Is a Romance Between a Leader and a Follower Always Problematic?

questions and answer talk bubbles

In many stories a captain, boss, or other leader will have a romance w/ a subordinate, employee, or other follower.

In real life, most militaries, businesses, and other organizations prohibit this sort of behavior, w/ good reason: A captain might refuse to put a beloved sergeant in danger, even when doing so is necessary for the mission; a boss might make advances and punish the employee if rebuffed; a favored subordinate might get (or be perceived to get) perks and promotions they did not earn, etc.

Aside from keeping the relationship secret, is there any way to have a romantic relationship between a superior and a subordinate w/out these problems?

Also, is this as big a problem in a less formal structure, such as Firefly, the Avengers, or Buffy’s Scooby gang?

– Dave L

Hi Dave L,

The biggest issue is the imbalance of power. Less formal structures don’t fix that, but actually, Firefly is a really good example of how it can be fixed. On Firefly, Inara isn’t a hired crew member like everyone else. She’s paying Mal to rent the shuttle. She’s wealthy and well-connected, and she can leave whenever she feels like. So, when she and Mal have their romance, it’s as equals.

Similarly, the best way to have a romance for a captain is to bring in someone who’s posted to the ship but is powerful and outside of the normal command structure, even if the captain has the final say on what the ship does. Maybe the love interest is a renowned ambassador posted on the ship for a specific mission.

If the love interest has to be a subordinate, you could make it a lot better by giving that subordinate an unusual amount of power for their position. Maybe they come from a wealthy family and have friends in high places. The captain can’t mess with them without getting in hot water – in fact, maybe the higher ups are just looking for an excuse to replace the captain with this person. This way the relationship won’t come off as predatory. However, they would probably keep things quiet if it’s a corporate or military structure, since on the books it would still be banned.

As for potential favoritism or bias in decision-making, whether that’s considered an issue does depend on the type of group. It’s not just that Buffy is less formal; the Scooby gang is smaller and the people all know each other really well and have close connections. They’re a family, and no one expects them to avoid personal entanglements – that’s what keeps the group together. When the group is larger, people are getting paid, and those working together aren’t personally connected, that’s when people worry about those things.

I hope that gives you some ideas.


Keep the answer engine fueled by becoming a patron today. Want to ask something? Submit your question here.

Read more about , , ,



  1. Cay Reet

    A case which I thought worked out well (although the romance part never really came on strongly, but it might have in further episodes) was the old German sci-fi series “Raumpatroullie Orion”. In the series, we have the captain of the Orion and a security officer who has been posted on the ship to keep an eye on the guy who has already destroyed six ships so far. She’s not part of the command structure and her mission makes her an equal to him, so when the ice between them thaws, it’s not like one of them can really, really control the other.

    • GeniusLemur

      Do I understand correctly that the captain’s the guy who’s destroyed six ships? That’s not great either (and all kinds of against regulations), because her ability to do her job is badly compromised if she’s snogging the person she’s supposed to be watching.

      • Cay Reet

        She’s not snogging him (the series is from the 1960s, there was no snogging on screen in 1960s Germany). She grows a little more ‘human’ from her contact with him.

        In addition, he might have destroyed six ships, but each while fighting against the enemy and usually while saving most of the crew. Otherwise, he wouldn’t still be a captain, that much I can say for sure.

    • LizardWithHat

      You made made day by bringing up “Raumpatroullie Orion”, i adore this series (though it was made well before my time)

      And no, don’t have something substanial to add to my squeeing

  2. Rebecca Sherman

    That ‘not great’ relationship sounds like a fascinating read to me, GeniusLemur. We shouldn’t avoid writing problematic relationships entirely; they’re a great source of fascinating and complex interpersonal and internal conflict, and a prevalent part of our reality. People aren’t perfect, they don’t make the best decisions for themselves, and they don’t always treat others the way they should. We educate ourselves about what’s problematic so that if we write those relationships or behaviors, we’re writing them responsibly and with care, and hopefully educating our readers about their nature. Avoiding them entirely, solely because they’re ‘not great’, is akin to those schools who don’t teach sex education because they don’t want their students having sex. It’s not a bad choice to write better alternatives, of course. But it’s also not a bad choice to write about problematic relationships. Writing them with care and responsibility can make for some fantastic writing (just look at The Fifth Season).

  3. Kieran

    I personally think that if you establish the superior and subordinate as having mutual feelings for each other that are genuine and that neither have ulterior motives, you’ll be fine. I mean, for example, if you write your starship captain as repeatedly pursuing your ship’s doctor despite her repeatedly saying no, and then eventually she gives in, that’s wrong. That’s a clear abuse of power. Or if you have a secretary who desperately needs money for her sick daughter propositioning her wealthy diplomat boss, that’s equally bad, because it can make her seem like a gold-digger, and also seems to be the work equivalent of Sextra Credit.
    However, if you have a romance between a widower and the nanny he hires to take care of his kids, and you establish that they both mutually pine for each other but are too shy to actually confess to each other, and they’re set up by a third party, then I think you’re fine.

    • Cay Reet

      Technically, you’re fine with that nanny example, but the creators of “The Nanny” might still sue you.

      • Tknoel

        Maybe, but The Sound of Music did it first

  4. Dinwar

    Romance doesn’t necessarily equal physical relationships. The concept of courtly love (I speak of course of the ideal; the practice was often very different) was a romantic, yet chaste, relationship that actually strengthened the ties between subordinates and superiors (most of the time, anyway). A knight bearing a duchess’ favor in a tournament is hardly likely to rebel against his duke. Queen Elizabeth and Sir Francis Drake are an example of this as well. You may want to avoid the sexism inherent in chivalry, but you could take that concept and play with it in a fantasy/sci-fi civilization, as part of fleshing out the culture.

    Depending on how important the hierarchy is to the structure of the story, you could also acknowledge the issue, have the characters acknowledge the issue, and have one transfer out of the other’s chain of command. Parks and Rec did that at one point, and helped demonstrate that the characters were rational adults who thought through their decisions (in contrast to the numerous over-grown children who never gave those consequences consideration in the show). If the chain of command is a sticking point, but otherwise unimportant to the story, and one character can transfer relatively easily out of the other’s chain of command, that’s a way to deal with it.

  5. Matt

    If two people love each other, it’s not problematic until it actually causes problems. People usually act biased towards others they care about, romantically or otherwise, but as long as this didn’t interfere with their duties, it’s fine.

    • Leon

      It’s never fine.

      If one goes down, for any reason, the other is guaranteed to become a liability.

      • Leon

        Of course i’m talking about the military.

        • Matt

          It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to keep things 100% professional in a military environment, but for something like an office, or a book club, I think a responsible person could handle it.

Leave a Comment

Please see our comments policy (updated 03/28/20) and our privacy policy for details on how we moderate comments and who receives your information.