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D/s burnout, Part I: Explorations and Experiences
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…
Shameless plug: if you like my writing, please pre-order my book about the BDSM subculture 🙂
The Art of Breaking Up
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.
On the vulnerabilities of dominants
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).
Cracked.com: BDSM relationships
Along with several other folks, I gave an interview for Cracked.com on BDSM relationships.
You can also check out my book chapter on BDSM relationships here.
Good friend: “Welllll… You guys are ‘European married.’ It’s not really what other people think being married means.
I’ve been asked the question before: “If you’re going to fall in love with and sleep with other people, why did you bother to get married?” The answer for me personally remains pretty straightforward—because I wanted my now-husband to be the person who decided what happens to my broken body if I get in a car wreck, not my parents. While that was the most pressing point, there are a whole host of other social and economic benefits that come from being married, including tax breaks and insurance… Although I am personally very much opposed to the legal institution of marriage, trying to live up to that particular principle is a pain in the ass, and my now-husband and I were both quite poor and financially desperate when we got married, so we weren’t really in a position to do a complex dance to try to take advantage of the legal parts of being married that we liked while sidestepping the social bullshit we didn’t. And so we wrote monogamy out of our wedding vows and moved on with our lives.
Did I surprise you with how unromantic that explanation sounded? Oh… sorry. To my way of thinking, a legal marriage is a business contract. It’s the relationshipthat is loving and romantic, not the marriage.
I could rant for hours about all the reasons that I hate the social institution of marriage. I hate the trappings of marriage and the way that people take the label “husband” so much more seriously than that of “partner” or “boyfriend.” And despite the teasing of one of our dear friends, who has pointed out repeatedly that our idea of being “married” and most people’s idea of being “married” have little to do with one another, the label does fit pretty well. My husband and I started dating at my 18th birthday party, and we never even did that teenage make-up/break-up thing. We’ve been together for very close to half our lives at this point. We’ve been together longer than many people a decade older than us. Our relationship is a huge part of who I am as a person, and I think that’s a big part of what people think “spouse” means.
And for all that I grumble about the social institution of marriage, I think I understand pretty well at this point what commitment looks like to me and my husband. Other people may be confused by it, but unless they’re emotionally involved with us, I don’t really give a fuck what they think about it. For us it’s about spending an agreed upon amount of fun-time (including sex and cuddles and lounging-doing-nothing) and responsible grown-up adulting time together, loving each other and our cats, building and maintaining a home together, keeping each other physically and emotionally safe, sharing a bank account, planning to retire together, planning everything from tomorrow night to future retirement together, and–most importantly–planning to continue doing all of these things together indefinitely. I’ve been doing this whole committed-to-my-husband for a long time now, and I think I’ve got this one figured out (knock on wood).
But goddamn am I confused about what commitment should look like in my other (real/wistful/hypothetical) relationships.
I don’t think it’s just the fact that I’m married and trying to be in relationships with other people that creates the confusion. I think that if I were “single” and poly, I’d be every bit as confused (and there’s just no world in which I can imagine being monogamous, so don’t even ask me to try. It’s like telling a gay person to imagine their life as a straight person). I think some of that confusion is personal; I think some of it is the particular confusion of a very kinky, hypersexual, polysexual, polyamorous cis-femme; and I think a lot of it is because dating norms in America in general are in a state of mad flux.
I don’t really struggle with the “relationship escalator”—the idea that people just automatically expect a relationship to take a very specific trajectory of increasing seriousness that eventually leads to marriage, childbearing, and a white picket fence. I never expected to get on that escalator in the first place, since I grew up planning to live a communal poly existence, not a normal marriage. I don’t sit around biting my nails, thinking that if I don’t share a bank account and a mortgage with someone and hyphenate our last names, it means we can’t have a “real” relationship. But I do sit around a lot wondering what the fuck commitment means in these non-standard relationships, what it looks like, what its value is, and why—in spite or because of my very kinky, hypersexual, polysexual, polyamorous nature—I still crave it like whoa. Here’s what I’ve come up with.
- Commitment is the security blanket that supports my feeling that I can safely trust you. It doesn’t have to be a relationship title, but commitment is an implicit promise that you value our relationship enough that I can believe you won’t break your word to me; not just because you’re a good person, but because you value our relationship and don’t want to damage it. It means that you really don’t want to do things that would hurt our relationship because you want the relationship to stay strong and healthy.
