You will note as you read the previous two posts that I have recorded people’s gender and d/s roles in their comments. That’s because years of sociological study of the scene have taught me that gender and BDSM roles overlap in some very complicated ways. As a mostly-dom woman who has mostly been in d/s relationships with people who were raised as men, I expected to see tales of d/s burnout coming disproportionately from cis men subs. I don’t have a large enough sample to back that up (and there are so few of them anyway that I would need a rather enormous sample to try to accumulate that). But the gendered dynamics of BDSM roles definitely seemed be working against cis men subs here in some pretty severe ways that would make them more likely to burn out.
(1) They’re working against their socially gendered roles in a serious uphill battle. There’s a lot of socialization they’re already fighting against to do submission at all because “everyone knows that masculinity means dominance.” Fighting a gendered battle with themselves and society may have made them slightly burnt out by the time they arrive in a relationship.
(2) Men in general have fewer friends in our society, which means that their support networks are already generally weaker than women’s. Cis men subs tend to be especially isolated, disconnected, and rare in our community with little social support from kink community either. Since one of the most common solutions for burnout prevention/cure was “kinky social support,” they tend to be in a pretty tough place.
(3) Fem doms and masc subs in general are rarer and have fewer opportunities to “practice.” They come to d/s relationships with less experience, and thus on average are less able to articulate their needs, wants, and desires. Having talked submission with women and men, I have been struck by how much more articulate the average cis woman submissive is at explaining her motivations for d/s than the average cis man submissive–and being able to clearly articulate motivations for d/s was something that showed up repeatedly in people’s comments about burnout.
(4) Being rarer also means that fem doms and masc subs may end up pushing themselves to stay in unsuitable relationships based on scarcity. Several people mentioned burnout in relation to the feeling that “this is the best you’re going to get, so deal with it”; but for fem doms and masc subs, that feeling is likely heightened by fewer opportunities, thus encouraging burnout.
(5) As a population, statistically speaking, cis men “subs” are largely actually switches. I talked to multiple switches who said they got burnt out when they only engaged in submission (without having a sub themselves), so cis men “subs” seem especially vulnerable to this particular brand of burnout.
(6) As I have reported before, subs in general have worse self-esteem than doms, but this difference is especially conspicuous and bleak among cis men subs. While self-esteem may not be directly tied to burnout, I suspect that it is indirectly tied to it through overall mental health, and a general sense of self-respect.
I thought about all of these factors (and especially the grim accumulation of them) as I looked at the relationship landscape around me. Lamenting my own recent break-up, I was a bit startled by how many fem dom friends I had to share my lamentations of having been broken up with by a cis man sub. In fact, I didn’t even meet anyone where the break up had gone in the other direction (woman breaking up with man), which was startling since, in general in vanilla society, women tend to break up with men much more than men break up with women (and women break up with each other most of all). Relationships dissolve for all sorts of reasons, but when I started considering the macro-level challenges here, I felt both better and worse all at the same time…
Other than increasing awareness, I have absolutely no idea how to fix these problems at the individual level. But I reiterate my call in my previous post for more kinkworld support groups; and in this case, I think a support group for masc subs is very much in order for a variety of reasons.
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…)
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.
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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Goddess knows, I am no expert at the shitty art of breaking up with people; far from it. But I have a lot of confidence in my own good advice about breaking up that I’m just not amazing at following. Since my social network seems to be brimming these days with recent broken hearts and I’ve been feeling a bit down myself, I figured now was as good a time as any to write a post I’ve been meaning to write for years.
It’s easy and understandable to agonize over the decision to end a relationship, but at the end of the day, I’m pretty convinced that young or old, poly or mono, gay or straight, kinky or vanilla, it mostly just comes down to your answer to three basic questions.
1. Do I like who I am when I’m with this person?
You can rationalize all day about whether you like the person, make excuses for them, and tell yourself that they’re just mentally ill, etc. etc. etc. But take a long hard look at yourself and ask yourself: does this person and my relationship with them make me a better or worse person? Perhaps the answer is “neutral,” in which case, continue on to the next questions. However, generally speaking, unhealthy relationships turn us into the worst versions of ourselves, while good relationships help us manifest the best parts of ourselves.
2. How long has it been since I felt happy/satisfied/fulfilled with this person? How long am I willing to wait to feel that way again?
The most damning answer to this question is, of course, “I have never felt happy with them.” But more commonly, people had a glowing period of New Relationship Energy (NRE) in which to enjoy their relationship, and then settled into something decidedly less glowy that they stayed in hoping to return to their former glory days. Or maybe things were good for a very long time until Something Happened (a child was born, a parent died), and the relationship has just never been the same since. At that point, you kind of have to set a timer for yourself, and try to force yourself to keep to it: “I’ll give this six more months to get a lot better, but then it’s time to go” or “I’ll give this a couple more years with some couples counseling before I throw in the towel.”
It’s also important to distinguish where you are on the scale of dis/satisfaction, which spans from “glowing” (spoiler alert: that’s not usually something that lasts very long for anyone) to “happy” to “fine” to “boring” to “miserable” to “abusive.” If you demand “glowing” all the time, you will never keep a relationship for long; for some situations, “boring” might be good enough, but for most situations, “miserable” and “abusive” probably aren’t. Ironically, mediocre relationships are often harder to leave than “miserable” ones (though usually not harder than “abusive” ones), just because your motivation to get out is lower, and you feel guiltier about leaving.
The calculations for how long to wait here are the result of some complex multiplication involving life entanglements (houses owned, children raised), time together spent in joy, and time together spent in misery vs meh. Be brutally self-aware of your math, plotting out the time you spent together happy (two months? Two years? Two decades?) vs time spent in misery (two months? Two years? Two decades?) vs time spent in “meh” (you get the picture). The most common trajectory I see is people who were happy together for six months who then manage to eke out the next year-and-a-half before finally giving up. 2-3 years is pretty much the well-researched cutoff line for classically defined NRE style affection, so the timeline there is fairly predictable.
3. Would I be happier “alone”?
I’ve put “alone” in quotation marks here because frequently poly people aren’t making a choice to be alone or not, but rather “just” with their other partners vs additionally with this partner. Regardless, the very human temptation here is to ask yourself, “could I get a better relationship than this one?” You’ll never know whether you’ll find another partner, and you may be seeing Potential Competing New Partner over there with the beer goggley gaze of NRE. New Partner looks to be filled with the promise of joy, while Old Partner looks like work. But it’s very hard to know the future of your relationship with someone you haven’t been in one (for long) yet with. one thing you should be able to hopefully calculate with realism is how you’d feel without this person.
