Multiple insiders say the chill between the couples runs deeper than many outsiders realize
When Prince Harry and Meghan Markle reunited with Prince William and Kate Middleton for back-to-back Remembrance Day events earlier this month, there was no mistaking that the space between them went far beyond protocol.
“Everyone was doing their duties, doing what they needed to do on behalf of the family—and that was that,” a source tells PEOPLE in this week’s cover story. “But there is a divide between the four of them. It’s hard for people to digest, because everyone wants them to be such a unit.”
Multiple insiders say the chill between the couples runs deeper than many outsiders realize. Today, fallout from the rift that began two years ago with Harry’s engagement to Meghan (sources say William cautioned Harry about moving too fast with the American actress) continues to ripple across the royal family, from seating to staffing to Christmas plans, as Meghan and Harry announced they would not be spending the holiday with the royal family at Sandringham.
Those close to the couple say both Meghan, 38, and Harry, 35, struggle with ongoing feelings of isolation from the rest of the family, with Harry’s friend Tom Bradby—who interviewed the couple for their emotionally candid October documentary—describing them as “bruised and vulnerable.” At the same time, William and Kate, both 37, are moving further into their future roles as King and Queen. It’s no coincidence that the division comes as Queen Elizabeth, 93, hands off many of her duties to her heir, Prince Charles, 71, with William sliding in behind him.
“William is the future King. There is going to be some competitiveness between him and Harry,” says the source. “That already puts a rock in the relationship.”
Some of the distance between William and Harry, say those in palace circles, is a normal consequence of their moving into adulthood.
“After the death of their mother, Princess Diana, in 1997, the two brothers were thrown together by the tragedy of their childhood,” says longtime royal historian Robert Lacey. “But it’s inevitable, as they grow up and develop different personalities, that synchronicity won’t apply anymore.”
Can’t get enough of PEOPLE‘s Royals coverage? Sign up for our free Royals newsletter to get the latest updates on Kate Middleton, Meghan Markle and more!
A royal source emphasizes that any change in the brothers’ relationship is merely a result of the new chapters in their lives.
“As is often the case in any family, when one of your siblings gets married, there’s always a period of readjustment,” says the source.
As they head into the holiday season, Harry and Meghan are taking a rare six-week break to regroup amid the family stress and tabloid scrutiny.
“Just on a human level, if you take everything else out of the equation, I don’t think they’re in very good shape to deal with anything right now,” says a friend. “Everyone is hoping that they will come back from this break stronger than ever, and maybe with some time out of the spotlight, they can figure out what path to take next.”
Whichever road they take, it is likely to continue to diverge from William and Kate’s.
“They’re going to have to try to figure out how to be civil, but they are on different paths now,” the source adds. “It’s just the reality of the situation.”