4 Lessons ‘Vanilla’ Couples Can Learn from the BDSM Community
I am working toward my certification in Sex Therapy right now which means lots of reading and classes related to sex, sexuality, and sexual expression. [How fun is that?!]
A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to attend a workshop in Los Angeles with a world renown sex therapy educator and spend two days outside of the world of ‘vanilla’ sex and in the world of BDSM. The purpose of these kinds of trainings is to expose the clinician to LOTS of different sexual material in order to assess feelings, biases, judgments, and to educate about what in the world people find erotic (because it is WAY more than just porn online!).
During this training, we had a panel presentation with a few doms (also knowns as masters/mistresses or dominates) and a few subs (also known as slaves or submissives). And I was simply mesmerized by all that the ‘vanilla’ community (read: conventional or more traditional gay or straight couples who do not engage in BDSM activities) can learn from those living this lifestyle. Let me explain…
1. Boundaries and consent are hot.
When one is in a dom/sub relationship, the boundaries need to be explicitly clear for safety — both physical and emotional safety.
Therefore, everything is negotiated in advance. It is discussed, fine-tuned and agreed upon. Limits are set and safe words are put in place.
This means that each person needs to have a clear idea of what they are and are not willing to engage in, they must know themselves and know their limits and be able to express these to their partner so that their ‘play’ [play is what they call their time in the proverbial/literal dungeon] can be erotic, pleasurable, and fulfilling for each party.
The doms and subs on the panel spoke about how important it was to fulfill their role with their partner — that they had agreed to these roles, to these rules, and to these protocols and their job was to follow through with these agreements. And consent is key! Everything that happens has been consented to -- no surprises here. Both parties understand what they are agreeing to as it has been articulated in advance.
So…maybe bondage and latex is not your thing but…
How many of us in ‘vanilla’ relationships get sloppy with our boundaries and sometimes with consent? How many of us don’t follow through with our commitments to our partners (and I’m not talking about sex here)? Or we say, 'oh! I thought that you would be okay if I....'
I so often hear couples talk about how their partner has stopped ‘caring’ for their relationship — the passion has dwindled or died, the fun has become lackluster. The very things that we said, ‘I do’ to in the beginning we now say, ‘Meh…’
Even further, how many of us in ‘conventional’ marriages/relationship were even explicit about our expectations and roles to begin with? I’ve had very intelligent people say things to me like, “I know this sounds stupid but I really thought that once I ‘got her’, after the wedding and everything, that we would just settle into a routine of sex 5 nights a week and I didn’t need to try and make it happen anymore.”
There is certainly nothing wrong with sex five times a week — but if the other person does not know that this is your explicit expectation and has not agreed to their role in this…well, you know how that goes.
2. Knowing your role is sexy.
Many of us took vows (myself included 16 years ago) to…I don’t know…’love, value and cherish in sickness and in health’…or some version of this.
And then life took over.
Sure, many of us are still generally a loving toward our spouses overall…but do we really consider our role as lover, friend, spouse, partner through our ever changing lives?
How often have you reassessed your role in a calm, conscious manner after a big move, after children, after significant financial changes? How clear are you with your partner about what role your are willing to play and what roles you are not?
Some couples that I know and who I work with do not have clear, agreed upon roles with one another. What they do have is a whole lot of unspoken expectations by which they measure (and then evaluate, criticize, and blame) their partner.
Some of us have developed fantastic methods of quiet shaming, picking a fight, or snubbing our partners if they do not fulfill said expectation — but again, much of this was not explicitly negotiated (and agreed upon!). It is a by-product of lack of clarity and follow through.
3. Attunement will take your relationship to a new level.
Watching the ‘play’ between a mistress and her sub was nothing short of fascinating. The way that she felt his skin, checked in with him, received confirmation that what she was doing was okay, warmed up his body to her touch..was, as strange as it might sound, moving.
The mistress only had eyes for her sub in the moments during their ‘scene’ with one another. She was keenly tuned in to his every movement and breath. And then, when she was finished, embracing and stroking him during the period of ‘after-care’. She held him and he completely relaxed into her for several minutes continuing to focus on him.
One of the things that I often see clients lose is their attunement with one another (i.e. they stop paying very close attention to their partner).
Couples stop really keying in to what their partner is feeling or experiencing as they can easily get caught up in the day-to-day matters. Or, often we might know that our partners are in pain, hurt, and upset but ignore it because their own hurt feels so big and we are nursing our own pain ourselves.
Staying engaged with one’s partner, checking in, getting feedback and then doing something productive with that feedback (rather than arguing with them about their feedback) is a vital part of a healthy relationship. And, it is a skill that many of us need to learn and keep practicing in relationships.
4. After-care is vital and grows your relationship.
After-care happens after a ‘play session’. This is the time for the dom to receive and care for the sub. There is holding, stroking, validating, and embracing….intimacy! Both partners, during the play session have been pushed or stretched…they have maybe experienced some new emotions or were taken to new limits. The after-care is a time to allow all that has happened so intimately between the two to sink in and for both to give time to this integration.
How often do most ‘conventional’ couples attend to their own after-care? How do you re-connect after a sexual encounter…whether that encounter was satisfying or not…how do you stay connected and engaged with your partner?
How do you care for your partner outside of the bedroom after you both have had an intense ‘scene’ with one another (whether that is an argument, tough negotiation about a hot topic issue, or a joint experience with the in-laws)? If someone else were watching, would they feel the intimacy between the two of you?
None of this is to say that the BDSM community is perfect or that all relationships in that lifestyle are somehow better than ‘vanilla’ couples. But rather, I believe that we can take a page from their playbook and apply it to conventional relationships — because most of us never even had this page in our relationship manual to begin with (oh wait -- most of us don't even have a manual)!
As the divorce rate continues to stay at about a 50% and approximately 75% of married couples report being unhappy in their sex lives with their partner — there is clearly room for improvement for many of us.
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