However we define the power dynamics for ourselves, I believe the labels are too simplistic, too one-dimensional, too short-sighted to serve for the long-term discussion of the ways in which we live our lives together. Our relationships may look different, in a wide variety of ways, than more traditional relational models, but just like our brothers and sisters who might be inclined to the "vanilla" approach, our lives together are fraught with stages, seasons, and nuances. We cannot simply declare ourselves to be "this" or "that," and then proceed as if all the questions and variables have been answered and resolved. Would that it were so easy!
Relationships go through shifts and changes as they develop over time. As people grow and learn their way into the patterns that form between them, there are recognizable stages to the relationship. Just as we realize that children pass through stages as they grow and mature, relationships have stages, too.
In the very beginning there is the stage that is built out of a mutual attraction. In vanilla relationships, and in many lifestyle pairings, this phase involves “falling in love.” Our culture tends to see romantic love as the ONLY kind of love. Those of us who practice BDSM sometimes have romantic love as part of our relational foundation -- just like anyone else. We might also be attracted to a number of other characteristics, depending on our particular inclinations. It might be that we "fall in love" with the sense of power or control. Maybe we really get taken with someone's Dominant/submissive nature, or their sadistic or masochistic bent. There are lots of different things that might "ring our bells." Regardless of how we might characterize this stage, it almost always leaves us feeling as if we have found “the one.” In the throes of this early stage of relating, we experience our partners as nearly perfect; we feel alive, excited, and passionate. Euphoria is just part of the reality in this stage. I know that we, early on, believed we were star-crossed, meant for each other, bound together at the level of soul and spirit. In those early days and months, it was easy to believe in forever; to see ourselves holding hands into the mists of a future we could not even remotely imagine.
In time, of course, reality sets in, and all relationships have to adjust. It turns out that real life can’t be all roses and/or whips forever. Inevitably, predictably, reality rears its sometimes ugly head and partners have to confront the demands of life and living. No matter our early dreams, we discover that our “perfect” love is human. Small (and sometimes large) conflicts occur, and the fantasy begins to crumble. The demands of work, the strains of managing finances, the demands of family and work, the minor daily irritations of personal habits and quirks, betrayals, mismatched desires and needs, all of these and a thousand other hurdles line the path along which we must all travel eventually. Conflicts, anxieties, disappointment, struggle, and hurt replace the effortless rapture of those first, breathless days. This is the point where we first lose our relational innocence. It is the stage where we learn that our once perfect love is not likely to live up to each and every one of our hopes and dreams. It is at this point when we have to figure out how to negotiate through the sense of loss, of being somehow cheated by life and love. Now, the real work of relationship begins as we start the process of learning how to deal with conflict, and create the intimacy we seek, and interweave that with the independence which is an essential part of our human condition. Of course, inside our deliberately unequal power relationships, the incongruities and confusions are more sharply drawn, and navigating this stage is often more complex and more treacherous: How do I tell you that I want and need your control and attention without, simultaneously, creating a circumstance where I am, in fact, the one who controls?
As we struggle to adjust to the reality of our relationships, disillusionment deepens, and we tend to disagree more. We may argue more. Partners dig in their heels and battle lines are drawn. What was once, sweet, sexy, and thrilling turns into a battleground as we find ourselves mired in a daily power struggle. No matter the agreements, and whatever the labels we adopt, this stage is part of the relational work for those of us in power based dynamics just as it is for the more vanilla couple. All of our lifestyle specific trappings cannot protect us from the work of this stage. We are not immune from the requirements of this stage: learning to listen, to negotiate, to seek mutual solutions, and to care for ourselves and one another. As we struggle with our disappointments and broken places, we (hopefully) choose to stay in the relationship, even as it may seem tempting to leave. If we stay; if we manage to weather the storms and battles of this stage, perhaps we will have the chance to grow and strengthen the bonds that will hold us together into the future. It is, often, an exhausting, wrenching, painful process.
