Emotional Issues in Dom/Sub Relationships
A few years ago, I met a girl online who lived in Southern California. After some days of chatting online, she lobbied me for a phone call. We spoke for five hours. That began what you might call long-distance dating, a daily mix of friendly and sexy IM exchanges and phone conversations. This gal was unusually smart, charming, talented, and apparently really kinky. And she had some challenging, though not uncommon, emotional issues, which I didn't recognize right away. Or perhaps I was willfully blind to them. At that time, both my social and professional lives were, well, a bit comatose. I saw her as a lifeline.
A pattern developed between us. I felt that we belonged together, so I would try to pull her in closer. She had her doubts, and would become grumpy or withdrawn. I would feel rejected and protest her resistance. She would dig in further. We liked each other, and we had lovely moments on occasion, so somehow we kept recovering enough from these spirals that we continued to perform them for a year and a half. I could see our dysfunctional dance, but I couldn't find a pathway out of it. That was maddening, as I like to imagine that if you can see it, you can solve it.
Over time, as my professional prospects revived, I regained some faith in myself. I began to see our inevitable entanglements as absurd. Her grumpy refusals at my offerings of intimacy were comical. I started laughing at them, out loud, sincerely. And voilà, that broke the spell; once I was laughing, she couldn't help but laugh too. I also stopped insisting that she was the perfect girl for me. I'm happy to say that we remain good friends.
Everyone has emotional vulnerabilities, weaknesses. Almost any time an event provokes a sudden, strong emotional response in you — anger, sadness, withdrawal, self-loathing, confusion, helplessness — the most likely culprit is one of these cracks in your psyche. The present situation or conversation has simply driven you into that fissure, triggering a response that's disproportionate to the moment.
But suppose an acquaintance insults you? Wouldn't anger or withdrawal be an appropriate response? No, a non-triggered response to that kind of random offense is bemusement or skepticism. He's probably having a hard day; it's him that's off, not you.
Emotional weaknesses and the responses that accompany them are typically formed in childhood, when we're all naturally vulnerable because our boundaries and understanding of people are still forming. But they can develop later in life, given repeated hard experiences. Digging into the past to discover the roots of your emotional issues may be helpful, or it may not. The key to managing them is gaining self-awareness and learning good coping behaviors. Once you stop rehearsing them, they will naturally become less poignant with time.
Emotional issues can do serious damage to otherwise healthy relationships. When triggered, you stop thinking clearly, and may assign the current situation or loved one full blame for the strength of your hard feelings. Most lovers don't take this too well; disproportionate reactions are rattling, and being blamed for them is frustrating. The damage is even worse when one partner's reaction triggers an issue within the other, whose subsequent emotional response then re-triggers the first one. Such interlocking issues cause a kind of death spiral that's difficult to escape. Issue interlock is, in my view, the single most common killer of good relationships.
As I recounted above, it is possible to break through issue interlock. The key skill, which anyone can learn, but is surprisingly rare, is strong emotional boundaries — knowing where your own psyche stops and another's begins. You should assume that anyone's reactions, especially strong reactions, are about what's going on in their own head, not between the two of you. If you can remember that when your partner falls down, they're less likely to pull you over as well.
D/s relationships thrive on the exceptional, magical connection that forms between dom and sub, and the altered states that this bond allows them to venture into. When emotional issues are triggered for one or both of them, it can impinge on their D/s dynamic. If their leader and follower roles desert them, suddenly they're facing each other like egalitarian acquaintances, just when one most needs the other's support. The simplest means to stop a damaging interaction is for either partner to speak their safeword (or simply say "safeword"). Then stop talking; focus on your breathing. Then ask yourself what you have been doing to contribute to the discord. Then admit that to your partner, and ask their forgiveness. It's wise to wait a while before attempting to discuss that particular emotional vulnerability with them.
It is essential that you develop self-awareness of your issues—what triggers them and how you react. Know that it will take time and determination to do so. It's also important that as you gain awareness, you brief your partner on your vulnerabilities. An observant partner will tend to figure them out ahead of you, and can try to steer you around or out of them, which helps in developing your own awareness. And it's crucial to learn to notice when you've fallen into one of your emotional fissures, and to remind yourself that you're not thinking clearly, and that whoever is in front of you at that moment is not the cause of your pain.