Conversely, So. Many. People. Stay. In terrible relationships because they’re convinced that they’ll never find a better partner than this one. But it’s not about finding a better partner or not: it’s about the relative soul rot of being in a crappy relationship vs being without it. Only you can know how unhappy the relationship is making you compared with how unhappy you’d be without it.
There are lots of other considerations that influence whether you should stay or go. These include everything from “we have kids” (which I did mention in the time math) to “my primary loathes this person.” Those factors may all turn out to be much more important for you than any of the ones I have listed here, which are targeted more purely at the relationship in and of itself. If you end up basing your calculations on something other than your own happiness, it’s still at least worthwhile to do so consciously. This can, for example, help you avoid one of the classically stupid poly situations that often arises of “my primary loathes X […because X is actually terrible for me…], but I’m mad at my primary for hating X.” You can get out of that situation by realizing your own damned self that X is terrible for you, irrespective of your partner’s feelings about them. Lots of poly people think they have “jealous partners” when what they actually have are partners who are sick of them dating terrible people. Meanwhile, if you’re basing your decision to stay together on something like supporting your children, for goddess’ sake, try to be good parents together. Whatever devil you choose, do it with your eyes wide open.
I’m going to close this post with some Valentines for my exes. I strongly suspect that some of these emotions will resonate with others, and if they feel painfully familiar to you, maybe that should inform your choices…
It’s amazing how little someone can leave behind when they never intended to stay.
I wish that I could have reflected your best vision of the person you wanted me to be, instead of reflecting your anxieties about the people you were afraid I was.
I worry that the mere fact of loving you made me complicit in the awful things you did to other people.
At least once a week, for years, I still fantasized about having sex with you. I only stopped after you broke my heart again into even smaller pieces of exactly the same shape.
I was always more in love with your kinks than with you.
I wish that our beautiful friendship could have better withstood me falling in love with you.
I don’t get a magical denouement where I get to make everything better. I just have a hole in my life to remind me of the way I failed.
The first time I said I loved you was the last time I ever saw you, and despite the passage of years, I still can’t decide which part of that I regret.
I almost left the scene because I couldn’t tolerate being in it without you.
If I had a chance to be with you again, I would love to be someone I never got to be on the first try: myself.
There’s a dark part of me that craves you. Nothing so quaint as mere sexual desire: I want to feel your body subsumed into mine, and your will so thoroughly controlled that it doesn’t feel separate. I yearn for a conjoined moment that belongs utterly to me: an orchestra of tangled limbs and lips and sweaty skin that I conduct. I want to take all of you and breathe in how much you want to be taken. The only part of your independent desire I want to leave you with is the part that remembers you wanted this–but then, it’s what I wanted, so it’s not really independent anyway.
I know this is not the way I’m supposed to want a person (probably not the way I’m “supposed to want” anything). I want you like a drug, because with you, power rushes through my blood like a euphoric. When I’ve heard the effects of heroin described, I’ve thought, “Ah, yes, I think I know that feeling from drowning in the dark pools of his eyes and believing he would do anything I told him to.” In truth, I find it hard to believe that any mere drug could compare with that rush of pure power.
But no matter how much I love to feel myself drowning in your glazed eyes, when I look into my own eyes in the mirror, I see the ghosts of guilt and fear and self-doubt. No healthy person could ever want what I want with you. No healthy person could ever do the things I do to you. No healthy person could ever consent to just be owned by another person like this, let alone enjoy it, so even though you’ve ostensibly agreed, you must be broken as well. If you’re broken, your consent means nothing. Well, I grimly reassure myself, running my hands through my hair as I look at my reflection, at least we’re broken together. And isn’t there a kind of beauty in that?
I’m haunted by the inevitable certainty that I’ll damage you, and break this exquisite offering of your Self that you’ve made to me. And then I just won’t be able to look at myself in the mirror at all.
But even while so many of these fears haunt me, I still come back to you for more because the mere sensation of you sucking on my fingers is so seductive I couldn’t possibly stay away. It’s not just the physical sensation of your soft lips on my too tender skin: when you open your mouth to my fingers, it feels like you’ve opened your entire body to my will. It is a carnal mystery that captures my desire even as I ostensibly capture your will.
When you distract me with the warmth of our desire, the feeling that my hands have melted into your pinned wrists, or the way your mouth seems to ache for me to spit in it as if we share a tongue and throat, I can’t possibly remember or care that this might be wrong. Intoxicated from your eyes, I forget that I could hurt you irrevocably, and I can almost come just from your kisses.
But this drunken spell of connection won’t hold forever, and even cuddled up with you in a delicious and languid afterglow, my doubting ghosts still haunt me. Until finally, one of them prompts me to ask, “Do you trust me?”
Naked in bed, our arms around each other, my collar around your neck and my fresh fingernail marks gouged into your flesh, you look at me almost sardonically as you reply, “Shouldn’t I?”
Somehow I can’t even look into your eyes as I tell you what is surely an obvious fact by now. “Well, I’m not a very nice person, you know.”
Tracing your fingertip from my neck to my nipple, I can hear the smile in your voice as you say, “You look very nice right now.”
I trace my bite marks around the base of your cock, half smiling to myself as your cock stirs slightly at my touch, even as tears sting the corners of my eyes. “Does this look nice to you?”
“Nice and hot are not the same thing.”
“Maybe that’s just as true about me as well.” In a rush, I tell you what you already know, better than anyone else, but for some reason it feels like a confession. “I like dancing on the knife’s edge of consent. I like pushing you a little bit past what you’re actually okay with. I like just looking you in the eye and informing you what you want. I do things to you that make even me cringe at the idea, and I just get turned on more because I think they’re awful. I don’t get off on taking care of you, or saying nice things to you–I get off on the sight of spit on your face and the fact that you’ll let me do it.”
“Well, those things turn me on, too. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t be here.”
I’m actually crying now, but I don’t want to be. All I want is… to just want you and feel okay about it.
Petting my hair, with too much understanding in your voice, you say, “You don’t love the parts of you that want those things. You don’t trust yourself. And no matter how many times I tell you that I trust you, it’s never going to make up for that hole in yourself.”
“You’re right, of course you’re right.” I bring my head up to kiss you. “I’m just going to go to the bathroom for a minute and clean myself up.”
