On Communication Within a Dom/Sub Partnership
Since posting my previous article I've done quite a lot of writing on BDSM, but it has been entirely in response to reader emails. I see a steady trickle of them, and do my best to answer the questions they pose. Far and away the most common kind of query I receive from readers is about their partners. One example:
My submissive tries to pull away from the D/s part [of] our relationship more and more. ... Which is strange since she [had] suggested we bring this into our relationship. Any advice?
Indeed, I do have some advice. Have you asked her how she’s feeling about your relationship and your D/s interactions? Have you asked her what her reasons are for the specific events where she appears to be pulling away? And if you have not asked her, why not?
The more I am with him the more I want to be completely dominated and ... do ritualistic things every day... I would feel really weird telling him this though, and I was just wondering if you had any advice?
Advice? Absolutely! Does he ask to hear your thoughts and feelings about him? Do you ask him such questions? Curiosity about your partner contributes a lot to mutual understanding.
Sparks, intangible chemistry, are what ignite a romance. But constant communication is its oxygen, the wind that whips it into an illuminating, consuming fire that sustains and comforts the lovers. So the need for open communication, and the struggles that we have with it, is one of the key things you need to know about BDSM relationships. If you do not share your needs, desires, aspirations, fears, insights, and curiosity with your partner, and ask them to divulge theirs, you cannot have a fulfilling kinky romance. I tend to be reflexively inquisitive and transparent with people, but many have different instincts, especially when it comes to those with whom they are closest.
Here then are some talking tips to keep the embers of your romance flickering brightly.
Learn what inhibits you from engaging. If you're hesitant to share a thought with, or ask a question of, your partner, ask yourself why. Is it your own reticence that prevents you, or a legitimate fear of how they might respond? Many kinky people have discomfort or internal conflict or shame about their kinks. (I felt conflicted for years after my first D/s romance.) And many fear the judgment of a partner, due to a history of judgment in prior relationships or family. Knowing what stops you will help you move past it.
Be up-front about yourself. Many kinky people start relationships without knowing whether their partner is kinky themselves. Talking about one's D/s needs with an acquaintance can be scary, so people often put it off. But once in a relationship, bringing it up risks a breakup. There are ways to raise the topic of BDSM in conversation without laying yourself bare: ask what someone thinks about the Fifty Shades of Gray phenomenon, or whether they have thoughts on gender roles. And remember that what you say at the outset is not written in stone; you can always offer amendments!
Don't expect your partner to read your mind. There's a mythology about D/s: that a dom gets inside the sub's head and reads her deepest thoughts; that a sub tunes into the dom's channel, and anticipates his needs before he utters a word. These things don't happen. They may seem to happen at times, but what's really going on is subtle, non-verbal communication or common serendipity. When you have such synchronicity going, it's awesome, but you probably won't have it all the time.
Express your curiosity. You have to ask what’s going on for your partner, and perhaps ask in different ways until clarity emerges. You may have to ask them to rephrase their answers. And do ask follow-up questions, derived from what they say. When trying to satisfy your curiosity, don't head off on a tangent about yourself when something said reminds you of something else. Interviewing your partner is always illuminating!
Volunteer your thoughts and feelings. Pause to think about what you're about to say, and try to be clear and succinct. Take into account where your partner is at that moment when you begin to speak. You may have to try various ways of sharing your perspective; some terms may not mean the same thing to your partner as they do to you. So be willing to keep trying.
Share a balanced banquet. Don't restrict yourself in the sorts of things you choose to volunteer, but don't offer up every thought that pops into your head, either. Describe fantasies (with details!), fresh insights, recurring fears, authentic desires, life aspirations, personal obstacles, events that have made you especially sad or angry, pictures of hot kinky stuff, links to sites that fascinate or delight you, ideas for excursions or events, and so on.
Learn to interpret your partner's words correctly. This may be the hardest part of communication. We describe our inner lives in a huge variety of ways, and even mischaracterize ourselves by imagining that our thoughts and behaviors stem from sources which aren't actually a factor in the present situation. When listening, keep a relaxed mind, don't leap to conclusions (e.g. that it's about you), don't react judgmentally, and do encourage them to elaborate. Restating in your own words what you think you just heard (often called "active listening") can help you hone your interpretation skill.
Learn to read your partner. Most of us show signs of a change in mood through our faces or mannerisms before we articulate it vocally. As social animals, we're wired to pick up on such signs in others. Once you know someone well, you'll notice these signals clearly and usually understand what they mean. But when you aren't sure of the meaning, express your curiosity.
Understand your emotional vulnerabilities. They are a key cause of communication breakdown. See my article on this topic, Emotional Issues in Dom/Sub Relationships.
A little structure may foster clearer and more frequent communication. Here are some tools for structured engagement.
Speak every day. On any day that you don't meet in person, spend a little time voice-to-voice over the phone, or better yet, video chat. Simply creating continuity between you fosters openness and discovery.
Text- or instant-message. While it's terribly overused, and no substitute for voice- or face-time, keeping each other apprised of daily developments by short messages also fosters continuity.
Keep a journal. Recording your recollections and feelings about interactions with your partner, especially the intense or otherworldly ones common to kinky couples, can help you convey your experience of those events to your partner. You can keep a journal separately, in handwritten notebook or MSWord document, or send each entry by email after composing it.
Post to an anonymous blog. You can use a blog to create a written journal, and also to collect resonant writings, photos, art, and links from around the web. Tumblr is a user-friendly and popular blogging service, which happens to have a sizable contingent of bloggers posting kinky images and ideas.
Write a "contract". Some D/s couples create a document to enumerate and crystalize the pair's obligations and benefits to each other. You can craft this at any stage in a relationship, although I wouldn't recommend it before you've become well-acquainted and established mutual trust. It can be an evolving document, amended as your relationship matures and changes. Note well that such a "contract" is a mission statement and/or road-map, not a binding agreement; under no circumstances should you try to enforce its terms against your partner's will!
If, despite your best efforts, you have ongoing difficulty with open communication, I'd suggest you seek support outside your relationship — a wise friend or professional counselor — and possibly re-evaluate your relationship as well. Realize that at some point, there may be nothing more you can do to make communication work.
Good, continual communication yields intimacy, understanding, alignment, agreement. But while we are blessed with the power of words, communication is still one of the defining problems of humanity. It's so easy to speak, yet so often incredibly hard to be understood.