Like William and Harry, my brother and I drifted apart in adulthood – and making up won’t be easy
Strained relationships between adult siblings, especially brothers, are common – but they can be reconciled with effort on both sides
ByJack Rear23 February 2021 • 10:40am
everything. We’d watch the same TV shows, play the same video games and read the same books. Two years older than me, my brother was my absolute hero. Yet nowadays we don’t speak at all outside of family events.
So I have to say that I do feel a certain affinity with the fraternal difficulties faced by Princes Harry and William, whose ongoing sibling riftcontinues to make headlines. I still haven’t forgotten the time when, after a few drinks, my brother referred to the two of us as “the heir and the spare” in a fit of pique.
While it’s hard to say for certain whether there was one specific incident that caused the princes’ apparent fall-out, for my brother and I it was more of a slow fade than a dramatic bust-up. And once he moved to university, we just stopped talking.
Over the years, there may have been certain behaviours that helped drive a wedge between us. I’m certain that he’d tell you that I was babied and overindulged by our parents, while I began to resent him for what I perceived to be the supercilious attitude he adopted in response. He once snapped at me for returning to live at home after university, while he had struck out on his own; I retorted that this had allowed to work on my career while he was stuck in dead-end jobs to pay the rent. I don’t think either of us covered ourselves in glory.
The trouble with falling out as adults, as Harry, William and I have discovered, is that it can be difficult to resolve those disputes. As children, our parents would have knocked our heads together, made us thrash it out and told us to move on. As adults with our own lives, resolution is not so simple.
“Nearly every adult has a sibling problem, we just see it as a normal part of life,” says registered mental health practitioner and family counsellor Lindy Medway. “The most common cause is when a second child is born and the first one loses their right as an only child, and the attention that comes with it. Often there’s a sense of being usurped by the younger one, and that issue very much echoes into later life.
“I often hear about younger siblings being annoying or difficult or angry and people don’t know why, but obviously the older sibling is the one who is aggressive or causing problems because they’re still working through that initial sense of loss.”
In Medway’s experience, much of the bitterness between adult siblings begins when they are children. Often unconscious comparisons parents make between their children can fester into longheld indignation.
You often hear parents say ‘why can’t you be more like your sibling?’ to their children,” Medway continues. “That will create ‘the naughty one’. The one who can’t reach their siblings’ achievements becomes rebellious; they’re forever feeling that they’re not good enough and that they’re failing.
“The alternative is that the siblings might feel determined to beat each other no matter what. If you have that going on, especially if the parents are instigating that, you’re creating a real anger and resentment between the two.”
Thinking back, I see these patterns reflected in my relationship with my brother. Despite our closeness as children, there was an immense amount of sibling rivalry. We were both academic high-flyers at school and my desire to beat him was always a motivating factor in whatever I did. When he got his GCSE results, I made no secret of my desire to do even better when it was my turn. It certainly pushed us both to success and good universities, but was it at the cost of our relationship?
In the Royal family, you can see those dynamics magnified. Despite Princess Diana’s pledge to always treat her sons equally, it’s hard to imagine that, from an early age, Harry wouldn’t have been acutely aware that his brother was destined for the throne and he was not, and the differing expectations on them as a result. Likewise, I can see how William might envy Harry’s freedom to choose his own path.
Harry and William barely acknowledging each other at the 2020 Commonwealth Service was seen as a mark of their growing rift. According to Helen Spiers, head of counselling at Mable Therapy, these comparisons and resentments tend to be more common in siblings of the same gender. “Mixed-gender siblings probably have less rivalry because of the gender roles placed on them,” she suggests. “Parents are probably assigning different roles to them so they don’t feel like they’re competing and there’s space for both of them.”
But there can be other causes of fall-outs between adult siblings, too. Major life changes, such as the death or divorce of parents or important family decisions can stir up rifts. New partners can also cause siblings to re-evaluate family relationships, changing the dynamics in significant ways.
“When people are in a family, they grow up together knowing how that family operates, as we grow up and get an independent life, and potentially hitch up with someone whose family has a different way of doing things, we start to view things differently,” suggests Dee Holmes, senior practice consultant, at counselling service Relate. “And that may cause us to realise that our family’s way of doing things no longer feels right. That can be quite difficult for family members who still want to operate in the old way to understand.”
Thankfully, my brother and I are yet to face any such family drama (I found his partner perfectly charming the one time we’ve spoken, as a matter of fact) so perhaps there’s hope for us. Holmes says plenty of adult siblings do end up reconnecting over their shared childhood memories, particularly later in life.
Each of the experts I spoke to suggested the same thing. If Harry or I want to patch up our relationships with our elder brothers, the place to start is by trying to see things from their point of view.
“You’re running up against someone who has been in that same place but has a different perspective, it’s just trying to see it,” says Medway. “It’s not about agreeing, it’s just about seeing the other version and seeing where you can adjust your version of that story or that argument.
“Brothers and sisters are brilliant at knowing how to get under their siblings’ skin. If you can accept and take responsibility for the fact that you do that, then you don’t have to do that, so you don’t have to respond to your sibling’s triggers. What was an issue when you were children might not be an issue now, so can you begin to let it go?”