No matter what it looks like, I’m not trying to run away from this difficult conversation, or hide my tears from you. I just know that you really are right, and no matter how much I enjoy staring into the liquid depths of your eyes, my reflection in them isn’t what I need to see right now: it’s my own reflection in the mirror.
Staring at myself, I take a deep breath before forcing myself to whisper out loud, “I’m not going to turn into a rapist or a child molester because of the way that I want people. I play with grown ups who want what I want. I’m going to embrace what I want and not hate myself for it.” It’s complicated, of course (it often is with kink). I’m into feeling a little bit dirty and ashamed of what I want to do to people. But I’m not into the gut wrenching fear that I’m going to hurt you and lose your trust. Biting my lip, with tears still in my eyes, I say the words that I barely believe: “I trust myself. And if I hurt someone, I won’t let it become more about my pain than theirs.”
It’s not that simple, of course. It’s never just as simple as saying some words: it’s a daily practice of understanding, compassion, and belief. There’s a part of me that only cares about being better at trusting myself for your sake, but I know that’s not good enough. I have to want to be better at this for my own sake or it will never really stick.
I force myself to say these strangely difficult words again: “I trust myself.” Then I splash water on my face and come back to bed with you. Kissing you again, I ask, “How do you see me?”
It’s not a great question, but you seem to understand me. You think for a moment and then say, “I see someone who looks like she wants to devour me. You always look at me like you’re imagining me naked even when I’m barely wearing anything at all. I see someone who will put me wherever she wants me and make me like it. What do you see when you look at me?”
“Food,” I say, grinning. “Prey. A dildo that will beg to come.” I can feel the electric charge in the air as we’re both getting turned on by what was originally a serious question. But I make myself ask the next hard question anyway. “Aren’t you afraid that I’ll hurt you?”
“Yes, but I’m into being afraid.”
I laugh, and then ask the question again that you hadn’t actually answered before. “Do you trust me?”
“I do trust you. I trust you a lot.” You grin wickedly. “Why does my dick get hard when I say that?”
I reach my hand down to verify the truth of your words. “Because you’re subby as fuck, slut.”
“Noooooo,” you say jokingly, your laughing words cut off as I put my hand on your throat, over your collar. I’m not choking you at all, but its presence there is such a palpable reminder of belonging that I don’t think you even know how to make a mock protest. Your whole demeanor shifts with that single gesture. Your breathing slows, your body seems to slowly melt into a puddle even though you were already lying down, and your pupils seem to fill up your entire irises. It takes so wonderfully little effort to transform you from “partner” to “sub.”
Hooking my finger in the ring on your collar, I tug on it insistently. “Come on, slut. I need to pee.”
This doesn’t take any convincing. Pulling you behind me by your collar, I lead you into the shower, where you obediently lie down on your back, still totally hard, but now with an eager and hopeful look on your face too.
“You’re such a pretty toilet,” I laugh. “You know I fantasize about just leaving you here for a day and pissing on you every time I have to go and not letting you get cleaned up in between.” It would never actually work for several reasons, not least being that I get so turned on doing this that it gets hard to pee. But it’s a good fantasy.
Squatting over you, I notice yet again how perversely my brain registers peeing on you as one of the most intimate things I can do to a person. I have a moment of questioning myself again–what kind of person thinks piss is more intimate than sex?? But I comfort myself with the thought that I’m like a cat, and peeing on you is marking my territory: and that’s not a designation I’m willing to grant most people.
It’s hard to stare into someone’s eyes while you pee on them, but it takes the fun out of it not to. My pussy is hovering over your cock, almost touching it, and I want to fuck you at least as much as I want to fuck you up. Your cock actually twitches up towards my pussy, as though it longs for the feel of my warm piss.
“It’s so fucked up that you like this,” I mock. When I finally manage to get my pee out, you moan like I’ve just come on you. We are, of course, two people who are so delightfully fucked up together. “You’re disgusting,” I laugh, standing up and kicking your piss soaked balls with my foot. You grunt in pain as I do, but I know what you really want.
“You really want to jerk off while I do this, don’t you?”
“Yes, mistress,” you say meekly.
“Too bad,” I laugh, sloppily jerking your piss covered dick off with my foot.
The only thing I hate about these games is how filthy I get in the process, but it’s worth it to feel this improbable sense of erotic belonging. “Sit up,” I tell you, shooing you to the back of the tub with my foot. “You can sit in that filth for a minute where you belong while I get cleaned up.”
You look so bedraggled and nasty, wet and stinking of my piss, cock hard, and your whole body practically shuddering with some combination of degradation and desire. It’s gross, but it’s also one of the hottest sights I can imagine. I feel a little gross myself for thinking so, but I’m into feeling that kind of gross.
I stare down at the disgusting (and obviously aroused) huddle that is you while I shower. Once I’ve thoroughly washed myself off, I let you stand up and get yourself cleaned up. Then I bend you over outside the spray of the water so that your hands are pressed against the wall, your ass exposed. Pressed up tightly behind you, I run my fingers down your lower back and close to your ass. You instinctively lean into my touch, murmuring “fuccccckkkk.” I giggle.
Reaching far around your body, I stick two fingers in your mouth to suck. “You think that’s enough lube?” I ask teasingly, pulling them out.
“Probably not, mistress,” you croak, your voice hoarse with desire and fear.
“I’ll put real lube on them if you’ll lick them when I’m done.”
“Fuccccckkkk” is all you say in response.
“I’ll pretend like that means ‘yes,'” I laugh again. I add some lube, then push both fingers inside you. From the sounds of your moans, I could almost believe I’d pushed my entire fist in, but in truth I’m being gentle. From the inside, I can actually feel your cock rising more on the outside, and your whole body contracting in wanting.
“Please touch my cock, mistress,” you beg raggedly. Reaching around with my other hand, I do. Your cock is sticky with so much precum that I could almost believe you’d come without permission except that I can press against the walls of your ass harder and feel more come out when I do. It doesn’t take long before you beg, “Please can I come, mistress?”
“No,” I say lightly, stopping touching your cock. You groan, especially as I press harder into your ass, your fingers trying to dig into the unyielding tiles under them as if seeking comfort there. After a minute, I take my fingers out, and you moan again with disappointment until I stick them in your mouth.
“You got my fingers dirty, slut. Clean them up.” Your muffled noises are not ones of pleasure. “You don’t have to swallow.” You make muffled noises of relief.
