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Game of Thrones in Family Therapy


Game of Thrones makes me happy I’m not that close with my family.

– Anonymous (for obvious reasons)


Winter is here, Game of Thrones fans, and with that stress the great families of Westeros face change and face each other. With the intrigue, incest, murder and betrayal—and also the honor, loyalty sacrifice and hope—present in the families of Westeros which family is really the most unbalanced?

The Circumplex Model of Family Systems, created by David H. Olson, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota has been used in family therapy for nearly twenty years as a way to map out how families navigate change and how it leaves them balanced or unbalanced.

House Lannister, Targeryan, Stark and Greyjoy have been plotted on the Circumplex model below. It “focuses on the three central dimensions of marital and family systems: cohesion, flexibility and communication,” Dr. Olson said, clarifying that “Although there is no absolute best level for any relationship, many will have problems if they function at either extreme of the Model…for too long.”


The graphic above shows the model in all its colorful glory with examples of the qualities of each dimension; Flexibility descriptions to the right, Cohesion descriptions across the bottom. Healthier, balanced family systems are in the purple center, moderately unbalanced in the blue ring and unbalanced systems are in the orange corners. Think of the rankings of cohesion and flexibility like a thermometer. If we put a thermometer in a child’s mouth and its high, they have a fever, if its zero, we have a different but equally bad problem.

Olsen uses the word “cohesion” to map out how close the family relationship is. The four levels of cohesion are disengaged (the zero) separated, connected then enmeshed (the fever). In healthily cohesive family systems “family members are able to…be both independent from and connected to their families” without straining them. “While time apart is more important, there is some time together, some joint decision making and…support. A connected relationship has emotional closeness and loyalty to the relationship” (Olsen, 1999). Disengaged families have little or no relationship and enmeshed families are over-connected with mixed-up roles and personal boundaries.

“Family flexibility is the amount of change in its leadership, role relationships and relationship rules. Basically, flexibility focuses on the change in a family’s leadership, roles and rules” and how well they can shift as change demands (Olsen, 1999). The levels are rigid (zero), structured, flexible then chaotic (fever).


House Stark: Structurally Separated


When the snows fall, and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.

– Sansa Stark


While this season is a bit different since most of Ned Stark’s surviving children are again gathered in Winterfell, through the majority of the show we see them in different regions with different methods and goals, while still retaining their Stark-hood, desiring to reunite and following their family values.

That doesn’t mean they are without flaws “I’d say that depression runs in the Stark family,” said Colleen Jordan, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, after the end of Season Six. “Sansa is clearly depressed, she has a depressed affect. Catelyn had that too, at times. And Jon Snow — he’s experienced a lot of loss, which is a trigger for depression” (Rosenfield, 2015).

This potential family trait could inform why—though balanced—the Stark family tends toward structure and separateness. Their leadership will flexibly change when needed, though not the honorability of that leadership, and as we see this season, they are cohesive even when threatened from within.

House Lannister: Rigidly Enmeshed


The more people you love, the weaker you are.

– Cersei Lannister


Do we even need to talk about it? We all know they’re not a well family. Sure, let’s talk about it. They are enmeshed in their cohesion which can tend a family toward ultra-high levels of loyalty—like Cersei and Joffery, or toward relationships like Jamie and Cersei.

“Cersei demonstrates borderline traits,” Jordan said. “You can see it most clearly in her relationship with Jaime. It’s ‘I hate you, don’t leave me,’ this push-pull back and forth. He comes from a family of narcissists. Jaime is really the least ill. He has some empathy. But he also has narcissistic traits…and the borderline’s fear and focus on abandonment actually feeds the narcissist” (2015).

Along with Jamie and Cersei all the family relationships tend toward over-closeness, knowing many intimate details and being complicit in the dark secrets of each other’s lives.

Jordan noted that Cersei’s obsession with her children is a borderline trait, and with the loss of those children and ascension to queenhood she rules the house just as rigidly as her father did; strict, authoritarian and deadly. She has shown this season that her leadership will not be questioned by other family members, or they will receive the highest punishment an enmeshed system can meter out (no spoilers!).

