The departure of Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, from full-time Royal duties is a perfect illustration of the difficulties that can befall any family, however prosperous and happy they may otherwise be.

In his novel Anna Karenina, Tolstoy wrote that ‘All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’.  That’s not necessarily true – one can, at least, identify the broad causes which are common to most family disharmony.

First, there is the theory put forward by the French novelist, Dumas – ‘Cherchez la femme’ (find the woman).  This doesn’t always literally mean that a woman is the cause of the problem.  Rather, it makes the wider point that the introduction of a new person changes the dynamic within any family.  Marriages (particularly second marriages) are the clearest example of this.  In some cases, the change results in relationships which were happy becoming more troubled.

An obvious time for many rifts to arise is on the loss of a patriarch or matriarch who has been ‘keeping the show on the road’.  Many families have one key figure who, either because they are universally loved, or by strength of personality, is a unifying force.  Their death often exposes disagreements or antipathy which weren’t apparent during their lifetime – or perhaps they were, but no-one acknowledged them.

A third main cause is unfairness, which has many faces and can grow for decades.  An intuitive lawyer I know describes this as ‘the shiny red bicycle’ – something that one family member has benefited from (perhaps long ago) which another has not.  A child may feel (rightly or not) that he/she is less loved, or has been treated less favourably, than others.  A family member may have taken advantage of a situation, or ‘lined their own pockets’, in a way that is unfair to others. 

It’s one thing to identify the ways in which relationships can sour, but what’s the answer?  One key to minimising the risk of difficulties, for wealthy families, is to have a family agreement.  There are lots of names for this – people often talk about a family constitution, or family governance.  Let’s just call it a plan. By encouraging family members to talk about their aspirations, needs and wishes, you can have a plan which defines what roles everyone will have within (or outside) the family business, or their share of family assets.  Avoiding surprises, or a vacuum, is one important way to maintain harmony.

Mediation can also be a useful tool – notably for resolving disputes if they arise, but also for helping everyone to recognise and move past any budding problems.  If you can identify the signs at an earlier stage, when things are beginning to grate, or there are the beginnings of unhappiness, you can use mediation to help everyone speak freely and agree a way forward.

A reluctance to face our own fear of disharmony can mean we never talk about the future, but that can lead to dramatic rifts. It’s better to talk than buy a one-way ticket to Canada.

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Arabella Murphy