I pretty quickly decide that I’ve had enough of tormenting you like this, and pull my fingers out so I can wash them in the shower while you just straight up spit into the tub. There’s something revoltingly satisfying about doing things to you that you hate–or perhaps it’s really just satisfying and arousing that you let me do these things. Once my hand is clean and I’ve made you brush your teeth, I towel both of us dry before dragging you back to bed.
Playing roughly with your dick, I tease, “You’re not hard any more, slut. I guess it’s time to go to sleep.”
“No no no, mistress,” you say pleadingly. “Please fuck me some more.”
Instead of playing with your dick, I press my hand down hard onto your throat, and I feel my clit get hard from the sound-that-is-not-a-sound of you not breathing. I barely have to stroke your dick with my other hand to make it hard once I’ve deprived you of air like this. I keep my hand on your throat as I climb on top of you, wriggling my pussy against your cock until I’ve teased it completely hard with my pussy lips. Watching your face tense from insufficient air, I finally have a kind of mercy on you and slide down your dick until it’s all the way inside me. I only let go of your throat once my pussy has taken full possession of your cock. You gasp for air when I let go of you, and your cock contracts inside me as you suck in air. Riding it very slowly, I stuff my hand into your mouth, pressing my fingers against the back of your throat until I feel it spasming against me, causing your cock to shudder inside me again. When I pull my hand out of you, I wipe your own spit all over your face.
Your cock still inside me, I lay down onto you so that my elbows are digging into your chest, with my face hovering just above yours. Your face jerks while you moan in pain from the weight of my body pressing into you so painfully, your whole chest trying to escape the pressure of me using your own body as leverage.
“I can smell your own spit on your face, slut,” I laugh. “I should add some of my own so you smell more like me.” Riding your cock intentionally too hard, I just open my mouth and let my own drool slide down onto your face.
You wriggle slightly beneath me from the complex combination of these many sensations before asking in an almost panicked tone, “Please may I cum, mistress?”
“Shhh,” I whisper. “You don’t need to cum, you just need to worship my pussy with your cock.” I slow the rhythm of my fucking down until I’m barely moving at all and instead start digging my fingernails from both hands into your chest. You scream, your body arching in pain and incidentally causing you to push deeper inside me.
“That was surprisingly pleasurable for me,” I laugh, staring down into your eyes, which are so wide at this point they seem to have taken over your face. I lean my mouth down closer to yours as if to kiss it, then when my lips are barely an inch from yours, I spit in it.
“Thank you, mistress,” you whimper, and I feel your cock twitching inside me in thanks too.
“You’re welcome, slut,” I say, wiping the combined mess of our saliva all over your face. I grab hold of the ring on your collar and use it to yank you and your body on top of mine, still inside me. Still holding onto your collar, staring into your eyes, I stick a finger from my other hand into your mouth and order, “Make me come, slut.”
It really doesn’t take long for you to get me so close, and I can feel how much me wanting to come makes you want to as well. “Please can I come, mistress?” you beg. I can’t not give in, for all that part of me still wants to torment you.
“Yes,” I moan. Dominant or not, there is a moment of mutual surrender from this kind of shared orgasm. Power is a poem that we write with our sweat and flesh and cum, a poem I can feel in my breath and blood and bones and cunt. My fingernails digging into your back as both our bodies shudder, I moan, “Mine” into your ear as we come. And yet, as soon as we’ve come, I can’t help feeling like sex is almost incidental in this game of power and owning that only sort of feels like a game.
You collapse beside me, your dick reluctantly falling out of me, and I reach between my legs to touch our combined cum and then paint some of it on your obedient tongue. “You’re so good,” I laugh, knowing how much you hate the taste of your own cum. I paint the whole mess on your lips like lipstick and then lick it off, enjoying pretending for a moment like your lips are pussy lips.
“Piss and spit and cum. Do you feel thoroughly claimed, slut?”
“Yes, mistress,” you say with your eyes closed, your face beaming with the blissful and slightly vacant expression of the owned.
I trace my fingers along your collar and feel the weight of your trust in the heavy metal ring on it. You let me do such disgusting things to you for my entertainment and pleasure, and I never quite know how to express my gratitude for that. I’m tired of doubting the sincerity of our dark intimacy, and tired of believing there’s something wrong with us for sharing it and wanting it.
When I was doubting myself earlier, your trust felt like a responsibility I couldn’t live up to. But when I actually believe in myself, your trust feels more like what it should be: a key to lock and unlock You that you’ve given me as a treasured gift.
“You’re a treasure,” I say, caressing my finger along your cheek and tracing it to the lock on the back of your neck. “And claiming you is my thanks for your trust. I’ll try to be worthy of it.” Kissing your neck just above your collar, I grin, adding, “Also, your trust is fucking hot.”
Gently tracing my initials into your flesh, I think, All I want from you is merely everything, adding ironically, no big deal.
Him: You’re going to get tired of making me ask permission to drink water. You don’t know how much I drink.
Me: Oh, trust me, I know. And I’m not going to get tired of it.
I have a confession to make: I find most 24/7 d/s relationships to be really boring. When I ask people what they do in them, they mostly tell me things like, “I take care of her,” “I get water for her,” and “Everything I do is for her.” When I ask them if they get anything sexual out of doing things for their partners, most of them say “no.” I don’t fucking get it.
But it’s not that I’m not into 24/7 d/s dynamics—I totally am. I just like the really fucked up shit, and it’s mostly sexual for me. I’d cheerfully keep a sub locked up and chained to a piece of furniture for… well, as long as I guess I reasonably could. I literally jerk off thinking about my sub asking permission to use the bathroom and telling them “no.” My ideal version of a sub is basically a sex toy who does whatever the fuck I want them to for my entertainment and pleasure. Their humanity is only really meaningful to me in this arrangement in as much as I find consent (as well as the blurry world of consensual non-consent) hot. (Despite appearances, I’m not actually much of a sadist, and a lot of the awful things I love to do I don’t even find hot—I just find it hot that someone will let me do them).
I generally divide up these two worlds of d/s into “affirmative d/s” and “the dark side of d/s.” In affirmative d/s dynamics, the idea is basically that the sub has been uplifted by being owned by the dominant; doms do things like tell their subs that the subs aren’t allowed to refer to themselves as “fat” or suggest that they’re in any way unworthy. There’s kind of a glowy look that subs in these dynamics get. Dark d/s subs, on the other hand, have generally been consensually downgraded through their submission. They and their dominants are happiest in the places where the sub’s humanity seems questionable, and you get comments like a friend of mine’s in reference to his sub that “sometimes she forgets and thinks she’s people.”
