What Game of Thrones can teach us about healthy romantic relationships

Over its eight seasons, Game of Thrones demonstrated some of the most screwed up inter-personal relationships ever shown on screen. But there were some bright spots, says relationship expert Holly Dixon.

Contains Game of Thrones spoilers up to and including season 8 episode 5, ‘The Bells’.

In many ways, Game of Thrones is a meditation on the costs of power as a political leader. Indeed, it seems that the show is highlighting that power can turn seemingly moral humans into monsters. But while the show focuses primarily on the costs of power in the political arena, it also highlights how power shapes interactions within romantic relationships.

When two people are in a romantic relationship, different characteristics that each partner holds (knowledge, attractiveness, trustworthiness, armies, dragons) shape the kind of power they hold, and how they wield it. As you might imagine, power imbalances and the way that we use our power in relationships can have considerable personal and relationship costs – for example, reduced relationship satisfaction and trust, being burnt to cinders. So, as you might imagine, how couples navigate power differentials in their relationship is pretty important.

Dany and Jon

Dany and Jon very clearly demonstrate how power diferentials can impact relationships. Their first meeting was a show of power on both sides: Daenerys wanted Jon to bend the knee; Jon dismissed that as a possibility, citing his ordainment as King in the North. Jon and Dany both seemed to have characteristics that provided them a large and equal degree of power. However, once Jon bent the knee, not only did he give up political sovereignty, he also relinquished a degree of power within their romantic relationship (which, interestingly, only got going once he bent the knee).

The resulting power differential gave Dany more leverage to influence Jon’s decisions at a political and relational level (which, granted, are very difficult to separate). For example, Dany’s response to Jon revealing his true parentage was strikingly invalidating, as she second guesses the strength of evidence presented by Bran and Samwell. Further, Dany requests that Jon keep silent about his true identity and says “I want it to be the way it was between us”, but is that really the reason for her request, or does Dany ask Jon to keep silent to ensure that she isn’t stripped of her claim to the throne? While the situation is complex, we could consider Dany’s behaviour a manipulative attempt undermine Jon’s autonomy at both a political and relational level. Indeed, Dany seems to be saying ‘pick me or pick your family’, and threatening the end of their romantic relationship if he picks the later.

As Dany and Jon’s relationship moves on (mostly for worse) in the most recent episode, ‘The Bells’, we see Jon turn away from a burning Varys and look at Dany, as if questioning the justness of her disciplinary actions. However, Jon doesn’t question Dany. It’s as if Jon has acquiesced in order to avoid conflict and further coercive attempts, to please Dany, and to maintain/repair their relationship. While some argue that Jon is partially to blame for what happened at King’s Landing because he told Sansa and Arya his true parentage, it seems that his dissociation from his own power and moral compass is also a contributing factor.

Cersei and Euron

Game of Thrones is full of coercive attempts to influence romantic partners. Cersei is a prime example. Not only does she exercise an ability to change another person’s thoughts and behaviours to bring them more in line with her own, she also has a large capacity to resist others’ attempts to influence her. When Cersei invites the Greyjoy fleet to King’s Landing, she doesn’t accept Euron’s proposal to exchange sexual relations in return for his fleet’s allegiance. Nor does she satisfy his desires when he brings her proof of his fealty. Indeed, it seems Cersei understands she has more power than him, and uses this to delay reward and ensure loyalty. However, when Jamie leaves for the North, Cersei’s power decreases, leaving her with less ability to defer Euron’s desire for reward. Despite claiming that a Queen must be ‘earned rather than bought’, when Euron attempts to make Cersei feel guilty for depriving him of reward, she weakens and allows him into her bed.

Jon and Ygritte

Disparities of power can have tremendous costs in relationships, yet trying to influence your partner can sometimes be beneficial. However, this depends on how it is done and for what purpose. Take Jon and Ygritte. Ygritte’s tagline: “you know nothing, Jon Snow” symbolises her attempts to challenge Jon’s beliefs about the Free Folk north of The Wall. While the phrase is ostensibly critical, the way Ygritte says it is softened by her charm and playfulness. Over time, these direct yet well-meaning persuasion attempts help Jon to recognise the humanity of the Free Folk, which is eventually what leads him to broker an alliance with Tormund, saving the Free Folk from the coming winter.

Samwell and Gilly

Ahh, Sam and Gilly. Sometimes it seems like they’re the only thing on the show that’s safe from political power and corruption. Their relationship seems the most wholesome: at times they’re romantic, at other times they bicker like an old married couple. And, just like most couples, they have different levels of power in different areas of their life. For instance, at the beginning of their relationship Sam has intellectual intelligence, while Gilly can’t read. Power differentials such as these, which give one person more power than the other, can lead individuals to manipulate, coerce, or suppress their partner for their own gain (as we have seen in some other examples above). Gilly and Sam, however, only influence each other in a way that is judicious and appropriate. For instance, rather than attempting to gain control over Gilly with his superior knowledge, Sam instead supports Gilly to develop her own skills, thus helping to ensure their relationship remains stable and happy.

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Two people in a relationship are more often than not going to have different resources, knowledge, armies, supporters, and personality characteristics that shape how and how much power they wield within a romantic relationship. Game of Thrones has plentiful examples of characters attempting to influence their partner in ways that are coercive – but if we pay close attention, there are instances characters positively influencing a partner too. Not only can Game of Thrones offer us insight into the perils of political power, it also demonstrates the costs and benefits of using power and influence in more intimate settings.

More from Holly Dixon and romantic relationships on TV:

A relationship expert on Married at First Sight’s c-bomb (not that one)


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