Prince Harry’s memoir Spare has done anything but spare the royal family from scrutiny. In the memoir—which was published Jan. 10 after days of leaks—and surrounding interviews, the Duke of Sussex has accused his brother William, Prince of Wales, of pushing him to the ground; claimed his stepmother, Queen Consort Camilla, planted negative stories about him in the press; and shared that his family left him behind when they took a plane to visit Queen Elizabeth II as she was dying. And yet Harry says that he continues to hold out hope for reconciliation with his father and brother.
The royals are rich, powerful, and lead existences that are in many ways extreme—but much of the squabbling that Harry outlines in Spare will strike readers as utterly mundane and familiar: Who among us hasn’t come into conflict with in-laws during the stressful wedding-planning process? And even more serious wounds Harry describes, like contending with a racist comment from a family member or butting heads with a new stepmother while still grieving the loss of a parent, are the sort of issues family therapists deal with all the time.
Experts say we can learn a lot from the messy fallout of the royal rift. TIME spoke with family therapists and psychologists to gather six lessons about complex family dynamics and how we can avoid drama, resolve conflict, and find happiness outside the often-stressful confines of our relationships with our parents, siblings, and in-laws.
Family members can deal with the same trauma in very different ways
The early chapters of Spare center the 1997 death of Harry and William’s mother, Princess Diana. Harry writes that he clung to the fantasy that Diana might still be alive and in hiding for years. He says now that he understands he wasn’t processing his mother’s death, admitting in an interview with Anderson Cooper that he didn’t cry for nearly 10 years after Diana’s passing. He only sought therapy in his late 20s after two years of “total chaos” in his life.
Experts say waiting so long to seek help is a mistake. “When there is trauma in the family, the trauma needs to be dealt with professionally and quickly,” says Nona Kelly, a licensed marriage and family therapist with the online therapy group Thriveworks. “The longer the time is between the event occurring and getting help, the messier the relationships will be, and the longer it will take to heal.”
In adulthood, Harry has spoken frequently about the importance of therapy in his life and has become much more open about sharing his emotions. That strikes quite the contrast with the rest of the royal family, who largely stick to their famous edict, “Never complain, never explain.” Kelly says that contrast in attitudes is typical of non-royal families as well. “It’s rare that two people experience the same trauma in the same way,” she says. Harry writes extensively in Spare about how, while he shared many traumatic incidents with his family, from his mother’s death to being hunted by the paparazzi, he struggled to get them to talk openly about the personal and emotional damage it was causing them. “Harry is going, ‘Can’t we just talk about the hurt here?’” Kelly says.
The key to navigating those differences, experts say, is open communication.
Dysfunctional families normalize bad behavior with silence
One of Harry’s major issues with his family, as articulated in Spare, has been their unwillingness to engage in conversation on certain issues, including the British tabloids’ racist treatment of his wife, Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, which has led to online abuse and death threats. When Meghan and Harry were suffering—Meghan has said she even contemplated suicide—the royal family’s response, according to Harry, was to urge them to maintain a stiff upper lip. Eventually, Harry decided to move his family out of England for their safety and well-being.
While teaching one’s children to never explain their feelings may be an extreme stance, Emily Maynard, a licensed marriage and family therapist in California, says that normalizing bad behavior by ignoring it is common—not only in organizations and businesses, but also within families.
“Families use silence to perpetuate dysfunction,” she says. “Like, ‘We don’t talk about that uncle’s racism. We just need to leave him alone.’ Or, ‘Don’t bring your partner to visit grandma and you won’t get the homophobic comment.’ Those things are common, but that doesn’t mean they’re not abuses of power.”
Experts say that broaching taboo topics, and thus changing family dynamics in the process, can be incredibly difficult. According to a popular theory, families reach what’s called “family homeostasis” to establish stability: the household has rules, each member plays a specific role, and everyone knows what to expect. “A family wants to revert to its normal patterns,” says Maynard. “And that force of homeostasis is extremely powerful in trying to force family members back into their roles or behaviors.”
The person who speaks out against the status quo can help the family grow and heal—but they may attract the ire of their relatives. “If you’re the first person in the family to say, ‘This way of being with each other is dangerous to me,’ you’ll get a lot of pushback,” says Maynard. “You’ll be told you’re the problem or you have to suck it up.”
