Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships lately. Everything from the mundane to the sublime. From a life partner, a spouse, one’s own child, one’s parents, one’s sibling, one’s lover, one’s friends, a Domme or sub or other play partner, a colleague, an acquaintance, all the way to the perfect stranger.
Is it possible to owe something to a perfect stranger? Well, yes. Common courtesy. What is that? It is to be polite. It is to not judge. It is to help if there is an opportunity to do so…open a door, pick up something dropped, to let pass in front, while driving to allow in, to be patient with…and all done and delivered without strings attached.
I think of my experience in the supermarket where a woman behind me bought my groceries for me because I had forgotten my wallet. That is certainly above and beyond, and it was a beautiful gesture made without expectation of return. Yesterday, I was able to help a woman with her groceries after she dropped them. She noted that I was a “nice man” and I told, “actually, I’m not” [not sure if I was referring to the ‘nice’ part or the ‘man’ part, but my children were there], and she said, “then it is a good deed of the day,” and we both smiled, “it’s my pleasure,” I said.
This kind of behaviour is the basis of civil society, and something which has been lost to a great degree in our base interactions with our fellow humans. On a recent trip to Argentina, I was reminded of just how civilised the Argentines tend to be as people in this particular regard. The base level of politesse in interacting with other people on the streets, in the shops and cafes, is one of bygone era. People were almost universally polite, regardless of their socio-economic status or the nature of our interaction.
What about friends? There are many kinds of friends. There are work friends—people we gravitate towards in the office, who may be allies at work, people who can listen to the daily grind which you both share so neither of you have to take quite so much of it home—and after all, it is nice to talk to someone about stuff who already has the background.
There are also casual friends. They might be friends of friends, people you just met. These may carry expectation—mainly that the relationship will deepen and grow.
Deepest of all are those I would call “chemical” friends. These are bonds that are so deep they are like blood, only in many ways are deeper still, because they had to have been built and didn’t start from a place of common blood. They may be sexual, or carry sexual energy, though it may or may not ever be acted upon. They may be same sex or not…but they carry connectedness, a genuine joy in one another’s company, an ability to listen to one another, to feel for the other both in joy and sadness, and they are underpinned by the firm knowledge that this person will be there for us when the shit hits the fan, that they will have our back. My wife, for example, has always been one of these people in addition to all of the other roles or dynamics we have.
Common to all of these varying relationships is the concept of respect. Respect for the other. One cannot interact harmoniously with another person without this foundational principle intact.
What about a spouse? The co-creator of home and family? Well, all of these principles are amplified. I am reminded of “The Trust Equation”, which is a great metaphor for this as well as any other deep relationship.
Trust = Intimacy / Risk…
In other words, you increase a level of trust the more intimate you become. You decrease the impact of that intimacy the higher the risk level becomes—in other words, the riskier it is for you to trust someone, the more intimate you must become. It is an elegant and simple way to look at relationships. And the action works on both sides…when there is an erosion of trust, there is either going to be a reduction of intimacy or a de-risking…think of the cold shoulder—what other purpose does it serve? It tells us that we must invest in replenishing the foundations that drive trust in a relationship.
What happens when these unspoken rules are broken? You become worse than strangers, maybe even enemies.
What about a therapist? A healthy therapeutic relationship is of course predicated on trust. I trust my therapists deeply and intimately that they are there to help me. This trust has deepened over time and they have held space for me, and proven that they don’t misuse that trust, that they are without agenda, that they are there for healing. They also take great steps to ensure that they are seen to de-risk our relationship, by putting boundaries, but not straying outside of those, but also by keeping intimacy to the confines of therapy.
What about family? We rely on our parents when we are babies and growing up to create space for us, to love us, to protect us. What do we do when that sacred task is broken? What about other family members? Is the blood bond so powerful that it cannot be held to account? I have argued ‘no’…that no relationship is worth keeping if it is hurtful and not serving you…and that is not a selfish thing to say. Anyone who will hold you, or use your blood or other ties, is using a form of guilt to manipulate and control you, which is not worthy of you…I live this in my own life and in my own family, and it is a very common and intensely lived common thread through the trans community, the. LGBTQIA community more broadly, and many others besides. Nobody is owed you. They earn you.
I get to live this right now on a very personal level as the patriarch who abused us all is in his twilight moments, and we have all gathered to say our goodbyes, knowing that this may be one of the last times we see him. I have made a kind of peace. It does not mean I have forgiven. My mother always told me that I had to forgive him or I would never find peace with myself (but I always felt that she was speaking about herself too)…and that may be true…I have found peace with him even though I cannot replace my feelings for him with love or respect—and I have forgiven him, though my forgiveness had the perverse consequence of making him matter even less to me. Somebody will hopefully explain that to me one day.