House Greyjoy: Chaotically Disengaged


It’s better to be cruel than weak.

– Theon Greyjoy


What would Jordan make of Theon this season, when she had earlier said “He’s essentially become a different person – Reek and Theon Greyjoy are not the same man” and assessed him as having psychotic and schizophrenic traits? Has he come back to himself or just delved deeper?

Regardless, just as the Lannisters demonstrate one unbalanced extreme toward inflexibility of leadership and enmeshment, the Greyjoys show the opposite; dramatic role shifts, lack of leadership and too much change. Further, every Greyjoy may say “I am a Greyjoy!” but they all seem in it only for themselves—Uncle Euron is really just the recent worst. Theon might have the most loyalty of them all and that could simply be the Stark in him.



House Targaryen: Flexibly Connected


This place was the beginning of the end to my family.

– Daenerys Tagarayen


Yes, yes, though Dr. Olsen says that there is no “best” ranking in the model, once again the Mother of Dragons comes out on what could be seen as the top. But it’s not all bright and shiny, as the quote above illustrates; her biological family tore itself apart. The family she has now is one she brought together, or quite literally raised from the ashes. “She’s undergone the biggest arc in terms of character transformation, but…she really isn’t mentally ill” Jordan said. “She does have a blind spot caused by her power — invading cities, pressing freedom on people who don’t necessarily want to be free,” which could also be a manifestation of her reaction to her imprisonment.

As a leader “she’s a figurehead,” Jordan said, “but she’s also necessarily in charge of everybody. She’s not narcissistic. She’s very empathic” (2015). As we’ve seen from the many shots of her around the table with her internal counsel, she listens to other opinions and follows their lead which is the mark of a flexible family structure. They are also the most balanced in terms of cohesion and, despite being made up of former slaves, eunuchs, outcasts and disgraced knights, they are the house that speaks most of love in a healthy familial way.

Hope for the Houses


You cannot build a better world on your own.

– Tyrion Lannister


Is there any hope for the unbalanced families of Westeros? Or—if you have begun, naturally, to try and plot your own family on the Circumplex Model—is there any hope for us?

Of course, but as Tyrion said above, it’s not a solo project. “Communication is the third dimension in the Circumplex Model,” Dr. Olsen said, “Communication is considered critical for facilitating movement on the other two dimensions,” (1999). Communication isn’t listed on the chart because it’s the energy, it’s the fuel to move families like the Greyjoys and Lannisters closer to balanced functioning. Talking is power. Tyrion knows that best of all, but the power of communication charged the plot of the Stark sisters this season as well.

Dr. Olsen (1999) and countless counselors advise “focusing on the family as a group with regard to their listening skills, speaking skills, self-disclosure, clarity…and respect and regard. In terms of listening skills, the focus is on empathy and attentive listening.” Since a balanced family system is one that can flex to meet the needs of its members as they or the whole family face change, then talking about, processing and planning for that change is key.

Just like we take our car to a mechanic, if we’re serious about changing our family system, it is best to seek out a professional. We are part of the engine, we are inside the family system, so we can’t see if we are one of the bits that need a tune up. This article was for enjoyment and edification on a clinical model, not to foster family change. It’s profoundly good if the model made you aware that your “family engine” is running rough; now call the mechanic.

For years Ned Stark told his family winter was coming—the family creed. He told others to the point that it was thrown back at him in mockery. His family listened and have met the change. Daenerys and her advisors listened eventually and met the change. As the season ended it may be clear that House Lannister and Greyjoy have less balanced paths, but the conversation will continue.

Because winter is here. And all families change.




Olson, D. (1999) Empirical Approaches to Family Assessment. Journal of Family Therapy. Retrieved from: http://eruralfamilies.uwagec.org/ERFLibrary/Readings/CircumplexModelOfMaritalAndFamilySystems.pdf

Rosenfield, Kat (2015) A Therapist Explains Why Everyone on Game of Thrones Has serious Issues. MTV.com. Retrieved from: http://www.mtv.com/news/2146368/game-of-thrones-mental-illness/

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