Marriage can challenge the family homeostasis
A reevaluation of family dynamics often occurs as children grow up and get married. Ushering a new partner into the family always disrupts the established order to some extent. Much of the press surrounding Harry’s departure from the royal family has perpetuated a narrative that Meghan ‘stole Harry away.’ Meghan herself addressed this sexist criticism in the Netflix docuseries Harry & Meghan. “Oftentimes, when a guy falls in love with a girl, his buddies are like, ‘Oh my God, he changed. I don’t see him anymore. He’s always with her.’ You blame the girl,” she said. “He wouldn’t have ever been attracted to or interested in me if he hadn’t already been on his own path.” Experts say any new partner of Harry’s would likely have exposed problems that already existed in the family.
“It puts pressure on the areas of our life and it’ll show weaker spaces, the cracks that we need to strengthen,” says Kelly. “When Harry married an American actress, it disrupted the homeostasis. It showed dysfunction.”
The fallout of clashes with a new spouse can be constructive or destructive. “Breaking from homeostasis creates chaos in the family,” she adds, “which sometimes leads to a healthier reconstruction of family dynamics.”
Healthy families can evolve, establishing new rules and roles, with hard work. But Kelly says it’s important to set realistic expectations. Some people simply may not want to change. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘What do we know about that person and the amount of work they’ve done previously, in a relationship or otherwise?”
Telling one’s truth publicly can be healing—and put family on the defensive
Though most of us will not find ourselves airing our grievances in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, we do frequently share our problems with third parties. “The English royal family has media leaks, and we have gossip,” Kelly says. “We go to our sister and share something intimate about our partner. We think it’s safe with her… and then that sister accidentally-on-purpose brings it up to our mother. It’s not done maliciously, but it creates an atmosphere of distrust.”
Many a critic has wondered how Prince Harry can at once share secrets about his brother and hope to reconcile with him. And, indeed, publicizing private drama can backfire when it comes to resolving the issues within the family. “A lot of times, [families] get a lot more upset by the people who talk than the actual abuses they’re talking about,” Maynard says.
For regular people, social media can be a tempting—and damaging—tool for broadcasting problems to others. “I work with people to figure out: what’s the goal of telling the truth?” says Maynard. “It’s probably not going to be reconciliation, because people don’t usually read a Facebook post of grievances and think, ‘Oh, yeah, I can check myself and really apologize.’ Usually that’s an escalation.”
She adds that while a social media post can cause further damage to the relationship at its center, it can sometimes be helpful for the person who writes it: “For some people saying, ‘This is what happened to me, and I’m not going to be silent about it anymore,’ that can be very healing.”
Resolution does not have to come in the form of an apology
Expectations for apologies, experts say, have to be realistic. Differences in age, background, and life experiences can leave both parties intransigent on issues like race, sexuality, and politics. Meghan said in Harry & Meghan that as a biracial American, her childhood experiences looked little like those of Harry, the ultimate privileged, white British man. Because of their families’ respective worldviews, the couple may never receive the kind of acknowledgement from the royals that they’re looking for. Whether they can reach a place of feeling resolved depends on what Harry hopes to get out of this press tour.
“If you expect your family to take all the blame, that may not be realistic,” says Sue Varma, a psychiatrist in New York. “Maybe they’ll never live up to your expectations. Because if they are saying, ‘I want you to pay for my security, I want you to treat me the same as other family members,’ Harry may not get that.” It may benefit Harry to let go of the idea of being welcomed back into the fold: “When you want to be accepted for being different, it’s exhausting because you’re always monitoring their behavior and realizing, oh, there’s that disrespect again,” Varma says.
Therapists say that if clients want to speak out publicly about family toxicity, they need to be ready to search for a resolution elsewhere. “Usually people want validation—they just want their side of the story to be heard,” says Maynard. “And I say, ‘Great, how can we get you validation without it coming from this one person who probably is never going to agree with your side of the story?’”
Healing means working on yourself
The next stage of healing after speaking out is finding a way to personal happiness, regardless of the response, according to experts. “There’s going to be a time in your life, eventually, where you will not need to talk about their drama because you’ll be focused on other things,” says Maynard.
In Harry and Meghan’s case, that may mean firmly establishing their roles outside of the royal family instead of in relation to them. For non-royal, regular people, healing could consist of focusing on friends, work, or hobbies. It could mean building relationships outside our families of origin that fulfill us.
That’s not to say that any one person—including Harry—should give up on reconciliation entirely. “I have seen miracles happen, so I do believe in the power of family therapy to really change the course,” says Varma. “But people have to have willingness and mutual trust, and you have to play by the rules you create. No more Netflix specials.”
If you or someone you know may be contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. In emergencies, call 911, or seek care from a local hospital or mental health provider.
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