mother who was unable to see or prevent bullying.
"I know she did the best she could with what she had and I make a point of contacting her, but I don’t want my sister back in my life and I wish society would give me a break about this.
“If I inserted ‘ex-boyfriend’ for the things she said and did in the past, she would have a restraining order, to say the least.
“Instead, I have a wonderful husband and I think it’s great that I walked away from all that negativity.”
*Names have been changed for anonymity.
Conor Murray, systemic psychotherapist and an accredited member of the Family Therapy Association of Ireland, says fall-outs in families can be “an incredibly disruptive, upsetting and traumatic experience”.
“They can lead to a profound sense of loss and are rarely confined to two people as they ripple across the entire family system,” he says.
“Children can lose relationships with aunts and uncles, grandparents can miss out on seeing their grandchildren grow and a previously taken-for-granted support system can be upended.
“Too often, an attempt at resolution becomes an exercise in subjugation. We passionately argue for our position until someone relents, but we shouldn’t think of arguments as something to win and lose, but rather as an opportunity to understand and learn.
“Arguments can often escalate if we approach them as a battle, so we should approach as a dialogue. Once we let go of our own desire to win arguments, we can enter into a space where we can be genuinely curious about the other position. This curiosity will help the other to feel heard.
“I accept that this is not easy to do — years of arguing in a certain way can make it difficult to change our patterns of behaviour. So I often encourage people to have ‘conversations about conversations’.
“Pick a historical argument, one that has lost its emotional power. Discuss how you dealt with this, what worked and what didn’t. Allow everyone to offer their experience of the argument and how its resolution affected them. We can learn from previous experiences in order to make future experiences that bit easier to manage.”
Andy Fitzpatrick, Relationship and Family therapist with Access Counselling, agrees and says while there will always be disagreements within families, we should try to listen to each other.
“I know that sounds easy, but unknown to ourselves, we have a lot of listening blocks, which include interrupting the speaker, monopolising conversation, rehearsing what to say, switching off, or part-listening while watching TV or scrolling social media,” he says.
“Changing the subject, wanting to be right, intimidating, judging, or even trying to fix are also listening blocks. Hearing what the other person has to say and validating how they feel about it shows we have heard them — it doesn’t mean we agree, but shows we really listened.
“So give every party the chance to say what they have to say and then repeat it back to them to let them know that you have really heard them.
“At this point, avoid letting them know your thoughts, take time to let the words sink in and allow a few hours or a few days before giving them your thoughts. And while processing the information, it helps to step into the other person’s shoes.”
Fallouts between siblings can affect the whole family and Murray says while most people prefer to stay out of arguments, sometimes they find themselves involved.
“There can be a pressure to take sides, to cast judgment on who is right and wrong,” he says. “The distress from witnessing the falling out of loved ones is further compounded by the distress of not being able to fulfil a role that you may not even consciously realise you hold.
“It is therefore important that before anyone decides to get involved, they should first reflect on why they want to do so.”