I was first introduced to the concept of d/s burnout in an instagram post a few months ago. The concept and phrasing was very new to me, but it vaguely resonated with me in a “I-think-that-might-explain-the-behavior-and-actions-of-people-I-have-been-in-relationships-with-and-others-I-know” kind of way. I have had a lot more conversations with a lot of people about it since then, but I still feel like I am just beginning to wrap my head around this idea and the implications of it. To get a better sense of people’s varied experiences with d/s burnout, I solicited stories from strangers and friends a couple of months ago, and I will quote heavily (with consent) from the people who responded to that call here. If you read this and feel compelled to share your own story, please do so in the comments on that writing so they all stay together. My writings here are not meant to be some definitive thesis on this subject; on the contrary, they’re a starting point meant to spur more discussion, more writing, more teaching, more conversation–I want to read your writing on d/s burnout and go to your workshop focusing on it.
What started as a single post (and still sort-of is) got so long that I was sure no one would read it if I posted it as a single thing that FetLife would then tell you took 30 minutes to read. So I’ve divided this into 2 main parts and then what is essentially a lengthy postscript about gender. Please don’t feel like you have to read even a single one of these posts all at once; to be honest, I wouldn’t really recommend it. You’re getting a high-emotion warning here because if you just happened to click on the title of this and thought you’d just learn more about “what d/s burnout is,” you might be getting a lot more than you bargained for. This shit is emotionally heavy and loaded in an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind sort of way: if you’ve never been in a d/s relationship, this is probably easy reading, but if you’ve been in more than two, be prepared… Be kind to yourself reading this, and take your time if you have to.
D/s burnout: what is it?
In its ideal type, d/s burnout refers to losing interest in doing d/s, either in general or with a specific partner, for reasons that are not obvious (i.e. not as a result of physical abuse, emotional manipulation, physical/hormonal changes, or identity changes). In its core ideal type, someone in a relationship that they’re actually generally pretty content with, with a partner they abstractly feel* cares about them and their wants and needs, starts finding themselves increasingly disinterested in doing d/s in general and/or with that partner. (I will explain that important asterisk in the next section). A d/s dynamic that started out as hot and fun and sexy and interesting starts to feel like work without a clear reason why.
Of course, the whole point of ideal types is that real life often doesn’t conform to them. In reality, d/s burnout is, of course, much more likely to happen in relationships that always had some serious weaknesses and flaws (what relationships are perfect???), and it will worm its way into those relationship cracks with grim determination. Most people aren’t in perfectly matched d/s relationships to start with, so there was always conflict over pressure to do things they didn’t want that may become or start to feel more intense. In kinkland, most people doing d/s are doing it in the context of poly, and there may always have been resentments and issues with other partners that also become or start to feel more intense. …And perhaps all of these things were true…
To further complicate matters, in this gourmet kinkland of poly relationship buffet options, lots of people (myself included) often do d/s in a context where the “d/s” part by design basically is most of the “relationship.” Sure, you might hold hands and go out to dinner, and you might even say “I love you” and mean it… But at the end of the day, take the d/s away, and there’s not necessarily a lot of other core relationship left. So if someone in that context starts to burn out on the d/s, it’s really hard to know if “the problem” is “the d/s or the relationship” because the d/s and the relationship are the same thing.
The symptoms of d/s burnout mostly sound exactly like what you’d expect. The symptoms of d/s burnout from bottoms were often being able to take less pain than they used to and a general reluctance to submit (in general, or with a specific partner). For service subs, burnout could mean doing the bare minimum of service tasks that used to give them joy. For example, Sierracita (sub gender unknown) said:
I resented the two of them having their time together. I was the easy thing to give up when something had to go, so I was a very lonely slave girl. I resented being told to do things, feeling like my chores simply facilitated their relationship. I stopped taking a whole lot of care of myself. I did exactly the requirements and no more.
Meanwhile for tops, it sounded more like the reports of work burnout generally do–as if topping had indeed become an (unpaid) job they no longer wanted to do. Thus A (top FtM) said:
[When I got burnt out] my ongoing output of kink energy was much bigger than the energy that I was receiving from it. This felt like running out of fuel. It felt like a kind of hemorrhaging.
People on both sides described post-con-drop types of feelings and exhaustion just from playing with a partner alone, as well as a general feelings of cynicism, lack of enthusiasm, and “this just feels like work.”
There’s also a common emotional response that happens as well: the reason for that asterisk next to the phrase “with a partner they abstractly feel* cares about them and their wants and needs” in the previous section is that one of the classic symptoms of d/s burnout appears to be abstractly feeling like a partner cares about their wants and needs, while simultaneously experiencing a conflicting sense that the partner doesn’t care or maybe “doesn’t care in the way I need.” This symptom often leads to frustrating circular conversations in which one person insists that the other one isn’t really paying attention to their wants and needs while offering little concrete evidence for the accusation, and little concrete advice for how to fix it. There’s just this lingering sense that something is wrong, and a constant feeling of being irked by what both parties agree are apparently minor things.
Reasons for it
The reasons people give for experiencing d/s burnout can basically be divided into “relationship issues” and “other.” Unsurprisingly, burnout resulting from “other” is generally a lot more (eventually) recoverable with “this partner” than burnout resulting from “relationship issues.” Those relationship reasons are most commonly: (1) The partner was failing to meet their emotional needs outside of the dynamic which then created problems within the dynamic and (2) The partner was failing to meet many of their d/s needs which created a sense of incompleteness, dissatisfaction, and/or being taken advantage of. Whether tops or bottoms, d/s burnout from relationship issues was often accompanied by a sense of “I’m the one putting all the effort in to make this work.”