Receiving him and other family members at the airport yesterday, I found myself once again reminded that God moves in strange and sometimes humorous ways—the person pushing his wheelchair was a very flamboyant trans person—“oh sister, how I loved you!” Such irony, such beauty.
What happens when there is a misalignment between perceptions of relationship?
Quite simply, it all turns to shit. If one person thinks the relationship is of one nature, and the other thinks it is something else, then there is the potential for a schism, a misunderstanding.
An aside about pets
As one Domme recently put it to me when I asked about her relationship with her dog (of the actual dog variety—just sayin’), and she made the distinction that the dog’s love, devotion, came without strings attached. Fair enough, but you do take the dog for walks, you pet it, you bond with it completely, love it, care for it, feed it, and shelter it. What are those if not strings—certainly they are very comfy living arrangements. Why would that not work for a human pet—even if such an uncomplicated relationship were possible? Because we expect more of humans. A human pet would have to bring much more than just devotion to the table to be worth having and holding as a pet.
Relating it to D/s
I make this point about the D/s world in part because it has become an important part of my life. What I have discovered not just from books but also from real life experiences is that D/s takes whatever kind of relationship dynamic that you might have with someone and amps up a few notches…which has the effect of intensifying everything—both good and bad. Any D/s relationship, whether with a professional or a lifestyle person can have these characteristics, and the foundational basis can run on a continuum from stranger to acquaintance to client/provider to friend to lover to partner to co-parent. And I do not believe that that the “transactional” component implied by a financial exchange in a professional D/s relationship affects the underlying quality of that relationship. It can be just as deep.
In conversation with one of my best friends, she criticised a slave I greatly admire for entering into a debt contract with his Domme. I disagreed: I find it liberating and beautiful. She felt it was like buying love. The slave felt that it removed the transactional stigma and that he had sold himself into slavery to her. I share his view. They have a beautiful relationship and are wonderful friends to one another.
I don’t think that those of us who pay are buying anything other than time that she might be spending making money with someone else (opportunity cost is real)…but what happens in that time is just as magical as what might happen in the time with someone we love and marry. I rather irreverently joked to a friend that it is a lot less costly to see a dominatrix than it is to be married. Sorry, wife of mine. The other thing that happens is that we can go places with a professional that might never otherwise go, have the chance to leave shame behind, can do so in a “safe” space, can do so with a person who has real experience in this landscape, and can do so without guilt—the pro-Domme expects nothing in return from us other than that we try our damnedest to let her work her magic…and of course all the other things that form the basis of any civil relationship—respect, honour, charity, solicitude.
And what about the Trust Equation? This is not as straightforward as the therapy example, as there are many factors in play that are not just about therapeutic healing. It is also a relationship with a power exchange, so in many ways, the need for trust goes way up, because the risks are so high. It is also a relationship that is inherently intimate, or at least can be, which is ultimately the way to de-risk and increase trust.
The New Trust Equation
There is a new and improved Trust Equation that has become standard…one that is more complex, but is also more applicable to these more complex examples.
Trust is = to Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy all over self-orientation
In other words, the trust is there when I have faith in your professional qualifications, that you do what you say you will do, and that I feel that it is safe to be open with you…all divided by the degree to which I can trust that your true motivations are in line with mine.
I think this is an excellent way to consider any relationship, but it applies particularly well to D/s, as each of these questions/factors are relatively easy ways to expose potential fault lines.
What is a D/s relationship?
Many people should be forgiven for the idea that D/s is the relationship itself. She is Master; I am slave. You can insert whichever language you want: Top/bottom, Domme/sub, etc. But I don’t think so. D/s are simply the rules of engagement. But these rules of engagement sit on top of something else, a foundation which is the underlying relationship. Shaman/acolyte, Boss/secretary, Chef/sous-chef, Teacher/student…these are all possible relational foundations that can inform a D/s relationship. They can also be based on a deep and lasting friendship, or love, or other form of partnership. For the D/s element to work, the underlying foundation has to work—there has to be the right dynamic in the relational foundation—it needs to be understood and agreed by both parties, desired by both parties…otherwise it will fall apart…and D/s as an accelerant is only likely to make the process unfold quickly and with intensity.
I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately, not least because I have this freedom laid out ahead of me which includes the possibility of lifestyle Dommes or professionals, and I find that I remain uncomfortable with the idea of seeing a lifestyle person, because somehow I fear that her expectations of me may include sex, and I am not ready for that…I’m still a baby, and well, can’t I just be supportive, be there with you emotionally, in service, and can’t that be enough?
But as I look at the people I am drawn to, one is calling out to me…she is a professional escort, which you may read as you will. And while I don’t want to have sex with her, and would tell her that upfront, if someone is going to get me comfortable with sexual self-expression, it would be someone like her.