It shouldn’t escape any observant kinksters’ notice that the vast majority of long-term d/s relationships, whether primary or even fairly serious non-primary relationships, are affirmative d/s dynamics. People in those dynamics sometimes play in the territory of humiliation and degradation, but it’s not the core of the d/s arrangement. It turns out that it’s really hard to have a spouse who you treat as degraded property all the time (more plausible to do it on weekend retreats or just when you close the bedroom door, but still tricky).
Dark 24/7 d/s dynamics, which in their most extreme versions are just immersing yourself in a fucked up kinky fantasy life, are relatively rare because they’re wildly incompatible with the basic demands of real life and most people’s actual emotional needs–and ironically require a pretty serious dose of trust, compassion, honesty, and just generally knowing someone well. From observation and experience, I’m pretty convinced that if you’re addicted to this kind of intense hyper-kinked (and often hyper-sexed) fantasy, you’re unlikely to get it outside of the context of vacationships .
Staying cognizant of the emotional limitations of these vacationship “24/7 dynamics” is a perpetual challenge, since most of the people who are into them are really into them and tend to get kind of swept up in them. Moreover, if you find one, it’s hard to escape the sense that you’ve stumbled upon something precious because it’s so hard to find people who are into this fucked up shit, good at it, and don’t have questionable motivations for doing it, and who have good chemistry with you personally. Once you find your golden needle in a haystack, it’s hard not to want to metaphorically clutch it and cuddle it, but the reality is that it’s about as emotionally satisfying as cuddling that metaphorical needle: it’s sharp and not well-designed for that. …And yet… You journey into the dark parts of your self with someone else and you create a powerful intimacy and trust on that trip. And if you’re on the left side of the slash and you have an ounce of sense, you know that the end of that trip leaves you in a profoundly vulnerable place.
I think most of us in kinkland spend most of our time worried about the mental health, stability, relationship satisfaction, and general well-being of the subs in these dark d/s dynamics, but little to no time concerned about these things for the doms. I get why that is: we’re worried that the subs are being abused, or that they’ve only agreed to do these things because they have abysmal self-esteem—and these concerns are very valid. But in relationships that are completely consensual and voluntary (those are some big and important caveats), there’s a weird emotional/relationship imbalance that ends up accruing in these dynamics against the doms, which I think is the reason that most longish-term dark d/s dynamics I’ve ever heard of got broken off by the sub.
One of the most fucked up aspects of these relationships is that, to some (and sometimes to a great) extent, they’re built on the sub being afraid of the dom and hating many of the things the dom does to them. On some level, this tends to generalize to the sub also hating the dom a little bit too, but in some twisted way, just as they love hating the things the dom does to them, they love hating the dom. That’s a convoluted emotional labyrinth for most people to navigate, and it’s only made weirder and more twisted by the fact that terror, degradation, and humiliation are often the deepest core of intimacy in these relationships.
If the core of intimacy in affirmative d/s relationships is sort of a perpetual trust fall into loving arms, the core of intimacy in dark d/s relationships is the dom pushing the sub into a dark hole and then maybe eventually throwing them a rope ladder to climb out.
There are a few bleak inevitable emotional inequalities in this arrangement. First of all, unless they’re deep switches, doms tend to be pretty bewildered by what the subs are getting out of it. Doms in these dynamics live in a state of (aroused) cognitive dissonance and discomfort surrounded by the fact that their sub keeps telling them they hate something, but they’re obviously turned on by it and apparently keep doing it willingly. Yet the doms don’t really understand why.
The second problem is that even the most cheerfully degraded subs still usually have at least a few things that are genuinely “too much,” but neither they nor their doms are often terribly clear about where those lines are. Once ideas like “I hate that,” “that’s too much,” “I can’t do that,” and “please don’t do that” become so blurry that they’re sort-of meaningless, doms end up in this odd limbo where they’re worried about accidentally going too far and worried about not going far enough and boring their subs. Instead of meaning “stop,” all those phrases of dislike just become a means to emotional intimacy and kinky pleasure on both sides… right up until the moment when they don’t.
Every dom in these relationships inevitably crosses a line, and they don’t really know where the line is until they get to it. Sure, the subs have safewords, but not using them tends to be a matter of perverse pride for them, and in my experience, instead of safewording, all of them just get mad and yell at me if I hurt them too much. It’s pretty hard to know what “too much” is until you get there, especially because it often varies wildly by the day. Relatedly, guessing how the subs are going to react when stressed is often just a crap shoot: half the time, do something terrible to them when they’re in a bad mood, and they’re so much happier and relaxed than they were before, while the other half they’re furious with you. How do they feel about you after you cross those lines? At what point do you do something that’s unforgivable? Do you do cumulative damage to the dynamic every time you mess up, or is it basically okay as long as you don’t do it too often? Even more torturous is wondering if maybe you’re actually creating more of this fucked up intimacy by occasionally going too far, but if now it’s kind of the wrong kind of intimacy? No matter how much you pretend they aren’t people, the subs here still are, and they have actual feelings. About you.
Which brings me to the third and biggest problem. While you’re building this perverse intimacy with someone, it just doesn’t look the same on both sides. Subs are getting slowly lost in this twisted labyrinth of simultaneously fearing, hating, being attracted to, and possibly loving their doms, and all the while the doms just kind of adore the subs for letting them do this shit to them. Sure, there may be a fucked up part of the dom’s brain that actually, genuinely, truly believes that they own this piece of property formerly known as a person, but any reasonably healthy person knows that that piece of property is actually a rare fucking miracle of a person for letting them do (and seemingly enjoying) the things the dom always thought they were a terrible person for fantasizing about.
Thus you end up with this twisted relationship dynamic where, for a variety of reasons–including the fact that it’s what turns them on–the subs get increasingly ambivalent feelings about their doms, but the doms unambivalently like their subs. That doesn’t exactly put the two of you on equal emotional footing in terms of the relationship.
