Relationship strategies (and pitfalls!) inspired by the wild couples of Game of Thrones.
There are a lot of reasons to be excited about the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones, which premieres this April on HBO. We’ll finally find out who gets to sit on the Iron Throne, and how (or if) the Night King is defeated. And of course, we’ll be tuning in for more great tips on how to have a healthy relationship.
We’re not kidding about that last part. Looking to Game of Thrones for relationship guidance might sound like watching the Star Wars movies for parenting pointers. But amid all the brutality and misogyny on the series, there are some insightful romantic lessons for guys who don’t settle their differences with a sword. Especially if they’re attracted to strong, ambitious, tough-as-dragon-glass women.
There is no shortage of women in the world like Daenerys Targaryen or Cersei Lannister or Arya Stark. Not literally, of course. They’re not hatching dragon eggs or plotting to take over kingdoms or execute their enemies. But in a metaphorical sense — women who are tough as nails and fiercely ambitious and not waiting around to be saved by some guy — they’re everywhere.
Helen Fisher, Ph.D., a biological anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, is studying what men are searching for in relationships, and her research indicates that most of them would make a long-term commitment to a woman who earns considerably more money than they do (90 percent) and is considerably more educated (86 percent). “Men want powerful and effective women,” says Fisher. “We’re moving back toward a hunter-and-gatherer–type lifestyle, where women are the economic and social equals of men.”
So the question isn’t, will you meet a Mother of Dragons or Queen of the Seven Kingdoms? Odds are, you will. But when it happens and you have a chance to make an impression, are you going to be a Jon Snow or a Littlefinger Baelish? Spoiler alert if you aren’t up to date on the latest episodes, but only one of those fellas have had any romantic success whatsoever. And it had nothing to do with his attractiveness or brute strength or the size of his battle ax. (Actually, only one of those characters is still alive, as of this writing, and the dead one met his demise specifically because he was such a dick to women.)
Here are five relationship lessons we learned from the couples of Game of Thrones, both the characters that found true love and the ones whose courtships ended with a knife to their throat.
Their first meeting was full of tension—they both have a claim to the Iron Throne—but they discovered common ground in their mutual devotion to defeating the Army of the Dead. Dany agrees to let Jon mine some dragon glass, and he gives her his allegiance. And then they had “we’re the last hope for humanity” sex. If only they’d taken one of those AncestryDNA tests first.
THE LESSON: Remembering that the weight of the world doesn’t rest solely on your shoulders and that she isn’t just a sympathetic ally but someone who can take on a lion’s share of tomorrow’s battles. “It can be challenging for most men to consistently treat women as equals,” says Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio, a family therapist and author of Making Love, Playing Power: Men, Women, and the Rewards of Intimate Justice. “We’ve been raised to see girls and women as less valuable than boys and men.”
What matters is having a shared vision of your life goals, both as a couple and individually. “I have seen violated expectations and conflicting life goals ruin relationships,” says Kale Monk, Ph.D., a professor of family science at the University of Missouri. “I’ve had clients call off their engagements because one wanted to have children and the other didn’t.” If you want your relationship to last, identify the metaphorical White Walkers in your life, and make sure you’re both on the same page regarding how you’re working together to vanquish them. This couple is modern in that each makes compromises to support the other and strengthen their union.
These twins bring out the worst in each other, and often it’s driven by lust. Think Jaime pushing a child off a tower because he catches them in the act, or the couple going for it next to the body of their dead son. Though both of them has tried breaking it off, they always find their way back into each other’s arms eventually.
THE LESSON: There’s a myriad of reasons why we’re attracted to people who are intrinsically bad for us. Lori Gottlieb, a psychotherapist and author of Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, thinks many toxic relationships are just repeating patterns we’ve seen in our parents. “It’s no coincidence that people who had angry parents often end up choosing angry partners,” she says. “Those with alcoholic parents are frequently drawn to partners who drink quite a bit.”
There’s also something appealing about a “crazy” partner. You know their behavior is dangerous and unhealthy, but you stick around anyway because dangerous is kind of sexy. But what’s not so sexy is borderline personality disorder, a condition with symptoms like explosive anger and self-destructive instincts.
“Women diagnosed with BPD may cause men to feel less challenged, more accepted, more desired, and less likely to be rejected,” says Nicole Prause, Ph.D., a sexual psychologist and founder of the Liberos Center. It also makes them “easy targets” for manipulation, she says. If that makes you uncomfortable, it should. Don’t be that guy.
