My husband has been submissive for as long as he can remember. I’ve known him since he was nine and I was seven. Looking back at the games that he, my older brother, and I played during our childhoods, we can already see his desire to play the role of the servant or the slave in our imaginary kingdoms 40 years ago. So kink was not a secret when we got married.
However, I didn’t identify as kinky and I didn’t know how important submission was to his identity. Over the 30+ years of our wonderful marriage, my feelings about kink and my role in our relationship has gone through distinct phases that might be common among vanilla spouses introduced to kink. I started with willful ignorance, denial, and pity, moved on to active disinterest, relented into grudging participation, and am now in a phase of growing comfort and perhaps even enthusiasm. Here’s what that process looks like.
For the first years of our marriage, my husband kept his interest in submission to himself. I didn’t realize its importance and I’m sure I didn’t encourage him to talk about it. We have very open lines of communication and our role as occasional sex educators at our church make sex easy to talk about, but my husband’s deep shame around his desires and my disinterest kept the whole thing in the closet.
Finally, something changed. I’m not sure what caused it — maybe the Internet and the alt.sex.bondage Usenet group, which gave him a way to chat with others in his predicament as well as connect with potential dominant women. He started to talk to me about his desire to submit, to be tied up, and to include sensation play in our sex life.
My reaction was right out of DSM IV. I was clear that his kinks were a mental illness caused by his controlling and mentally abusive mother. His parents’ marriage was a non-negotiated D/s relationship in which his mother dominated, controlled, and belittled her husband and son. We were pretty sure that she had been abused as a child. Other marriages in his family appeared to follow a similar pattern.
With my encouragement, my husband tried psychotherapy, although it was hard to find a therapist with an attitude other than “just stop.” (We refer to this period as The Year of the Seven Shrinks.) He did finally find someone to work with who encouraged him to figure out what made him happy and how to make it work in his life. We talked about kink a lot, and I encouraged him to tell me about how he felt and what he wanted, hoping to dissipate the shame associated with his needs. Once, as we were talking about his submissive desires, he said, “This is who I really am!” with great joy and relief. I heard this with great sadness and fear, because dominance is not a deep part of my makeup. Perhaps we were fundamentally incompatible.
Once I learned that at least one psychiatrist didn’t see BDSM as an illness (this must have been around the time that DSM V was coming out), I figured that my husband just needed to get it out of his system. Years of hidden fantasies had built up a huge need to actually do what he’d been dreaming about. So, okay, fine, just not with me. He had a few sessions with paid professionals over the course of about a year. He enjoyed them but learned that he wanted more than just “scenes” — he wanted submission within the context of a relationship, our relationship. If he had to choose between kink and me, he said, he chose me, but he was hoping that he didn’t have to choose.
That was a powerful and humbling message for me and made me feel safer about exploring the whole area. Up until then, I was worried that he’d find the Domme of His Dreams and leave me for her. It was time for me to step up and try out some of the activities that would make him happy. Maybe it was time to “fake it until you make it.”
We started an exploratory period of D/s, S/M, and bondage. I beat him (using kitchen implements until we started buying toys through the mail), I restrained him with cuffs and carabiners, and we created an elaborate contract in which he did all kinds of services for me. I didn’t love it. I didn’t even like most of it. It wasn’t for me, it was for him. He asked for what he wanted — still with great hesitation and shame — and I tried to give it to him. We love each other deeply, D/s is just a part of our wonderful and fulfilling marriage, and it was the least I could do for him. Refusing him would just make him ashamed, secretive, and miserable.
But I resented it. No matter what I did, he wanted more, or different. He was constantly tweaking the arrangement to try to get it right. And it wasn’t enough that I performed the role of dominant; I was supposed to like it. He wanted me to want to control his orgasms, to keep him on his knees, and to beat him. He wanted it to be important to me. It didn’t seem to matter to him that those weren’t my desires. Or, it did matter, but he wanted me to change.
And I did change. I’m still not a domme in my heart — I don’t have a deep-seated desire to control, dominate, or hurt him. But I want to make him happy and I know that he wants to make me happy. As we talked and explored, it became clear that the most likely way was for me to find a way to embrace the role of his dominant. Maybe it’s not fundamentally important to me to control him, but it’s important to me that he fulfill his promises to me. If he doesn’t, I feel foolish and jerked around. If submission is how he frames his love for me, then his submission is very important to me.
So I dove in, joined FetLife, ordered every book I could find about BDSM, and read the articles and listened to the podcasts that he recommended. We started attending munches, went to Fetish Flea, and connected with an old friend who revealed that he’s a dominant. In the process, I started paying attention to a couple of writers and lecturers who talked about dominant-centered rather than submissive-centered D/s. Ms. Rika, Midori, and Princess Kali talk about concentrating on what I as a dominant would love for my husband to do for me, rather than acting out his submissive fantasies.
Wow, that turns out to be hard for a mom! Raising children was such a lesson in surrender and in putting my children first. When the kids were little, there was no point in getting in touch with what I wanted, because I probably wasn’t going to get it anyway. Now the kids are grown and my submissive husband wants to do whatever I want. What the heck is that? It’s like Joseph Campbell advising people to “follow your bliss.” If I knew what my bliss was, I could think about following it. I have work to do. It’s probably good spiritual work — what do I want to do with my one wild and precious life, as Mary Oliver asks?
That’s where my husband and I are in our journey of creating a D/s relationship that works for us. D/s is just a part of our relationship — we’ve parented, worked, traveled, loved, grieved, and celebrated together most of our lives and we are each others’ best friends. We have lots to work on, but we have an agreement that we are working on it. From denial to pity to grudging involvement to active participation has taken us over 20 years, and who knows how long it’ll be until we have an arrangement that feels perfectly right. Actually, that will never happen — I’m sure we’ll be learning and loving and adjusting for the rest of our lives. I hope so, anyway.