I wrote an erotica years ago that ended with the sub telling her dom, “I hate you,” and him telling her, “shhh, you’re trying not to cum.” I find that fucked up emotional place to be incredibly sexy, but it ultimately makes the doms weirdly emotionally vulnerable. If you’re genuinely emotionally invested in your sub (and, perversely, you can’t cultivate hatred without emotional investment), wondering if they actually hate you will keep you up at night even if the memory of them saying that in bed is pure wank fodder. And that inequality is just exacerbated by the fact that even in the most degraded of dark d/s dynamics, it’s very hard to imagine a dom telling their sub, “I hate you,” because that’s just not the way this usually plays out. When you build a dynamic around one person’s eroticized hatred and the other’s eroticized malevolent sense of ownership, any smart person knows they’re going to end up with some warped interpersonal dynamics. But contrary to what you might expect, in a real world of genuine consent, I don’t think the warp favors the dom. Even though both people have the power to walk away from this, we all know who’s a lot more likely to do the walking; despite being tied down, chained up, and leashed, I’m pretty sure it’s mostly the subs.
 I usually define vacationships as “real” relationships where people see each other intensely, but only occasionally. One of the signals of a vacationship is that you clean the house, get dressed up, and clear your schedule because the partner is coming over. You don’t have to try to schedule a “date night” with a vacationship partner, because any time you spend with them is basically by definition date night. You can’t really get the kind of trust you need for super intense dark d/s dynamics out of a casual encounter, but you run into the aforementioned pragmatic day-to-day + emotional problems if you try to do it in the context of more serious long-term relationships. (I’m sure everyone reading this will have one exception to the claim that dark d/s dynamics mostly only work in the context of vacationships over the long haul. Cool. But I’ve watched a lottttt of kinky relationships over the years, and those people stand out because they’re exceptions… And even most of the ones I thought seemed okay later ended in acrimonious messes).
Evie Lupine interviewed me about the academic side of BDSM for her YouTube channel. You can check out the video at this link. Enjoy!
“Do you really have to go?” I whispered in his ear.
He smiled sadly. “Yes,” he said simply.
As soon as he got into my house and put down his bags, he knelt in front of me.
“Are you going to do whatever I tell you to, slut?” I asked.
Going through this ritual, stroking the velvet of his collar and then putting it on him for the first time in so long, I actually breathed a sigh of relief. The simple act of locking him up and claiming him felt like a release for something heavy inside me.
Pushing my hands ungently through his hair, pulling it slightly, I purred, “This is where you belong. On your knees, locked up for me.”
I stayed like that for a moment, but eventually I couldn’t resist standing up all the way and stepping over him. My long skirt was just black lace, and I deliberately surrounded him with it. He looked like he’d been completely veiled by me, and under my skirt, he began kissing the inside of my legs, his hands running up and down them. It felt so good that I actually giggled because it was hard to keep my balance. When his soft lips reached the place where my underwear met my thigh, he pulled away long enough to ask, “Please can I lick your pussy, mistress?”
The mere fact of him asking turned me on even more than the feel of his ardent lips and hands. “Yes,” I gasped, my voice catching.
He pulled my underwear aside, and gently started licking my labia. By the time he moved to my clit, I really couldn’t keep standing any more. Reluctantly, I stepped away from him, then pulled up on his hair to force him to stand up.
For the first time since he knelt before me, I looked directly at his face. His eyes were glazed, as though he simply got lost in the folds of my skirt – – or me. I found that look impossibly arousing, and in it a confirmation that he really would do whatever I said. I felt the heat rising in my face as I absorbed that look, and he whimpered slightly as I leaned in to bite his bottom lip, not kissing him. His lip tasted like it belonged to me, and not just because it tasted a little bit like my pussy. The softness of it between my hard teeth was such a delicious contrast that I wanted to hold onto it until it bruised.
But I didn’t, because his mouth was too pretty and useful to wreck.
He sat up in bed, automatically bending his head forward. Without being asked, I took off the earring I was wearing with the key to his lock, and knelt behind him to unlock the lock holding the collar around his neck.
In movies, the click of a lock opening like that symbolizes joy and freedom, usually from arrest or capture. But in bed, that tiny metallic click is an awful sound, like a door closing as someone you love leaves. The magic has ended; the lights have come up at the end of the play. This time, you’re left with dirty sheets to change, a trashcan full of condoms to empty, and a handful of velvet memories.
I held his collar in my hands as he turned his head to me, kissed me gently, then got out of bed.
I hooked my finger into the loop on his collar and dragged him (oh so willingly) up to my bedroom. I left him standing in front of me, while I lounged across my bed, still fully dressed in very little.
“Take off your clothes, slut,” I said archly.
He wasn’t wearing anything a stripper would wear, and he didn’t make a production out of it, but I didn’t want him to. He just pulled his t-shirt over his head, and then started unzipping his jeans, revealing his dick pressing insistently against his underwear. Then he took his underwear off too, leaving him wearing nothing but an impressive erection.
“You look like food,” I told him, crooking my finger to beckon him closer. Still seated, I leaned forward to close my mouth around his dick, which was almost too big to swallow. Almost. Biting down hard at the base of it, I dug my fingernails into his balls, hearing him gasp and watching him struggle to stay upright. Still holding his balls, coming up for air, I asked, “How much do you think you can take, slut?”
“Whatever you tell me to, mistress.”
“That’s a very good answer, pretty,” I said, relinquishing his balls, and gently lapping at the head of his dick with my tongue. And then I pulled a truly awful contraption out from under my bed and held it up for him to see. “Even this?”
He gulped visibly, but nodded.
“I won’t do it unless you ask for it, slut,” I said, dragging one of my fingernails along his dick.
He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and said, “Please lock up my cock, mistress.”
I grinned. “Well, since you asked so nicely! I mean, I think this is technically a chastity cage, but you’re just not that kind of slut, are you?”
He shook his head nervously, and then I put a metal ring full of awful spikes around the base of his dick and locked it in place with an absurdly incongruous heart-shaped lock.
“You’re the kind of masochist who thinks this is a cock ring, aren’t you?” I mocked. “You’re still totally hard.” He whimpered again. “What do you want, slut?” I teased, licking the head of his dick again.
“Please can I fuck you, mistress?” he begged, sounding a little bit frantic.
“With that on?” I laughed. “Don’t you think that will just make it hurt worse?”
“Yes, mistress,” he said, his voice redolent with obedience and desire.
“Fine, but if you can’t make me come with it on, I won’t let you come until tomorrow.”
He groaned, but stood still while I put a condom on him, and then laid down on top of me.
“You can take off my underwear,” I said generously, wondering even as I said it how the fabric of it pushing against his dick would have made his predicament even worse.