Mor (sub NB), for example, said that they got burnt out because they felt like they were never really getting the whole d/s package they were looking for in the play they were receiving:
I think I experienced D/s burnout from constantly getting small tastes of what I was looking for, without getting anything like the whole package. Or, not getting the elements that made it ok. For example: someone that would happily give me a heavy beating, without any of the mental control or actual dynamic exchange. I need more to a dynamic. It is what I take refuge in, to push through and even enjoy the pain. Without it, there is so much work for me–to fabricate a dynamic in my mind, where none truly exists–just to be ok with the pain.
T (sub woman), meanwhile, said she got burnt out because she had an unfortunate tendency to pick narcissistic doms who took advantage of her:
At this point, I am burned out and have pulled the plug on any future relationships until I can figure out where my picker is broken and where I myself am going wrong. I seem to pick narcissistic men, and end up getting hurt. There is never just one side, but it has left me very distrusting and with low self-confidence. One of the major things was that they became very manipulative when I didn’t want to do something sexually that they wanted. At this point, I really don’t want to risk being touched again or opening myself up to more hurt. I am submissive to my core, but I’m not a carpet to walk on. I got where I am through a lot of hard work, I’m intelligent, and as far as I am concerned, I can’t be respected if I don’t respect myself.
For “other” issues, they were most frequently: (1) Personal problems such as being generally depressed, in bad health, and/or stressed for other reasons (2) Unrealistic expectations, either of themselves or their partner (sometimes based on what was possible in their relationship given its constraints) (3) Other seemingly unrelated unmet needs that began to affect the dynamic anyway (most notably, people whose poly needs were unmet and it began to take a toll on their existing d/s dynamics/relationships because they were generally unsatisfied, and switches who wanted both a dom and a sub and only had one). And of course, these “other issues” are often heavily entangled with relationship issues as well.
M (sub woman), said she got burnt out as her 24/7 relationship had to confront the daily realities of everyday life:
I blame the shift of 24/7 to [a play-based dynamic] because of cohabiting and co-parenting and the general stress of everyday life.
Teneo (top man), said he got burnt out from trying to be the top he thought bottoms expected him to be rather than the top he wanted to be:
At the time I began burning out, I was in a long-distance relationship with a woman I’d anticipated would be a lifetime partner, but this problem wasn’t partner-specific and actually got worse with later entanglements before I finally realized what was happening. My desire to “stay in it” / “stay the course” / “stay strong you’re already doing it” led to a feeling of becoming a kink-vending machine, and this had compounding effects because the more I tried to live up to the expectations and desires others had of me, the more I felt bad about my failure to execute when I tried to put myself into a headspace.
What helped them recover
The major themes in helping people to successfully recover from d/s burnout were: (1) seeking support from others–especially kinky community and therapy (2) finding a partner who actually gave them the things they were missing (especially when they didn’t realize it) from their previous d/s relationship–either after a break-up or through poly (3) changing the nature of the d/s relationship (3a) for some switches, this meant playing on the other side of the slash (e.g. bottoms topping, or tops bottoming) (4) most importantly, time and taking a break. For most people, it was some combination of these things.
Thus Mor (sub NB) mentioned kinky community and time:
I think one of the things that helps the most is talking to other kinky people. Talking about new ideas and sharing excitement with them. I can pull off of the interests and perspectives of others. And just… time. Time alone to think, time to relax, time for body and mind to heal.
And Teneo (top man), talked about finding a more fulfilling relationship:
Finding someone who cares for me in the way I didn’t realize I needed to be cared for has had a profound impact on my willingness and competence at engaging in power exchange.
Meanwhile, M (sub woman), who stayed in her long-term relationship with her partner explained:
Our dynamic had to shift as I was never able to recover submission and receiving pain from my partner. We moved over to a daddy/little dynamic which mirrored our everyday life and felt much more natural (at least now). We tried moving back to play-based D/s, but I ended up resentful.
For myself, I would say that the most difficult aspect of managing a long-term partner’s periodic d/s burnout associated with bouts of mental illness has been teaching both of us to externalize his experiences of dissatisfaction (this was not easy and took a long time) so we know when it’s time to take a break. Depression can creep up on a person, and it is often accompanied by an unfriendly companion named Denial. Together, Depression and Denial may try to convince the affected party that the problem isn’t them, the problem is those annoying things their partner does to try to control them! (Conveniently ignoring the fact that those same things are sexy and arousing when the person isn’t depressed). That dance is an especially tricky one, since when he’s just feeling a little bit low, those same activities will energize him and make him feel good, but once depressed, they start to become a source of bitter conflict. In short, one of the things that can work to manage d/s burnout is knowing yourself, knowing your partner, and knowing when it’s time to take a break. Easy, right? If only…
What didn’t work
The most common intuitive strategy that did not seem to work was trying to heavily reinvest in the failing d/s dynamic.
This paragraph from A was hauntingly personally familiar to me:
A (top FtM): I had a series of conversations to let my partner know what was happening and what we might do about it, and to understand their perspective on it. Coming out of one of these conversations, I wrote a how-to manual to tell my partner what would recharge and energize me, including specific sentences that I would welcome hearing. This was illuminating in a way, but it did not work.
It turns out that the problem with d/s burnout is that one or both people are… tired. So if you try to get someone reinvested in the dynamic, you’re actually probably going to tire them out more, both by processing and by asking them to put more into something they already feel like they’re not getting very much out of. Kinkland teaches us that good relationships are built on good communication, and that’s true–but the good communication had to show up earlier. Once you’ve failed at that, your best solution is take a fucking break. It takes energy and conviction to recommit to a d/s dynamic, and those aren’t things that burnt out people usually have a lot of.
To be continued…
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