Managing a D/s Dynamic When Your Partner Faces Mental Health Challenges

a brain in chains
Image by Pixabay / CC 0

Today’s article is a guest post by Fay Creature.

Fay Creature has been practicing polyamory since 1998 and kink since 2003. She is queer – in sexuality, gender, and her approach to relationships, power exchange, and BDSM.

And check out what she wrote for Poly Land today:

Mental Health and My D/s Dynamics

I believe that BDSM can be very healing, but it is not therapy. I am not a therapist and I don’t want co-dependent relationships. I don’t want to save or fix anyone. At the same time, if you ignore mental health struggles, and pretend like they don’t exist, they tend to scream for your attention.

As a dominant partner, if my submissive partner has mental health struggles, I really should understand them and I need to learn how to work with and around those realities.

Not Taking It Personally

It is easy to take it personally. I think this is especially true of anxiety. If someone gives you a list of the twenty things anxiously bouncing around in their head, chances are at least one of them is going to make you say, “Are you saying there is something wrong with me?” Or “why would you say that if you trust me?”or something similar.

I’ve had conversations with anxious people where they keep listing more and more things that make them anxious until I finally react emotionally.

Nothing good comes from going down that path.

By listening to my partners when they explain to me how they think and by reading about the particular mental health challenges at play, I learned to understand what was going on in my partners’ heads from a more accurate and informed lens than my own experience.

This helps me not take things personally. When I’m able to link a confusing or challenging behavior or thought pattern to a logical source (even if that source is irrational anxiety), I can interact with my partner from a more rational and less emotional place, and that helps calm things down rather than escalate them.

Recognizing Cycles, and Finding a Way to Not Participate in Them

Even when you don’t take your partners’ struggles personally, you can still get caught up in them.

The anxiety discussion I described above is a pattern. After the third or fourth time it happened, I realized I was feeding into a negative cycle. A more effective response is to ask my submissive partner to do something like a brain dump on paper when they are feeling overwhelmed by too many racing thoughts.

I can then ask them to use that brain dump to identify something specific they want my help on, to make a plan of how to deal with All the Things, to burn it (sometimes this is the appropriate thing to do with a brain dump), to pick one thing to work on first, etc.

Another example relates to depression. I’ve noticed that with one of my partners, when they are feeling really unwell, they tend to make choices that make them feel worse, such as opting out of family time to work more.

In these moments, because I have their consent for this type of authority, I can tell them they are not allowed to make that choice. If I allow them to make the self-defeating choice, it impacts me as well, and insisting they make a healthier choice benefits us both.

Sometimes my partner will want to hide, because they feel like a burden or feel like everyone is better off with out them. As a dominant partner, I can refuse to participate in this cycle by not allowing them to hide and, instead, seeing them and their struggle and not changing how I treat them.

Forcing someone to be seen is an incredibly dominant act.

Enforcing Communication

I am a big fan of journal writing. One of my super hot dominant fantasies is that my entire polycule write in journals every day (including me). Daily journaling is good for your mental health in general.

I tell my partners it is okay if they only write one sentence – but just write.

If there is something major going on or my partner is really struggling, I like to make them write more.

And they have to let me read it – and I have to not take what they wrote personally. I don’t want any hiding in my D/s dynamics, so I have to make it safe to uncover everything with me.

Setting Boundaries and Limits

When I hold space for someone as a dominant, sometimes it means really aggressively holding the space. This is the box and no, I am not letting you out of it. For example, you may clean for 15 more minutes but then you are going to stop, you are not going to clean all day (especially if it’s already clean, but even if it’s not….). Or, if you are so depressed that you cannot get out of bed, then you are going to make an appointment with your therapist (or find a therapist if they don’t already have one).

Setting boundaries can help avoid getting caught up in cycles. When dealing with perfectionism, for example, it is important to set the boundary that trying to change things should be grounded in a a strengths-based approach, not by focusing on deficits. Or, when dealing with someone who is overwhelmed by racing thoughts, the boundary might be after you have done your brain dump, we will pick one and only one issue to discuss right now.