As he stood up, I tried to enjoy the sight of his naked, slightly sweaty, just-fucked body, but all I could think was, I have no idea when I’ll see this again. Until a minute ago, I forced myself to live in the moment for days, enjoying everything about his body touching me right now and never letting myself think for more than a fleeting second about the fact that he would, inevitably, have to go eventually.
That’s a lie. I did think about it for more than a second, but every time I did, I comforted myself with the fiction that he’d be back before I knew it.
“You look nervous,” I mocked, taking hold of his dick with my hand to position it between my legs. He gasped. “Aw, does that hurt?” I teased.
“Everything hurts,” he choked out.
“I’m sure that will just make you want to come harder,” I taunted. “Don’t worry, this will make it better,” I cooed, lifting my hips up to force his dick inside me, then intentionally clenching my pussy around it.
He screamed, and then my pussy clenched without me even trying, just because I was so turned on from the sounds of his pain. I wrapped my legs around his back, hooking my ankles together to force him to stay inside me.
“You begged to fuck me, slut,” I hissed. “So do it.”
“Yes, mistress,” he gasped. I unhooked my ankles, and he lifted himself up more to gain more leverage. Biting his lip in pain, he slowly started moving inside me. Every time I pulsed my pussy around his dick, he gasped, which was incredibly satisfying.
“Please can I come, mistress?” he begged.
“No, but by all means keep asking,” I said, making no serious attempts to come myself just to draw out his torment. “And pull your dick all the way out and come back in.” Looking defeated, he did exactly that, which caused both of us to gasp simultaneously–me with pleasure, and him with agony.
“Please can I come, mistress?” he pleaded again.
“No,” I said, pulling my pussy off of him this time.
“Thank you, mistress,” he panted in relief, sweating from the effort of pleasing me and trying not to come.
“Are you thanking me for not letting you come?”
“Hm, I thought so.” I grabbed hold of his dick again, causing him to gasp, and forced it back inside me. This time I reached down to touch my clit while he fucked me, and the look on his face was positively desperate.
“Do you want me to come, slut?”
“Even though you know it will make my pussy clench around you so much harder and make it almost impossible for you not to come?”
Gasping, my pussy shuddered around his dick as I came, and he actually screamed, which only made me come harder.
“You’re a good slut,” I panted, stuffing my fingers into his mouth to suck my cum off, his dick still inside me, albeit no longer moving.
I should get dressed, I thought. What the fuck am I going to do in this bed once he leaves except morosely caress the cum stains on the sheets and try not to cry from how empty it feels?
How do I look if I beg him to stay? I wondered. Pathetic, sweet, or cute? I care too much about my dignity to tell him how much I don’t want him to go, but even to me, that pride seems pathetic too.
I’m so used to telling him what to do, but I don’t get to tell him what to do this time. Even a dom can’t order you to stay.
“I think you deserve a reward for making me come with that awful thing on,” I said, pulling my fingers out of his mouth.
“Thank you, mistress.”
He pulled out of me, and I unlocked the lock on his dick, freeing it. There were tiny dents at the base of his dick where the spikes had poked him. I licked them, and he moaned.
“Well, I freed your dick, but now I think I’ll just capture the rest of you,” I grinned.
I put cuffs on his wrists and ankles, then attached them to latches on the bed. Spread eagled and still hard, I thought he looked more like food than ever.
“You know, you ought to look like you’re at my mercy like this, but you look like you want it too much, slut,” I teased. It was true. He looked more like a cat that got the cream than a compromised sub.
He grinned lazily. “I think you knew what you were getting when you threw me into your bed.”
I pounced, sitting on top of his chest, and pulled my excuse for a dress off over my head. Then I grabbed his balls with one hand and choked his throat above his collar with the other. “My own fucking slut?” He nodded as best he could while I choked him. “Yes, I was well aware.” He actually looked a little bit disappointed when I stopped choking him, although his eyes were much more glazed with my hand still clutching his balls. I looked down at him. “You’re a whore who’s dying to have me fill your ass, aren’t you?”
I moved back a little bit so that I could sit on the bed and extend my leg enough to put my toes in his mouth. “Do you want me to fuck your ass with my foot, slut?”
He cringed a little bit as he stopped sucking my toes long enough to admit, “Yes, mistress.”
“Don’t worry too much,” I mockingly assured him. “I’ll start with my hand.”
As I stared at him fully dressed in front of me, I couldn’t help but notice the ironic reversal of convention: a naked dom, sitting in bed, with a fully clothed sub standing in front of her. But that moment of irony was quickly overtaken by the conventional fears and doubts of every nervous dom ever: wondering if he’d ever be back, terrified that this time I’d pushed him too far, never quite believing him when he said he loves the terrible things I do to him.
If he doesn’t come back, it’s my fault, the awful voices in my head whispered.
Tell me again that it’s okay, that you’re okay, I want to beg. But you can only ask so many times.
I’ve never felt as vulnerable and exposed as I do when I’m controlling him.
I grabbed two sets of nipple clamps with chains, and attached a clamp to each of his nipples, then to my own, chaining us together. This wasn’t remotely fair, since my nipples were several times the size of his, so the clamps hurt me a lot less. But fair was hardly the point, of course. The point was that I like having my nipples pinched, and that whenever I moved too far away from him, I’d make him scream. I gave them an experimental tug, just to make sure they’d stay on, and his instant moan of pain was a good clue that I had the right idea.
I put a glove on and, feeling kind, lubed up my whole hand. I pushed two fingers in his ass relatively gently, and he looked incredibly happy.
“You’re such an ass slut,” I teased, wriggling my fingers inside him and watching how his dick reflexively twitched in response. I could see the desperate look in his eyes from wanting to touch his cock, but of course, his hands were pinned to the bed. He bit his lip, and I waited for him to ask, still moving my fingers inside him.
“Please will you touch my cock, mistress?”
“Sure,” I said, digging all five fingernails from my other hand into his cock. He screamed, and I intentionally jerked my body back too, pulling on the nipple chains between us, which made him scream even louder and me gasp. “You might want to be more specific if there’s something particular you want,” I warned cheerfully.
His voice sounded a bit choked as he pleaded, “Will you please be nice to my cock, mistress?”
“Probably not.” Instead I added another finger to the two already in his ass, and watched with delight as his hips bucked (clearly wishing he could fuck me too) and his entire face contorted in pained desire.
“Try begging,” I suggested.
“Please will you touch my cock, mistress? Please?”
“You still just don’t sound quite frantic enough.”
He looked like he was going to bite his lip off in desperation.