Baelish, aka Littlefinger, tried (oh, how he tried!) to win Sansa’s trust, making her believe that he was the only one who truly had her back. But as it turned out, his romantic overtures were calculated and political. Also, long story short, if somebody’s mom is the only woman you’ve ever loved, and you were partly responsible for her dad’s death because you thought that making the mom a widow would somehow create a love connection, the daughter is going to find out. And her sister is going to cut you bad.
THE LESSON: This should go without saying, but let’s say it anyway. Don’t lie. Don’t tell someone you love them if you really just feel meh about them. Don’t stay in a relationship because you think it’ll advance your career. And for the love of all that’s holy, don’t pine for a married woman by dating her daughter.
“I’m a big believer that liars will always slip up,” says Jenna Birch, author of The Love Gap and CEO of the new dating app Plum. “Woman are usually attuned to their partners’ words and actions. If you lie, they will start to notice if your stories don’t add up or you distance yourself out of guilt, and they’ll start to lose trust in you.”
Nobody is a Littlefinger from the get-go. Dishonesty usually begins slowly, with little white lies, and the more lies you get away with, the more you’re likely to lie, according to a University College London study. When your deceptions are exposed, there might not be an assassin sister with a blade waiting for you, but your relationship essentially gets its throat slit.
“Once the trust is broken, all trust is broken,” says Gottlieb. “Earning it back is challenging and sometimes impossible. A significant breach of trust, even if the relationship lasts, will often taint the relationship in ways you can’t fully repair.”
In one sense, Melisandre and Stannis were a good match. She was convinced he was the one true king of Westeros, destined to become Lord of the Seven Kingdoms. It’s nice to have a partner who believes in you so unconditionally. But Melisandre also told him to burn his only daughter, Shireen, as a sacrifice, and he did it. When a partner tells you, “Your daughter from another marriage seems nice, but you should maybe burn her alive because you were meant for great things,” that may very well be the dictionary definition of an unhealthy relationship.
THE LESSON: Controlling relationships don’t always start out bad, says Sharie Stines, Psy.D., a California-based therapist who specializes in abusive relationships. “You can’t manipulate someone by starting out with negativity,” she says. It begins with a grooming stage, and the controlling behaviors happen gradually after the “hook” has kicked in. “This process basically describes Stockholm Syndrome,” Stines says. “This is a form of brainwashing and is caused by intermittent reinforcement, leaving victims confused. It’s akin to drug addiction. Addicts won’t let go of heroin either, even though it destroys their lives.”
The only way to correct a controlling relationship is by trusting yourself and setting boundaries, says Stines. “Know where you begin and end and where the other person begins and ends,” she says. “Don’t confuse your identity with theirs. Remind yourself that you are only responsible for yourself—your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, not anyone else’s.” There is a difference between couples mutually expanding each other’s worldview and emotional manipulation. “Being completely dependent on a partner, where they have all the decision-making power, makes us lose our autonomy and sense of self,” says Monk. If your partner tries to pressure you into doing something that feels wrong or scary—something that makes you uncomfortable, like, say, sacrificing your daughter to the fire god—you can say no. You should say no.
In the beginning, their relationship was a horror show: Drogo was arrogant, violent, and sexually aggressive. They eventually settled into a marriage that felt like an equal partnership, but only after Drogo started listening to Dany’s ideas, from insisting that he could lead his army across the seas and claim the Iron Throne to reminding him that sex can be way hotter when you let your partner get on top and make eye contact.
THE LESSON: Sexist jerks who think they know best may actually just be spotlighting their own insecurities, according to a 2018 study from the American Psychological Association. The less power they think they have in a relationship, the more aggressive they’ll be in making public displays of their marital dominance. So acting like a Drogo is basically announcing to the world that you feel like just another foot soldier in her army.
Women want men who can access their emotions, be empathetic, and admit fault, says Birch. “Vulnerability takes practice. It’s supposed to feel scary!” Set aside private time to connect with your partner, or be available when your partner needs to talk or seems preoccupied. Ask what’s on her mind and probe gently. And if you’re arguing, don’t try to solve her problem or judge her position. Instead, try to see the situation from your partner’s POV. “Your partner can make you stronger—practically, intellectually, emotionally, or otherwise,” says Birch. “But only if you let them.”