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D/s burnout, Part II: What do we do about it?

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Looking inwards, looking back: What people said they wished they’d done and known

When I asked people what they wished they had done and known in retrospect, their answers were heartbreaking (and again, painfully familiar). There were common themes of (1) Lacking self-knowledge–both not understanding what they needed to be fulfilled as doms and subs, and also not understanding when they were experiencing burnout (2) Failing to successfully communicate about problems in the relationship/dynamic (3) Believing “this” was the best they were going to get and later finding out they could, in fact, get much better (4) Admitting when things weren’t going well and seeking help from others in the community.

I am quoting these accounts at length because I think there is a lot of wisdom in each one, and all weave together some or all of the themes I’ve just highlighted:

From M (sub woman): I wish I had understood my submission more, my partner’s limitations more, and that our D/s could shift into something more comfortable but in a healthy way, instead of us both being hurt in the process. I wish I knew we could change without it being a failing on either of our parts, because we both still blame ourselves from time to time. I wish I would have known it would be okay, because in the end, we are partners and not just our dynamic.
I wish I would have talked about how I was feeling when I felt it. Our dynamic had an emotionally painful drop, and neither of us could communicate what was happening. My partner admitted after several years he just wasn’t dominant outside of play, and I realized I needed 24/7 total power exchange in order to truly be submissive.
I wish I had known why I couldn’t take pain from my partner anymore; I wish I had known why it felt like he was actually hitting me instead of it feeling like playtime. I didn’t understand why I had absolutely no pain tolerance with this particular partner, but was able to receive pain from others with no problem.

From A (top FtM): I wish I’d known that I didn’t have to settle for so little, that in later decades I’d find much more compatible partners, who don’t leave me feeling emptied or droppy or left-behind or used-up, but mostly just loved and appreciated and well pleased. And they seem to do this by being themselves rather than by making a particular effort. I wish I’d realized earlier that different people (and in different years) have such variable degrees of willingness or ability to soak up affection when it’s offered.
I wish I’d negotiated much more insistently, much more specifically, and many years earlier, for what I was going to need from our relationship in order to stay fueled/nourished over the long term. It’s one thing to anticipate/discuss/memorize a mutually agreeable plan for an evening’s scene, but quite another matter to anticipate a mutually agreeable plan for a year, a decade, or a longer-term relationship. I wish I’d been better able to gather friends around during the roughest patch. It would also probably have been better if I’d sought out a different partner[s] much sooner, rather than trying so hard to make things work with a partner whose interests and skills weren’t (in hindsight) all that compatible with mine.

From Teneo (top man): I wish I’d been more vulnerable overall with friends and acquaintances about what I was going through, and that I’d been more focused on my friendships and social web. To this day I find that vulnerability is hard and I feel that expressing my feelings to others is deeply burdensome to them, but I am convinced that if I had done a better job of this I would have had an easier time finding my way back. I wish I’d kept a consistent journaling habit which would have featured self-honesty and writing out how I felt. I wish I’d been more aggressive and courageous about therapy. I wish I’d paid more attention to my health, which has been on a slow and steady decline.
Vulnerability in dominants is not a trait that feels prized, and indecisiveness or uncertainty is an incompatible feature to many submissives who pursue relationships with dominants. Not every dominant can be “on” all the time just as not every submissive can be “on” all the time…
An a-ha moment for me was listening to Joshua Tenpenny during a session with Raven Kaldera, where Joshua brought up his maxim of, “If the Master doesn’t want it, it isn’t service.” This allowed me to understand finer nuances of my need to please even as a dominant. It helped me get to the bedrock of understanding that oftentimes, I was engaging in dominance not because I wanted it (though at times I did) but because it was expected of me or a feature of my relationship. It helped me understand that I could want things on my own, and whether or not someone else wanted them or was satisfied by them was not necessarily a feature I needed to solve for.
Effective communication is an undervalued trait and I wish I’d had better modeling of healthy communication at different levels, dominant to submissive. Kinksters focus so much on “hard” technique e.g. florentine, knives, needles, kinbaku, etc and I wish there were a lot more classes on modeling “softer” features of competence e.g. motive, vulnerability, communication, negotiation. I sometimes listen to negotiation classes through the lenses I learned in therapy and I am shocked at how little focus there is in some areas.

(I wholeheartedly agree that we don’t talk enough about vulnerability and dominance, and have written about it before!)

What would have helped prevent it

When it comes to burnout, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I asked people directly what they thought would have helped them prevent burnout, but few had specific answers. Mor (sub NB) said that for them, “something that anchors the dynamic and relationship, as opposed to just a bunch of isolated fetishes” was key to preventing burnout. But I think we can find some more implicit ideas in the “wish they’d known/done” section above. Among them are (1) Introspection–particularly geared towards what motivates someone to be in a d/s dynamic, and what enables them to thrive in it. (2) Establishing open and honest lines of communication with a partner to make sure that both people feel like they’re getting what they need. (3) Establishing and maintaining realistic expectations, both for yourself and your partner.

I think that a major factor in preventing d/s burnout may just be reimagining what we think that d/s is and how we understand it.

As a subculture, we love to talk about d/s as a “natural” facet of relationships, even while admitting that relationships themselves “take work.” But as I have reflected on people’s experiences (and my own), I have come increasingly to doubt this inherently relationship-focused vision, that imagines d/s as being all about communication, commitment, emotions, and passion. And while it is definitely about those things…

…Perhaps d/s is also well-imagined as being like a shared (and sometimes very intense) hobby.

