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Thursday, September 13, 2007

How not to fuck up a D/s relationship

Tech geekery in both my professional and personal life has kept me away from this blog for a short while, but it was relationship angst that initiated the suspension of my time here. I got upset with Eileen for one reason or another (it doesn't really matter for this entry).

When you're in a relationship—any relationship—it can be hard to express being upset. When you're in a relationship that's specifically structured around power imbalances and the notion that things are unfair, it's that much harder to express being upset. Being actually angry doesn't always even present itself as an option.

Something somewhat astonishing to me is the fact that a lot of people who are enticed by the "things are unfair" idea seem to think this kind of emotional repression is actually the way such relationships are supposed to work, and that there's nothing wrong with that. Some people even use phrases like "Master/slave relationship" or "protocols" or other intelligent-sounding words to codify this behavior into a full-fledged system or "lifestyle."

Ultimately, this is not actually so hard to understand. Like so many other things, this behavior is an example of people structuring their relationships around their fantasies instead of structuring their fantasies around their relationships. The trap is in a particularly persistent blind spot most people have: their sexual desires.

Kink in Exile articulates one manifestation of this so clearly that I simply have to quote her:

I have seen more than one d/s relationship that seemed to be founded on at least one of the partner’s fear of being an adult and having to make decisions. Explain to me again how you willingly give power to your master or mistress if you don’t have that power to begin with? Submitting has to come from a place of power and control over your life, otherwise what’s the point? Otherwise you are not handing control of your life or even your evening over to your dominant, you are seeking out a caretaker.


Of course, doing anything like this is what we tech geeks call a Bad Thing. When people do this, they consistently fail to identify distinctions between different components of their relationship to one another and in doing so they often fail to address even the most basic of relationship concerns. In other words, a slave in a "Master/slave relationship" is still a person in a relationship first, and a slave second.

There's this concept of layers, or more technically a stack, that is fundamental to the construction of many things in our world today. The basic idea is that one layer builds upon the things it receives from the layer beneath it and provides things to build upon to the layer above it. In this way, a robust and reliable system can be developed—and maintained—by segmenting different pieces of the system.

I think that a D/s relationship could benefit from a construction similar to this. It's the way I think about my relationship with Eileen. I am at once her friend, her lover, her boyfriend, and her slave. Indeed, I am her slave because I am her boyfriend, and I am her boyfriend because I am her lover, and I am her lover because I am her friend.

Our relationship developed in a decidedly organic way; right place, right time, right person. I'd been playing for long before I met her, and I'd been looking for submission in a number of venues. When I didn't find fertile ground, I thought maybe submission wasn't for me. That's why I was a self-described bottom and not "a submissive." Of course, I'm submissive now to Eileen but this is because submission is the top (or last) layer that rests upon quite a few other things.

It turns out that, at least for me, any meaningful submission requires a foundation of both friendship and sexual attraction. Only once these things are established does the opportunity for submission seem to be present.

Being aware of this construction helps in many ways. One of the first questions I ask myself these days when confronting some kind of emotional obstacle (or novelty) is: "In which layer does this interaction belong?"

For instance, it's clear that asking for her permission before I allow myself the pleasure of an orgasm is an interaction that belongs in the D/s dynamic we've engaged in. Thus, it's a higher-layer interaction, and it relies on the well-being of lower layers. Contrastingly, cleaning the bathtub because it's dirty and we don't want our drain to clog is probably something that belongs in the friendship layer; I'd do that for any roommate, not just one that sexually dominates me. As Tom puts it, doing nice things for each other is one of the lubricants of a good relationship.

For the first time in over a year, I asked Eileen for a break from orgasm denial that weekend when I was feeling upset. I had already accidentally had two orgasms, felt terrible about them, and was in an emotional state in which I couldn't deal with maintaining that explicit D/s dynamic because the boyfriend dynamic was having trouble. Of course, this was an extreme case, but it serves as a useful illustrative example of this concept in action.

This entire concept is, of course, a drastic simplification of emotional interactions. Obviously, I clean the tub sometimes because I am submissive, and I'll ask for an orgasm because I'm Eileen's lover and my own sexual gratification is served by the asking. The difference between theory and practice, is, of course, that in theory practice is the same as theory whereas in practice they are different.

