Tech geekery in both my professional and personal life has kept me away from this blog for a short while, but it was relationship angst that initiated the suspension of my time here. I got upset with Eileen for one reason or another (it doesn’t really matter for this entry).
When you’re in a relationship—any relationship—it can be hard to express being upset. When you’re in a relationship that’s specifically structured around power imbalances and the notion that things are unfair, it’s that much harder to express being upset. Being actually angry doesn’t always even present itself as an option.
Something somewhat astonishing to me is the fact that a lot of people who are enticed by the “things are unfair” idea seem to think this kind of emotional repression is actually the way such relationships are supposed to work, and that there’s nothing wrong with that. Some people even use phrases like “Master/slave relationship” or “protocols” or other intelligent-sounding words to codify this behavior into a full-fledged system or “lifestyle.”
Ultimately, this is not actually so hard to understand. Like so many other things, this behavior is an example of people structuring their relationships around their fantasies instead of structuring their fantasies around their relationships. The trap is in a particularly persistent blind spot most people have: their sexual desires.
Kink in Exile articulates one manifestation of this so clearly that I simply have to quote her:
I have seen more than one d/s relationship that seemed to be founded on at least one of the partnerâ€™s fear of being an adult and having to make decisions. Explain to me again how you willingly give power to your master or mistress if you donâ€™t have that power to begin with? Submitting has to come from a place of power and control over your life, otherwise whatâ€™s the point? Otherwise you are not handing control of your life or even your evening over to your dominant, you are seeking out a caretaker.
Of course, doing anything like this is what we tech geeks call a Bad Thing. When people do this, they consistently fail to identify distinctions between different components of their relationship to one another and in doing so they often fail to address even the most basic of relationship concerns. In other words, a slave in a “Master/slave relationship” is still a person in a relationship first, and a slave second.
There’s this concept of layers, or more technically a stack, that is fundamental to the construction of many things in our world today. The basic idea is that one layer builds upon the things it receives from the layer beneath it and provides things to build upon to the layer above it. In this way, a robust and reliable system can be developed—and maintained—by segmenting different pieces of the system.
I think that a D/s relationship could benefit from a construction similar to this. It’s the way I think about my relationship with Eileen. I am at once her friend, her lover, her boyfriend, and her slave. Indeed, I am her slave because I am her boyfriend, and I am her boyfriend because I am her lover, and I am her lover because I am her friend.
Our relationship developed in a decidedly organic way; right place, right time, right person. I’d been playing for long before I met her, and I’d been looking for submission in a number of venues. When I didn’t find fertile ground, I thought maybe submission wasn’t for me. That’s why I was a self-described bottom and not “a submissive.” Of course, I’m submissive now to Eileen but this is because submission is the top (or last) layer that rests upon quite a few other things.
It turns out that, at least for me, any meaningful submission requires a foundation of both friendship and sexual attraction. Only once these things are established does the opportunity for submission seem to be present.
Being aware of this construction helps in many ways. One of the first questions I ask myself these days when confronting some kind of emotional obstacle (or novelty) is: “In which layer does this interaction belong?”
For instance, it’s clear that asking for her permission before I allow myself the pleasure of an orgasm is an interaction that belongs in the D/s dynamic we’ve engaged in. Thus, it’s a higher-layer interaction, and it relies on the well-being of lower layers. Contrastingly, cleaning the bathtub because it’s dirty and we don’t want our drain to clog is probably something that belongs in the friendship layer; I’d do that for any roommate, not just one that sexually dominates me. As Tom puts it,
doing nice things for each other is one of the lubricants of a good relationship.
For the first time in over a year, I asked Eileen for a break from orgasm denial that weekend when I was feeling upset. I had already accidentally had two orgasms, felt terrible about them, and was in an emotional state in which I couldn’t deal with maintaining that explicit D/s dynamic because the boyfriend dynamic was having trouble. Of course, this was an extreme case, but it serves as a useful illustrative example of this concept in action.
This entire concept is, of course, a drastic simplification of emotional interactions. Obviously, I clean the tub sometimes because I am submissive, and I’ll ask for an orgasm because I’m Eileen’s lover and my own sexual gratification is served by the asking. The difference between theory and practice, is, of course, that in theory practice is the same as theory whereas in practice they are different.
That said, the point still stands. When there are problems, you need to address them at the layer or with an approach that actually confronts the issue, instead of sidestepping it. That’s what Eileen and I do when we have issues to work out. She never pulls the “but I’m your Mistress” card when we’re not dealing with an issue that’s a part of the D/s layer. It would be harmful to do so.