Harry left with ‘bruises’ after William’s alleged assault: How to deal with severe sibling conflict

Psychology experts explain why sibling relationships can be so challenging. By Katie Wright.

Katie Wright
Friday 06 January 2023 13:22 GMT
Prince Harry alleges he was attacked by brother William in 2019 (Yui Mok/PA)
Prince Harry alleges he was attacked by brother William in 2019 (Yui Mok/PA) (PA Wire)

In excerpts obtained ahead of the publication of the Duke of Sussex’s memoir, the royal alleges he was injured during a physical altercation with his brother, the Prince of Wales.

“(William) called me another name, then came at me. It all happened so fast. So very fast. He grabbed me by the collar, ripping my necklace, and he knocked me to the floor,” writes Harry in Spare, which accidentally went on sale in Spain before the official publication date of January 10.

“I landed on the dog’s bowl, which cracked under my back, the pieces cutting into me. I lay there for a moment, dazed, then got to my feet and told him to get out.”

The 38-year-old says he was left with “scrapes and bruises” after the alleged confrontation regarding his wife, the Duchess of Sussex, which he says took place in 2019.

While every sibling relationship is different, experts suggest this kind of conflict is not uncommon.

“Historically, family should be a safe space for us to express different emotions and feel safer expressing those emotions that we might do in the wider world,” says Anna Mathur, psychotherapist, author and host of The Therapy Edit podcast (annamathur.com/podcast).

History and hostility

From children squabbling to blazing rows in adulthood, brothers and sisters can lash out in a way they wouldn’t with a friend, spouse or another family member – especially if conflicts have rumbled on for years.

“Those grudges can build up different resentments and anger – it all builds up, and then it can come to a head,” Mathur explains. “The problem with the metaphorical ‘sweeping it under the rug’ is the rug gets really lumpy, and we end up tripping over it.”

This can be compounded if there’s a history of hostility within the family, suggests Dr Audrey Tang, chartered psychologist and author of The Leader’s Guide To Mindfulness (draudreyt.com/books). “We model what we see. If our parents were not able to healthily address their issues, we may also use unhealthy strategies,” she says.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t repair a fractured sibling relationship – even if it’s gone as far as a physical fight.

Starting the conversation

If you want to restore harmony with your sibling, the first step is opening the communication lines and arranging a civil conversation about the issues at hand.

“You might be able to open a negotiation and ask, ‘So, how can we resolve this?'” says Tang. “Rather than accusing someone, making them think about their actions can be a great way to open a dialogue and deepen understanding of each other – then it is often easier to collaborate.”

Try to focus on how the other person’s actions made you feel, rather than making it a personal attack on their character, she advises. “It is very important to make sure such conversations occur at a time when you are both calm, so they don’t feel like an ambush,” Tang adds.

If one-on-one interactions tend to become heated, you might want to have a third party present.

“Often you need someone there to mediate that conversation, to enable both people to have their say,” says Mathur, but it’s also important to recognise you might never see eye to eye on certain points.

“It might just be that there’s an agreement as to how you behave in a family setting – will we just be civil to each other? Will we actually just not acknowledge each other?”

Depending on the dynamic, a parent could help – but only if they can be truly impartial.

“It is essential to remember a parent might have an unconscious bias, which may mean it’s just not appropriate for them to try,” says Tang. “Perhaps you might pay for a mediator if things have gotten that bad.”

Taking time apart

On the other hand, if relations have soured severely, cutting contact for a while might help.

“Sometimes there does need to be time apart to reflect – as long as that time apart is productive on both parts,” says Mathur.

Just because a sibling asks for space, that doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed, she says. “We have to respect that. It can be deeply upsetting and painful when you want to reconnect and the other person doesn’t.”

Knowing when to walk away

“If you have tried to solve the issues and it simply isn’t happening or you find that the situation is too toxic for [you or] your children, then it may be time to ‘lock out’ the relationship,” says Tang.

Mathur agrees that in some situations it’s best to walk away, for instance “when it’s more harmful to stay in that relationship”, or there’s “really destructive behaviour that the other person hasn’t taken responsibility for”.

Much like ending a romantic break-up, it’s best to set out the reasons why you’re calling time on the relationship – for now.

“Ideally, you would talk about your boundaries,” Mathur advises. “For example, ‘The reason this relationship cannot exist is because you aren’t able to respect this’, or ‘This is the dynamic that’s been continuing, and we can’t break it despite the fact that I want to’.”

If you feel comfortable doing so, you can float the possibility of reconciliation in future if circumstances change.

“You’re not saying ‘never’,” Mathur adds. “It might be if that person then goes on to to seek support, to find ways to break [toxic habits], then perhaps that relationship can exist in the future within those boundaries.”

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