Polyamory and Power Exchange: Negotiating From the Bottom

2 dogs wrestling: a white dog on top, a beagle on the bottom who has a surprised expression on its face
Image by walkadog / CC BY

Negotiating boundaries and setting expectations are both crucial in polyamory. Being polyamorous involves moving away from The Standard Romantic Relationship Script, in which society largely defines expectations and rules in relationships. And instead, in polyamory it’s vital to look to the people within the relationship to define and develop what those expectations should be. I’ve written previously about  best practices for negotiating relationship agreementshow to set boundaries in polyamorous relationship systems, and why the practice of setting boundaries can help us get to know someone on a deeper level.

Though it’s well worth the effort, managing expectations and boundaries can be complicated enough with vanilla (i.e., non-kinky) polyamorous folks. Add in power exchange? And things get a bit trickier.

Power Exchange and Polyamory

A power exchange relationship is one in which partners agree to take on complementary but unequal roles with one partner exercising psychological and/or physical control over the other. Terminology and scope vary from person to person. Most frequently, however, the partner who controls is called the Dominant and the partner being controlled the submissive.

Informed consent of course is crucial to ethically establishing a D/s relationship and what differentiates it from abuse. Prior to the D/s relationship being established, ideally both partners discuss their limits and expectations and come to a general consensus on what is and isn’t acceptable. Many, but not all, people draw up written contracts outlining this consensus.

And then, with the vital bookkeeping out of the way, the fantasy arrangement — and the fun– begins.

Setting Boundaries as a Submissive

It’s a practice that works very well. Except…

Sometimes issues come up after the D/s agreement has been forged. And oftentimes, if it’s the submissive having the issue, they won’t feel like they can raise it.

I run into this frequently when helping people with relationship problems. A submissive will be unhappy with the way their Dominant is behaving in a polyamorous context.

And the first hurdle we always have to clear? It’s helping the submissive understand that it’s okay to bring those concerns to their Dominant.

I struggled with this myself. I was often uncomfortable when I needed to tell my former Dominant that I was dissatisfied.  For example, we were in a long-distance relationship, and days or even weeks would go by in which I was having trouble reaching him. Meanwhile, I could see him active on Fetlife commenting on other girls’ pictures. Normally not bothered by that sort of thing, I suddenly was. I wondered why he couldn’t chat with me if he had the time and attention to interact with others.

Of course, submissive or not, I had to suck it up and reach out, rather than seething in silence.  But I wish I hadn’t waited so long.

As it turns out, we lasted about a year. When I eventually relocated to be with him, incompatibilities masked by the previous distance came to light. And part of me can’t help but wonder if I’d been more fearless and direct in raising my concerns to him if we both could have been spared a lot of heartache.

However, it’s a difficult thing when you need to say to your Dominant, “So hey, that thing that’s happening? Not so cool with it.”

After all, part of the fantasy (at least for me) is that you can trust them completely, even when their decisions don’t make sense to you. So by correcting them? It can feel like you’re robbing YOURSELF of something, too, as a submissive.

Asking a Dominant: “Would You Want a Submissive to Speak Up?”

I decided to get some input from a seasoned Dominant for this piece. I set the question forth to Skyspook, who uses his herculean powers to keep my bratty ass in check.

“Why would you want an s-type to let you know if something wasn’t working for them in poly? You’re the Dom, so they should just suffer in silence, right?” I asked him.

Here was Skyspook’s reply:

If all I cared about was myself and just being selfish, then yes, the s-type should suffer and just keep quiet.

However, I believe that if I’m in control and I have the power, I also need to take care of that which I have. If I own someone, I don’t want them to break. I want to invest in them, do upkeep, etc. In addition, if I really am in charge, I need to have all the available information to make informed and proper decisions.

If I don’t know an s-type is suffering or having issue, and they are screwing up a lot because they can’t concentrate or just don’t want to do something anymore, I may just punish them because I don’t know that there is something else going on. Where if I had all the information I would take a different approach to teach them to deal with emotions and situations responsibly and with care.

Now, not all Dominants are necessarily going to feel like Skyspook. Some of them may just be “my way or the highway,” even outside of the role-playing, during negotiation. Y’know, in their everyday, out- of-character voice.

But there are plenty of Dominants who welcome the renegotiation of boundaries and revisiting polyamorous relationship agreements when the unexpected happens. And long term? I couldn’t envision thriving with someone in charge who wasn’t this way.

Personally? I rather fancy the idea of being invested in and kept up.

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