“How’s this?” I suggested, adding another finger to his ass and enjoying his writhing scream as I did. “I’ll touch your dick if you promise to lick my toes after I put them in your ass if you ask me to stop.”
He groaned, looking trapped and disgusted and aroused all at once. “Yes, mistress,” he said in a small voice.
“You’re such an ass slut that you’ll agree to just about anything to keep me fucking you, won’t you?”
“Yes, mistress,” he said meekly.
I started sucking his cock, my fist still in his ass, but I barely lasted a minute before he looked and sounded frantic. “Please stop, mistress, you’ll make me come!”
I took my mouth away and gently stroked his dick with my other hand, but even with that he instinctively shook both his head and one of his pinned hands. “Please!” he begged. I laughed.
“You spent so much time asking me to touch your dick, and now you’re begging me to stop. You really can’t make up your mind, can you, whore?”
He just whimpered.
“Well, I think now is a great time to switch to my foot,” I said, pulling my hand out slowly, taking my glove and the nipple clamps on me off, and putting my toes briefly in his mouth to suck on again. I fucking loved the way his tongue and lips felt on them, and I could almost come from the sensation. But instead of sinking into the feeling, I pulled my toes out and added some lube to them. Then I put two toes in his ass.
His ass was already very open from having had most of my hand in it, and my absurdly sensitive toes reveled in the warm, wet, tightness of him. I got another toe in easily, and then started stroking his dick with my other foot. I really didn’t expect that to do much, but he started moaning in a way that strongly suggested it was, and his ass clenched around my toes as well. I managed to contort my foot until I had all five toes inside him, and at that point he screamed and begged, “Please can I come, mistress?”
“Yes,” I said easily, which should have been his warning that doing so might not really be in his best interest. But I was far too intrigued by the prospect of making him come with just my feet to say no anyway. His ass twitched around my toes as he came, while splatters of his cum ended up between the toes on the other foot. I pulled my foot gently out of his ass, then rubbed the other foot in the puddle of cum on his stomach before sticking those toes in his mouth.
“Clean up your mess, you dirty slut, and be very grateful I didn’t push you into having to clean up the other foot,” I ordered. I pulled the nipple clamps off his nipples, making him scream, but then he diligently started cleaning his cum off my toes while I laid back and played with my clit. His mouth felt so good on my toes that it didn’t take much for me to come, and I felt my toes twitching in his mouth in an echo of the way his ass had just twitched on my other foot.
I pulled my toes out of his mouth, and then I put another glove on my hand and lubed it up.
“Fuck,” he said, and I just grinned wickedly at him as I pushed two fingers back into his overfucked ass.
His dick was only half hard, and his whole body jerked as I mercilessly found his prostate and stroked it. I was sure that if he wasn’t tied down, he would have tried to curl his body into a protective ball. Instead, he laid helplessly spread open, while he screamed, his head rocking from side to side in a silent “no.”
“You loved this just a minute ago,” I teased.
“It feels completely different after I come,” he managed to say, although it was clear that he was having a lot of trouble talking through the pain.
“I know. Poor slut, tortured by your own pleasures.”
“This… Isn’t… Pleasure…”
“Fair. Tortured by my pleasures then.” I watched him writhe some more, and then generously promised, “I’ll stop whenever you ask.” I loved adding a whole other layer to his torment: an explicit challenge to see what he could take from me.
His face was absolutely contorted in agony, and he didn’t last much longer before he just said, “Please.” I knew he didn’t want to actually ask me to stop.
“Please what?” I asked innocently.
“Please,” he said more insistently.
“Please you want to come?” I teased.
His voice was thick with pain and something close to shame as he begged, “Please stop.”
“Ooookay,” I said, pulling my fingers out of him with an evil wink.
I could deal with him walking out my door so much more easily if he was just taking himself.
You always give a piece of yourself away when you let someone in too deep. But I knew, with an ache that permeated my entire body, that I’d given him too much. From the first moment I ever pulled him up off his knees and into my bed, I foolishly gave him my desires. Anonymous fantasies I’d had for years now had a face, voice, smell, and taste: his.
Getting exactly what you want is a dangerous thing.
Now when he leaves, he won’t just be taking himself. He’ll be taking my fantasies with him.
I gave him a minute to clean himself up alone before pushing him into the shower with me. “Such a dirty whore,” I mocked. I gently soaped his entire body, then rinsed it with the shower head, careful to try to keep his collar dry. When I was done, I told him, “You got them dirty, so wash my feet.” He bent down to do so, and by the time my toes were clean when he stood back up, he was already a little bit hard.
I pushed him against the wall at the back of the shower and kissed him for the first time since he’d arrived. I loved the feel of his soft lips against mine, but even as I enjoyed the physical sensation, I was still distracted by the ever present electric current of power between us. “You belong to me,” I whispered in his ear, taking his now completely hard cock into my hand.
“Yes, mistress.” I kissed him again, but now it felt a little bit violent, my tongue playing with his as if it sought to win a game.
A game that was long since won.
I hastily pulled him out of the shower by his dick, got us both dried off, and dragged him back to my bed. We curled up naked around each other, kissing each other’s mouths and necks, our hands frantically moving all over each other’s bodies at the same time. I tilted my head so he could suck my ear, then felt my body quivering as he trailed kisses down from my ear, over my neck, all the way down to my nipple. My nipple was so sore from the clamps earlier that his tongue on it almost made me come.
His dick kept brushing against my thigh, trailing against the outside of my labia, and all I could think about was how much I wanted it inside me. But even though I felt a little bit drunk with desire, I still wanted to hear him ask for it even more than I wanted the thing itself.
I grabbed hold of the loop on his collar and pulled his face to mine, our lips almost touching. “Ask for it, slut,” I told him.
“Please can I fuck you, mistress? Please can I make you come?”
“Yes,” I said, and fucking meant it. I let myself come almost as soon as his dick was inside me, and I kept coming over and over until finally my pussy was so exhausted that I just told him to come with me one last time.
He collapsed beside me in contented exhaustion, his head resting on my chest. “You are the prettiest fucking toy,” I murmured into his hair, damp from the shower and from sweat.
“Thank you, mistress,” he said, his lips moving against my neck. “I’m yours.”
Lifting his face to me by the ring on his collar, I kissed him emphatically and said, “You are mine. Don’t you fucking forget it.”
“When will I see you again?” I finally forced myself to ask as he left.
“Soon,” he promised, blowing me a kiss.
It’s never soon enough.