Sooner or later, all is laid bare. Over time, we learn to really know who our partner is, limitations and all. Whereas the original commitment we make is typically based on projections of fantasy, now we can ask and answer the essential question: “Knowing all of it, do you still want to stay?” This is the time of re-evaluation and, perhaps, reinvestement. Especially for those of us in power-based relationships, this is a passage through uncertainty -- a time when the hot, sexy passions fade into memory. Unless partners are willing to do the hard, personal work of understanding their own part in the disappointments; unless we are willing to confront our own fears and wounded places; unless we are willing to endure a period of limited gratification and security; unless we are each up to the task of staying present and honoring our commitments as we develop as separate people; there is a real likelihood that our once luminous dreams may crash and shatter.
Finally, most relationship experts assure us that if we can survive, relationships re-awaken. I have to rely on the experts here. We are, I think (I hope), at the beginnings of this part of the work. My sincere hope is that they have it right. In the re-awakening stage, people understand the realities, and decide to try again. Now, knowing about all the differences, and with a shared history of conflicts resolved, we have the tools needed for growth and change. Once we come to the point of accepting that life and love are never going to be “perfect,” and that we really can’t change another person, we are ready to start working to create an honest, genuine intimate relationship. In this stage, partners finally get that no relationship can ever “save” us. Whatever scars we bear, they will not go away just because we are in a relationship. However, now the war is over, the conflicts are accepted, and there is a sincere desire to learn how to work through the issues, and find a satisfying place to live together.
Some relationships make it. Most don’t. According to the people that do this kind of research, only 5% of couples ever reach the final stage of "complete acceptance." This is the point at which, each person takes responsibility for their own needs, for their own individual lives, and also for providing support for their partner. And that is a scary thing in a relationship that self-defines as unequal. I think that it is particularly hard for the “one down” member in a power dynamic to understand that they do have a responsibility for themselves -- a responsibility that has to be fulfilled if the relationship is to survive and thrive. Does the “top” of the dynamic have the same ambivalence about all of that? I cannot tell. It seems to me that this is all very convoluted, and my efforts to untangle it, from my perspective are likely matched by Him. How He perceives all of this -- you would have to ask Him. In the end, if it all comes together, couples develop relationships filled with warmth and balance. They learn to navigate through the inevitable conflicts, and they mostly avoid resentment and nasty surprises. Once you have dragged each other through all of that “stuff,” you know what you are getting -- no denial and no fantasy. Working together with clear vision, couples who have learned to really accept one another learn the ways to maintain their connection AND their own identities.
From what I have learned, the stages of our relational lives are pretty consistent. Most of us traverse the various stages, assuming that our relationships endure long enough for that to happen, and that is true no matter how different our relationships might appear on the face of it all. Navigating all of the various stages can be a challenge. There are difficulties to spare along that path. However, the structural stages are not the only set of issues that most relationships must deal with. There are “seasons” to our relationships as well.Just as our familiar, annual calendar cycles through from spring to summer to autumn, our intimate lives experience passages that mirror that cyclic shifting. We have periods in our intimate lives that seem lively and fresh and new, and we have corresponding periods of declining heat and vigor. The events of our physical lives push us through the highs and lows of our days and nights, and we respond to what IS with shifts in our energy and vitality. I imagine that anyone who has spent much time in a close relationship has experienced times that might be compared to the seasons of summer or fall or winter or spring. Just as my spring tulips bloom and wither to be replaced by the phlox and blanket flower of July; just as the blazing oranges and reds of the autumn give way to the stark blacks of bare branches against winter gray skies; the intimate connection between us ebbs and flows, blooms and fades -- over and over and over.
The trick to riding through the seasons of our relationships is that the seasons overlay themselves on that other pattern of stages. There are ripples and reflections and interference patterns in our lives, and it is easy to get turned around and disoriented by all the variations and nuances. Add in some days of moodiness, exhaustion, frustration, illness, loss, and all the other bits of being a living, breathing, human animal -- and there should be no surprise that things get bumpy.
I don't have the fix for any of that, and I don't imagine that all of that sort of "heady," intellectual babbling will make the least bit of difference to anyone but me. I can't picture the me of eleven years ago believing that the bright promising future that I saw from that vantage could possibly hold so much trauma and turmoil. Funny how that works -- we can never see beyond what we can see. And so it is and so it will likely always be. I've often thought that some of this writing is about leaving signposts for those who might wander by. So here it is -- another one of those signposts.