SPOILERS for ALL the most recent Star Wars trilogy ahead. You’ve been warned.
The relationship between the characters Rey and Kylo Ren, much like the response to the sequel Star Wars trilogy that tells their stories, is very divisive. Their bond is both compelling and highly toxic. I am both screaming at the screen for them to kiss and also deeply cringing at the way they treat each other.
Their relationship demonstrates many of the characteristics of an abusive relationship, yet the Star Wars universe has ultimately made it canon that they are soulmates, in the form of a Force Dyad. How can this dichotomy exist?
When we’re first introduced to Rey and Kylo in The Force Awakens, they’re two isolated people struggling to figure out who they are. Rey is the more literal example, physically isolated on Jakku and fighting every day to feed herself. She has no idea who she is or where she comes from.
Kylo is more figuratively isolated, appearing to have no close relationships and struggling to create an identity based on his grandfather, Darth Vader. Kylo and Rey are both isolated by their unmatched power within the Force, so when they find each other, it feels romantic. Two lonely people who have finally found their equals. But is it really romantic, and should it be thought of as such?
Let’s start with Kylo and how he behaves. He clearly struggles with emotional regulation, often destroying property, screaming, and becoming physically aggressive to the point of fatality. It seems as if his automatic response to most situations is to physically dominate or to emotionally control. After working together to defeat Snoke in The Last Jedi, Kylo’s romantic proposal to Rey includes saying that her parents abandoned her and, “You are nothing … but not to me”.
In The Rise of Skywalker, a similar interaction occurs in which Kylo tells Rey, “You can’t go back to [General Organa] now, like I can’t.” In both these interactions, the meaning behind Kylo’s words is clear: “I am the only one who will accept you.” His instinctual response to his desire for Rey is to break her down and isolate her with him.
I cringed heavily during both scenes, but also felt a twinge of compassion for Kylo Ren, which comes from my background as a therapist. I could recognize Kylo as a person who was clearly projecting his insecurities and also repeating a cycle of abuse started at the hands of Snoke. In The Last Jedi, there are many examples that demonstrate how Snoke manipulates Kylo through the abusive method of grooming.
When I explain grooming to others, I often compare it to a frog slowly boiling in hot water. It can be a subtle process that normalizes inappropriate behaviors and, like the frog, the person being groomed may not realize something is wrong until it’s too late. In cases of sexual abuse, grooming can start with a hug, then a kiss on the cheek, then the abuser having the victim sit on their lap, and so on.
Abusers who use grooming will also simultaneously flatter or indulge their victims in order to develop a bond that isolates them from others. Snoke started his grooming process with Kylo at a young age, getting into his mind while he was a Jedi apprentice and telling Kylo how powerful and significant he was, while eroding his relationship with Luke and his parents. Snoke continues this pattern in The Last Jedi, bolstering Kylo (“When I found you, I saw what all masters live to see …. something truly special.”) and then following with insults (“I was mistaken …You’re just a child in mask.”).
Unfortunately for Kylo Ren, Snoke became his primary caregiver and support from when he left the Jedi temple until his adulthood, and therefore, the strongest model for Kylo on how to have intimate relationships with others. Kylo recreates Snoke’s abusive behavior with Rey because these behaviors have been normalized for him. He thinks in order to be close to someone, you need to manipulate them, isolate them, and control them. This dominant stance also prevents Kylo from having to be vulnerable with Rey, a trait that you have to think Snoke strongly discouraged.
One thing I want to make clear is that survivors of abuse are not destined to continue the cycle, and even if abuse survivors do find themselves recreating these behaviors, they can be broken. While Kylo Ren is a fictional character, his redemption arc back to being Ben Solo is one that’s possible in real life. While we don’t actually get the chance to see the relationship that could have occurred between Rey and Ben, it’s a hopeful message that anyone can reject an identity that is poisonous to them and start making different choices, even if that happens at the eleventh hour.
Brittney Brownfield is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who works and lives in Chicago. She co-hosts the podcast Popcorn Psychology, which examines blockbuster movies through the eyes of three therapists. You can find more information on Klyo and Rey in the very first episode, in which Brittney and her colleagues discuss Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the topic of grooming.