Family feuds—we all have them. Yet few (if any) prove so public as the one the British Royal Family is having right now, following Prince Harry's interviews leveling accusations aplenty at his family. But if you're wondering how to resolve a family feud, there are solutions that can help.
Ever since he and wife Meghan Markle announced in January 2020 (opens in new tab) that they would be stepping down as ‘senior’ royals, a whirlwind of family drama and revelations have followed, including the revealing Harry & Meghan Netflix documentary, and most recently the claims of sibling strife made in Prince Harry’s leaked memoir, Spare—in which he outlines a violent altercation with his elder brother and heir to the throne, Prince William. And in the Prince Harry and Meghan Markle relationship timeline, this tension hasn't been reserved to Harry’s side: Meghan’s estrangement from her father, Thomas Markle, has also been put under the spotlight.
While it’s unlikely the fistfight between you and your sibling would receive the same media coverage (plus an Oprah interview like Harry and Meghan), what’s most striking about these royal stories is their relatability. A recent survey (opens in new tab) found one in four Americans is estranged from a close family member, while last month UK-based relationships charity Relate (opens in new tab) found 51% of families anticipated arguments over the festive season.
Perhaps you’ve seen your own family dynamics playing out amid the recent coverage—the rows over a new partner, the age-old childhood conflict—and see it as a cautionary tale. With that in mind, we’ve spoken to Dr Marianne Trent, Clinical Psychologist (opens in new tab), and creator of The Feel Better Academy (opens in new tab) about how best to navigate an argument with your family; in order to not only resolve conflict but also to pave a better relationship going forward.
When do family feuds typically occur?
Dr Marianne argues that if you're wondering how to resolve a family feud, it's worth noting that they can feel ‘exquisitely painful’ compared to other types of arguments with friends or acquaintances because we struggle to let go of the ‘total non-judgmental acceptance’ we hope these relationships will provide.
So what makes us argue in the first place? One of the most common risk factors is ‘times of change’, for instance ‘when an individual leaves home and when a new partner becomes a regular part of their life’, Dr. Marianne says. This leads to ‘opinions being shared’ based on family context or history, which is a likely cause of conflict.
On the other hand, while the Meghan and Harry drama has gone cross-continental, often arguments can arise from being in close proximity; for instance times ‘when families get together’, like weddings or Christmas time (those who moved in with their families during lockdown, or who may have recently moved back in due to the cost-of-living crisis, may well relate).
What makes family feuds different from other arguments?
Spiritual teacher Ram Dass once said, ‘If you think you are enlightened, go and spend a week with your family’.
This more or less summarises the childish dynamic we sometimes find ourselves adopting around family members. "It’s said that when we step into our childhood home or are around our birth family that we feel ourselves click back into the roles we’ve grown up with," explains Marianne.
"When we feel threatened, we are more likely to revert to our earliest known coping mechanisms which may have involved asserting yourself, hiding away or shouting." So if you get fired up by an argument with your brother and sometimes forget your go-to adult coping strategies (like taking deep breaths), then this is why.
What steps can you take to avoid things escalating?
Firstly, avoid alcohol, as this "will not help", says Marianne. If you’ve been meaning to go sober-curious, a potentially tension-filled family gathering or holiday is the ultimate time to try it.
Secondly, make sure you get enough sleep. "Being well rested helps us have a longer fuse by giving us a broader window of tolerance", Dr. Marianne told us.
How do you stay grounded and maintain perspective during the conflict?
"When discussing any conflict situation, stay as mindfully present as possible," advises Marianne. This means avoiding "harking back to previous arguments or defending yourself by using evidence of what the other person has done before" which may be an example of "unhealed trauma creeping into the present".
Keep a ‘reflective journal’ and do meditative practices (10 minutes via an app can work wonders), in order to stay aware of your own feelings around the topic, as well as considering others. Dr. Marianne says: "This can broaden perspective and lead to an increased window of tolerance with less need to slip into coping strategies such as fight, flight or freeze." Whatever you do, stay on-topic—and avoid insults or references to vulnerable topics. "Low and dirty blows are never advisable and are likely to lead to additional unhealed trauma in the future."
How to know when professional help is needed
We are living at a time when therapy is becoming increasingly normalized, with one in eight UK adults receiving mental health support. But how do we know when intervention, like therapy or counseling is required in our family conflict?
"If you feel that conversations are stuck, stagnant or just going around in a vicious circle this might be a sign that professional help is warranted," suggests Marianne. While this may be difficult when there is an intergenerational divide in attitudes toward professional support, it’s worth explaining this is intended as a positive intervention rather than a sign of crisis. "Families often have more productive conversations with external facilitators. Talking really does help and it’s important to remember that relationships are supposed to be enriching not depleting," she said.
But what if you’re the mediator, rather than directly involved, and struggling with the conflict?
Many of us end up being the ‘bystander’ in family situations, where we’re not directly but feel dragged in by implications—for instance, if our sibling has fallen out with our parents. While we might feel an imperative to get involved, we can also give ourselves permission not to. It might prove helpful to remind yourself that "sometimes removing yourself from the situation can decompress it too", suggests Marianne. The only exception is if you are concerned about a family member’s safety. "Reserve the right to call the emergency services to safeguard and intervene if warranted".
Should you ever ‘cut out’ family members?
While few would choose to be estranged from a family member, in some cases it might be the only choice if conversations and/or professional help have proved unproductive. "If you are not being treated in a way which makes you feel valid, important and respected, and especially if you are being gaslit or otherwise abused by family then it can be liberating to set boundaries," says Marianne.
Remember, this needn’t be permanent either. "Ultimately, these boundaries might involve limiting or stopping contact with all or certain members for a short period of time, or maybe even cutting them out of your life permanently," Dr. Marianne says.
Family arguments are upsetting—but, comfortingly, there is often a bright side once they are resolved. Dr. Marianne explains: "Conflict isn’t always permanent and might lead to resolution, which means relationships work better, are more on your terms and/or meet everyone’s needs not just those belonging to one person."
Francesca Specter is a freelance journalist and the author of Alonement: How to be alone and absolutely own it. Based in north London, she's previously worked for Yahoo Lifestyle, Express.co.uk and Healthy magazine, and has written for the Telegraph, Red and Huffington Post.
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