That said, the point still stands. When there are problems, you need to address them at the layer or with an approach that actually confronts the issue, instead of sidestepping it. That's what Eileen and I do when we have issues to work out. She never pulls the "but I'm your Mistress" card when we're not dealing with an issue that's a part of the D/s layer. It would be harmful to do so.

12 comments:

Devastating said...

I agree with the central premise here completely. Really, I shouldn't even say that I "agree" - it's more like I am continually finding this to be obviously, inescapably the case. (I mean, that you can't "use" the d/s-ness to solve lower-level issues.)

I find this a really useful contrast to an attitude more like Lubyanka's which sounds more like (as I read it), "Well, you agreed to submit to me, so really, having the flu is your own responsibility." Yeah I'm exaggerating, but you know.

Thriving on a personal level comes first. Then the relationship. On a relationship level, we're two people who love each other, and who are in love, and who want to find ways to be joyful and satisfied together. Only after that does the d/s come in. It's a means, not an end.

Well, there you go. That's what it's really about for me: the d/s is a means, not an end.

(I hope long comments don't annoy you too much. I may have to go blog about this myself.)

Patty said...

I love how you describe relationships as stacks, in danger of toppling if not cared for. We have a traditional marriage with children, which obviously needs to come before sexual pleasure. It is almost as if our D/s relationship is the icing on a cake, an added extra when the other layers are stable. We can't play unless we take care of the rest of our relationship;, friends, spouses, parents.

maymay said...

Patty said: "you describe relationships as stacks, in danger of toppling if not cared for"

That's actually a perfect analogy. Thanks. :)

Calico said...

This entry, and the comments, are great. As someone who really struggles to understand D/s, it's lovely to see it explained in ways that seem rational, loving and sustainable.

Shannon said...

I love the way you explain things, it tickles my brain.

maymay said...

Nebulous note of thanks.

(This meta-comment has been brought to you by Happy Programmer's Day, for which I am evidently one day late. Sigh.)

tom allen said...

Anytime you wanna come over to my place and clean the bathtub, you're welcome to do so.

But we've been in the same place, several times, and have learned what you have pointed out: you need to make sure that the underlying dynamics of the relationship are working smoothly before you can worry about the dynamics of the stuff that you toss on top of it.

Crown Vic said...

Excellent post. Sometimes when I read posts like Bitchy's "I like it because it's fucked-up" I think "I get it" but I also that there has to be a basic relationship hygiene for this stuff to work. The fear of this type of miscommunication - stack level error if you will - makes it hard for me to form D/S relationships where I relinquish control. I'm happy to see you working through it.

Bitchy Jones said...

I have noticed that in my relationship with Jack we quite often have conversations where he will start something, I will interrupt and take the conversation off on some stupid tangent and eventually, when I stop, he will resume what he was saying. He never makes a fuss. I do it all the time.

I kind of see dominance as something that is lots of fun in the bedroom, but outside the bedroom is just an occasional annoying personality trait I have that a few special men like me enough to decide it is worth humouring.

(apols for that bitch of a sentence - it does make sense if you follow it round)

Crown Vic said...

I would add one more layer to the stack - your and Eileen's public public personas. I imagine there has to be some level of filtering and subtext, including positive subtextual messaging, that goes on there.

maymay said...

Bitchy:

"I kind of see dominance as something that is lots of fun in the bedroom, but outside the bedroom is just an occasional annoying personality trait I have that a few special men like me enough to decide it is worth humouring. "

Dominance in an appropriate way is never unappreciated, in or out of the bedroom. :)

Crown Vic:

"I would add one more layer to the stack - your and Eileen's public public personas. I imagine there has to be some level of filtering and subtext, including positive subtextual messaging, that goes on there."

I think that's more of a relationship that I have with you, and other readers, than a part of the relationship "stack" I have with Eileen, but your point is well taken.

Thorney said...

I agree with you on the multiple layers, the multi-faceted nature, of relationships. Interestingly, a tool from one layer is sometimes useful in a different one. Mrs. Thorney has safeworded over in=law problems (to say, "hey, we really need to stop everything and work this one out.")

But what really made this essay for me was the line I think I'm going to quote over and over -
"The difference between theory and practice, is, of course, that in theory practice is the same as theory whereas in practice they are different."
If reminds me of the old saw "All rules have exceptions, including this one." (Talmudic: ayn k'lal v'zeh k'lal lo k'lal: there is no generalization, and this generalization is no generalization.)