Sometimes I tend to back off on my Big-D energy if my partner is struggling, because I feel like they need space to work out whatever is going on with them. I step back, and loosen my grip. But usually that isn’t the right response. I don’t know for sure, but I wonder if they perceive me trying to give them space as me not wanting them, which is not the case at all.

Setting and enforcing boundaries – focusing on how your partner is impacting you rather than on what they are thinking and feeling – is a way to step in and keep a calm but firm grip on the reins without falling into co-dependency.

Bringing This Into Scenes

I was talking about relationship dynamics above, but those same points also play into scenes. Not taking things personally, not letting yourself get caught up in destructive cycles, enforcing communication, and enforcing boundaries and limits keep you in the drivers seat of the scene, and not your partner’s mental health struggles.

The difference, to me, is that I feel more responsible for my partner during and immediately after a scene than I do in daily life.

For the duration of a scene and aftercare, I am pledging to give them my full attention and that means holding space for them no matter what happens and no matter how long it takes.

However, if a scene does lead to massive quantities of after care being required, in a way that is not positive for both partners, it’s important to discuss and re-negotiate to avoid having that happen again.

Mental Health Does Not Just Mean Mental Illness

Anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, BPD, schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder, PTSD (the list goes on). These are diagnoses. Autism and ADHD are also diagnoses. A diagnosis is not the whole of a person’s experience. Even people who don’t have any diagnoses have mental health struggles sometimes.

Here are some aspects of mental health that come to mind, which are not mental illnesses:

  • Self-loathing (I have found this to be a big one among my submissive partners)
  • Perfectionism
  • Workaholism
  • Insomnia
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Trust issues
  • Fear of intimacy
  • Anger issues
  • Disordered eating/unhealthy relationship with food
  • Resiliency
  • Self-awareness
  • Protective processes and effective coping mechanisms
  • Unique personal strengths (such as an ability to organize a physical space, or an ability to organize their thoughts)
  • Unique perspectives on the world (tell me something I’ve never heard before and I may fall in love with you!)
  • Empathy
  • Compassion
  • Gentleness
  • Vulnerability (trust and vulnerability are so very hot)

When you seek to understand the mental health of yourself or your partner, there is a whole rich landscape there. I like to get to know people as deeply as I can, to be able to understand them. As a dominant, that is much more valuable than having the name of a diagnosis or diagnoses.

Unconditional Love

I can set boundaries and enforce rules and structures that will help minimize the degree to which their mental health struggles impact me. I probably have more ability to do this than I would in a non-D/s relationship, because I have agreements with my submissive partners about obedience.

I can’t, however, change them, how they think or feel, how they internally cope with their struggles, or how they interpret the world around them. But I can love them without asking them to change these things.

Unconditional love doesn’t mean I allow my partner to take out their struggles on me, and it also doesn’t mean I think my love will heal them. It means that I don’t require them to not be struggling anymore before I find them worthy of love.

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Note: A D/s relationship is never a substitute for mental health care. If you are in crisis or are finding that your mental health is having a serious, negative impact on your life, I encourage you to seek help. Mental health hotlines can be great in the moment – I have called my local hotline before! If you are in the US, you can search your county and “mental health hotline” to find a local number. There are also national hotlines in the USA, such as the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-TALK) and Trans Lifeline (877-565-8860). The national suicide prevention hotline in the Netherlands can be reached by dialing 113.

For any readers who are looking for a kink-friendly counselor, the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom has a directory of Kink Aware Professionals available. If you find once you’ve searched their listings that’s there no one in your area in the directory, you can also contact NCSF via their website and ask if they can locate one for you.

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Thank you, Fay!

Poly Land is always on the lookout for different perspectives on relationships in general.

If you have an idea for a guest blog post that you’d like to run by us, here’s a link to a post with examples of work that we’ve published in the past as well as our Submission Guidelines.

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