- Commitment is the security blanket that helps prevent jealousy and insecurity. If you make a commitment to me and honor it, I don’t have to worry that just because you hooked up with that pretty young thing last week that you’re just going to meander away from what we have together in a fit of twitterpated distraction. Of course, I might still worry anyway, or you might still meander anyway, but that’s why it’s a security blanket–not a guarantee (ditto with the trust thing above).
- Commitment is the thing that makes me feel like I can plan my life with you. Not necessarily in that “let’s build a house together and plant a garden of hopes and dreams together” way, but in that “I want to know you’ll make it worth my while to not date other people” way. I know planning makes some people twitchy, but NOT planning is the thing that makes me twitchy. I’m enough of a relationship anarchist at this point that I don’t see the symbolic representation of a relationship in a title; I see the symbolic representation of the relationship in its cumulative presence in my google calendar. But “commitment” isn’t about the past there: it’s about the future, and about the times we expect and plan to spend together. It’s the promise to make time and energy for each other in the foreseeable and unforeseeable future. I see commitment in all the marked and unmarked places we make time for each other in the future.
- Meanwhile, without commitment, it feels like any declaration of my own needs or an objection to the way the “relationship” is going is practically an ultimatum. We haven’t agreed to try to improve our “relationship” at any point because we haven’t agreed we have one. So if I/you don’t like the way things are going, do we just give up and stop seeing each other? Relationship processing is an inevitable and necessary part of having a healthy relationship, but how can we have a serious conversation about the state of the relationship and how things are going when we haven’t agreed to HAVE a relationship? The idea of trying to fit needs, wants, and desires together without commitment just feels like a confusing and hopeless proposition to me.
- Without commitment… it feels like the “relationship” only exists as long as things are going well. If my mom is dying in the hospital, and I’m crying all the time, and emotionally messy, I feel like you’re not going to want me anymore because all I’ve really signed up for is to be your sexy entertainment. If your mom is dying in the hospital, and you’re crying all the time, and emotionally messy, I don’t know how to support you because that’s not really the role of an entertainer either. You can’t hold me up in crisis, and I can’t hold you up in crisis, if the most we’ve agreed to be to one another is a party date next week.
- And so… If you feel like you can’t ask me for help, and if I feel like I can’t ask you for help, our relationship dynamic is doomed to superficiality. One of the most important ways that humans connect and build intimacy between each other is by asking for help when they need it. But if we feel like we’re not allowed to ask each other for help, or if we’ve just made the unfortunate decision to be fiercely independent, we’re basically guaranteed to hit a terrible ceiling on intimacy that has nothing to do with the relationship escalator.
Through all of those positives and negatives, the best definition I’ve come up with for commitment in the context of relationships (romantic and otherwise) is simply the mutual promise to share and maintain things of value for that relationship. That might be the promise of time, energy, affection, shared information, shared activities, and/or a relationship title. Without those things, it feels like what you’re left with is an easily disposable fragile semblance of a relationship. As long as you’re having fun and things look shiny and pretty, it’s fine; but as soon as challenges arise—as they inevitably do—what then?
Both intellectually and emotionally, I want to believe that my partners (including my husband) are with me just because they want to be. I don’t want to believe that they stay with me because they feel obliged to by legal, social, or economic necessity. I want regular affirmation that people are in relationships with me because they want to be. But for those “relationships” to mean more than just “we hang out and have a good time together,” I think there has to be something that looks like… commitment.
For My Husband on Our Tenth Wedding Anniversary
Our culture has a terrible habit of thinking that a relationship is only successful if the couple stays together until they die. You and I have said that we think we’re entitled to one successful relationship at least every 5 good years. That means we’ve had 3 good relationships together so far, with 1 of them as a pair of kids dating, 1 as a pretty normally married young adult couple, and 1 of them as a zanily married not-very-grown-up couple. I love the life we have built together, and I thank the gods constantly for the blessing you have been in my life. I hope that I am fortunate enough to have a lot more successful relationships with you; I certainly intend to. I don’t really like the idea of being old, but I hope with all my heart that if the gods are kind enough to let me grow old with you, we’ll be the crotchety old people shocking everyone else with the indecent amounts of fun we have. I am a better person because of who you are and what you bring to my life. I know of no better way to say “I love you” than that.
I didn’t believe in marriage when I met you, and I still have a lot of doubts about the institution as a whole. But I believe in the life we have made together, eccentric as it is.
Happy 10th anniversary, husband. May our very different gods continue to compromise and bless our peculiar union.
I love you.