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Prince Harry and Prince William: How do spouses affect sibling relationships?

Loyalties shift and the family dynamics become more complicated as siblings marry, therapists say.
Image: The Royal Family Attend Church On Christmas Day
The "Fab Four" -- Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex -- are seen in happier times on Christmas 2018 in King's Lynn, England.Stephen Pond / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Prince Harry’s decision to "step back" from his royal duties after months of rumored tensions with his older brother Prince William seemed impossible just a few years ago.

The two siblings always appeared very close, bonded by the grief for their late mother Princess Diana, their unique roles as British royals and the pressures of public life.

Then came the wives.

It all seemed wonderful and glamorous at first, with the two couples dubbed the “Fab Four.” But Prince Harry recently acknowledged he and William were “on different paths” and there have been reports of an alleged rift between the brothers’ respective spouses, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge.

If accurate, the tense scenario may sound familiar to many families. Sibling relationships can change when spouses enter the picture, therapists say.

Loyalties shift and the dynamics become more complicated as siblings marry, said William Doherty, professor of family social science at University of Minnesota and director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project.

“A one-to-one relationship is the simplest relationship there is. When you go to two pairs, you’ve compounded the level of complexity,” Doherty told TODAY.

“If one of those relationships goes sour, it can affect everybody else. It’s so easy to happen.”

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When one sibling feels left out, for example, the resentment can be displaced onto the new in-law: “It’s easier to blame the new spouse,” he said. That kernel of dislike and bitterness can have a lasting effect.

Karen Gail Lewis, a therapist based in Silver Spring, Maryland, who specializes in adult sibling therapy, said she gets several calls a month from people who want to reconcile with a brother or sister they haven’t talked with for years.

Many of the conflicts start when they get married, though there’s often an underlying reason why the siblings allow themselves to drift apart, she noted. But a spouse can destabilize even a strong sibling relationship, Lewis added.

“When you’re just getting married, your focus changes to your new life stage,” she said. “The problems come if the incoming wife and any part of the family don’t get along — the brother groom is going to be torn about where his loyalty is.”

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In Lewis’ experience, sisters tend to be more focused on maintaining a good relationship than brothers. At the same time, women often have more trouble entering the family than men, sometimes encountering hostility from the other siblings’ wives, she has found.

Such bad blood between the respective spouses can lead to tension between the siblings themselves, Doherty said. Some engage in competition — "My wife is smarter/more supportive/better looking than yours."

Others start badmouthing each other to their respective spouses, which is very common and particularly “horrible,” Lewis noted.

“The wives now don’t like each other because they’re hearing, ‘My brother did this, my brother did that’ and they're very protective of their husbands, so they go after the other female,” she said.

“If you’ve got bad things to say about your sibling and if you want a good relationship, deal with your sibling.”

How adult siblings can maintain a good relationship:

  • Both therapists advised scheduling regular one-on-one time that the brothers and sisters can spend together without their spouses. “Don’t let the one-on-one relationship melt into a foursome,” Doherty cautioned. Somebody will feel left out and that’s how distance and resentment grows.
  • Siblings shouldn’t let bad blood between their respective spouses keep them from enjoying each other’s company. Lewis suggested saying: “Our relationship is really important and I don’t want to lose it. Let’s spend time together, you and I, even if our spouses don’t like each other.”
  • The respective spouses should be very careful about criticizing their brother- or sister-in-law. Don’t go farther than your spouse does in being critical of his or her sibling, Doherty advised.
  • If the siblings sense conflict between their respective spouses, they should intervene. Lewis suggested saying, “We need to find a way for the four of us to get along better. Can we all sit down and talk about how to make it happen or what the problems are?”
  • To start the reconciliation process with an estranged sibling, Lewis suggested a phone call or letter simply saying, “I miss you. Can we talk about what happened that caused us to grow apart? I know my version and I want to hear your version.” This approach allows the sibling to feel heard. If there’s no response, try again in a month.

The sibling bond is the longest relationship most people will ever have and Lewis finds many re-focus on it later in life.

“If they were close in childhood, they will be close in old age,” she said.