There are married couples who occasionally go ice-skating together (“I live the lifestyle when I can”), there are married couples who are professional pairs ice-skaters together (hardcore 24/7), and there are people who pairs skate together who also occasionally have dinner together (“play partners” “secondary/tertiary d/s relationships”). You can imagine how it might affect each of those relationships if one or both people stopped wanting to ice skate at all, started wanting to ice skate with someone else, got injured and couldn’t ice skate any more, and/or decided they wanted to switch to a completely different style of ice skating that their partner wasn’t interested in or just wasn’t good at. Maybe they got tired of pairs skating with their original partner because boredom, or maybe they were always fighting at home so it made it harder to skate together too, or maybe they just got tired of pairs skating in that style, or maybe they honestly didn’t skate very well together but they both enjoyed it a lot conceptually and their shitty skating was having a deleterious effect on the rest of their relationship, or maybe they just needed to take a break from ice skating in general, or maybe they felt like they were better at it or way more invested in it than their partner was… Regardless, d/s and pairs ice-skating are both intense co-created experiences, and if both people don’t actively want to do them, they’re not going to work well. Moreover, at the point where burnout has hit for either one, I don’t think the classic solutions for faltering relationships (communicate more! process a lot! look for new ways to share experiences together right now! reinvest!) are good solutions here.

The reason I think this alternate vision of d/s may be so important for preventing (and managing) burnout is that it takes some of the pressure off of “success” and “failure.” If we imagine d/s as an intrinsic property of relationships, if the d/s fails, THE RELATIONSHIP HAS FAILED, and that’s a lot to ask someone to admit to themselves, their partner, their friends, and their community. But if we imagine it more as something we like to do together that intrinsically relies on our mutual interest and connection, admitting that maybe we’re not as into it as we thought we were or that it’s not really working for us right now doesn’t feel so much like an all-encompassing admission. Thinking of it as something WE LIKE TO DO TOGETHER rather than WHO WE ARE gives us a lot more leeway to reimagine our relationships with it changing or without it at all. And it puts a lot less pressure on us to live up to some imagined expectation about who we’re supposed to be (both to ourselves and to our partners).

Burnout is burnout?

As I read people’s descriptions of their experiences and the things that helped them recover, it became increasingly clear that d/s burnout often isn’t very different from work burnout. The solutions that showed up frequently here looked a lot like the same advice you get for how to handle work burnout. I’m taking most of these from the first google hit I got on the subject here. Namely: (1) Be honest with yourself about what’s bothering you and try to clarify it for yourself (2) Journal (3) Seek professional help (4) Build and maintain a support network (4) Try to generally maintain your physical and mental health overall (exercise, sleep, and nutrition) (5) Set good boundaries for yourself, and try to keep a solid balance throughout your life, and (6) Communicate honestly.

In both cases, some jobs/partners don’t give back or respond to your needs when you voice them, and at that point, you may have to cut and run. That may be extremely hard for partly the same reason in both cases: a lot of your identity and sense of personal self and meaning may be wrapped up in your job and/or your d/s role-relationship. Ironically, in both cases, those feelings of identity might be exacerbating your burnout because you might just straight-up feel like a failure as a person by admitting that you’re burnt out at those things.

Why don’t we form more support groups?

Something I have realized as I have been writing this post is that, as a community, we have for some reason failed to habitually establish support groups. We teach classes, host performances, hold parties, go to munches… But we mostly don’t hold support groups for things like kinksters managing trauma (again, I’ve seen several classes on this, but no support groups), kinksters surviving the demise of d/s relationships (which almost everyone seems to agree is disproportionately awful), and kinksters just trying to manage challenges in their d/s dynamics. In retrospect, reading over multiple people’s stories, I am frustrated that we basically just tried to deal alone with something that all of us were dealing with individually, even though we all agree that we could have helped each other!

So please… some kinky social workers and therapists in training… start leading some online support groups for kinksters to talk about these things. I would love to see “support groups” aimed at specific dimensions of kink life become a feature of “the scene” the same way “rope jams” are.

(I’d do it myself, but I’m a terrible candidate for leading any kind of support group…)

Concluding thoughts

The elephant in the room for anyone trying to identify and manage symptoms of d/s burnout for themselves is, “Am I just not feeling this d/s thing anymore because the problem is me (my physical/mental health? my life issues)? Because something is fundamentally amiss with my relationship? Or maybe something about my overarching relationship structures? Is whatever the problem is even fixable??”

These are not questions that are easy to answer while you’re in the thick of things. You need to be able to take a big step back and assess yourself, your relationship, your relationship structures, and the general picture of your life, and that means you have to take a break from it. You and your partner might both completely freak out at the prospect of that because it can feel like such an utter condemnation of the relationship; maybe the two of you don’t even know how to have sex with each other without d/s. How you manage that will have to depend on the nature of the relationship you have with your partner. For myself, what I’ve done in the past is whittle down the d/s to the smallest of things that make it possible for us to both still feel like we’re on familiar ground in the bedroom, and try to leave off the rest while my partner takes a break. But I’m sure there are other strategies that people will talk about in the comments.

At the end of the day, the best advice for d/s burnout is just… take a fucking break.

If you want to get back to it eventually (and especially sooner rather than later), you’ll have to do some real work on yourself and with your partner in the process. But don’t do it now. Do it later. Don’t think of this as a relationship you are failing to save right now–think of this as a shared hobby that maybe you get to come back to with somebody later. I know–oh gods, how I tearfully know–that there are people with whom that shared hobby was most of your relationship, so saying good-bye to the hobby is also saying good-bye to the relationship. But you and I both know that relationships founded on shared hobbies are often fragile, so be brave and leave it on good terms and not after you’ve beaten and battered it and can’t stand the sight of each other. And maybe it’s something you can come back to after you’ve had some time to think more deeply about what you really want.

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