The Unique Grief of Ending a BDSM Relationship

She always said that if you celebrate something, it means you think you deserve it. It was a warm night in February when we got that fancy room at the Standard, a one-night staycation to celebrate our two-year anniversary. We had planned an evening of debauchery and room service; outfits were chosen, and toys were packed. She was feeling uneasy, still, because she didn’t think she deserved it – the room, our relationship, me. Some times it’s more obvious than others how trauma hoards your happiness.

I had been simmering for weeks on how I was going to cautiously bring up, for the second time, how I wanted to officially shift our relationship into a power exchange dynamic. For me, this felt like an increasingly natural progression. There had been a first time – I broached the subject almost a year before and asked if she felt these roles of dominant and submissive bleeding out from the play space and into our relationship. She said no. She had told me many times that she didn’t think she was submissive, just the bottom in our relationship, and a switch elsewhere. I accepted her answer, and at the same time I already felt her submission. I often wondered to myself how she thought she wasn’t a sub when she offered service to me, and offered me her body to use as I liked, and often. Waiting it out, I hoped that maybe she’d be more open to it the second time around.

That night in the hotel room, after I finished waterboarding her in the giant tub, the cheerleader outfit she had worn that said Daddy strewn across the bed, she accepted my proposal and became mine. The concept of submission had taken a saccharine form for her, shaped by the growing intensity of our relationship. There was still some pause in her response – not 24/7, not too much, not high protocol. I calmed her hesitations as we discussed what it would mean for her to be in service to me. It was the first time that either of us were entering into this kind of a relationship and going slow felt safe – still girlfriends, but different. All I really needed was her consent to name the power exchange I already felt, which allowed me to fully step into the role of dominant.

Energized and excited, I wanted to give her something special that marked this new shift in our relationship, a practical reminder of my ownership. After lots of thinking and searching, I settled on a silver nameplate bracelet engraved with Daddy in cursive letters. Every day for a year and a half it proudly adorned her left wrist (foregoing the right, which traditionally denotes submissive, because it was her dominant hand). She wore it every single day until I asked for it back that hot summer night I left her house late, holding it clenched so tightly into my palm on the drive home that it marked my flesh.

I imagine the bracelet clicking and clacking as she went about her day, becoming naturally scratched and weathered. Daddy was barely legible by the time she finally took it off her wrist. It had been through life with her, just as I had intended. It was present every time she kneeled for me, placed her hands on my feet to kiss them, or presented her wrists for me to tie. The same sun caught its reflection through the windshield as she drove us through Iceland and Tuscany, trips she so carefully planned for us in service. I picture her clients asking what was engraved on the plate, and her replying with a smile as she told them. I suppose they knew she didn’t wear it for her father. There were so many times when she was cooking extravagant dinners for me when all she had on was the bracelet, heels, and lingerie. Did you enjoy the constant reminder of your devotion to me?

I want you to know that I’ve been a student of grief my whole life. The somatics of loss are familiar: a shift in breathing, posture changes, appetite dies. The haze of longing washes over me and alters my cells. Four days after she broke my heart, the brake light went out on my car. An unfamiliar kind of grief hit me deep in my bones – my first reminder that her service was no longer accessible to me. I rode my bike down the road to the auto supply store and bought a replacement bulb. I watched a tutorial online for how to change the light and wondered if she would have chosen the same video. As I was outside in the street fixing the light and trying not to cry, I thought about all the things she did for me to make my life easier because they made me happy. As with any breakup, there will be constant reminders of her absence in my life. However, the added intensity of power exchange creates more opportunities for repeated heartbreak in the ways that her service was woven into our daily lives. Just looking at the unwashed dishes in my sink, driving my own car to places we would have gone together, walking my dogs on a Saturday morning – all actions that she once completed in service – I must now reclaim. In these tasks my body forms the motions of sorrow.

I always turn to words to comfort me and I am unsurprised to find that there is virtually nothing written on ending D/s relationships. There is no book I can read to feel my pain reflected on a page, to answer how long this feeling will last, to intellectualize my emotions. I turn to my favorite essay where Judith Butler’s words on grief slice me up every time. She says that grief is not a temporary state of being; we carry it with us in perpetuity. It takes on a new form as I read it now and the metaphors of bondage, ties, and control jump off the page. I read into each line in the absence of anything more relevant, “We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.”

The nuances of exiting a relationship where you owned or were owned by someone, is shockingly not a universal human experience. Judith Butler does not write about this. With no point of reference, how can I even begin to convey the complexity of emotions I feel while taking a razor to my own legs for the first time in a year? It is not the meticulous ritual we formed where she shaved me with a straight razor in my bathtub, naked beneath me, shifting around and splashing on her knees. It seems so insipid, but this activity served an intimate purpose of trust and dedication, an act of love for perverts like us.

In relationships with consensual power dynamics, lots of care and intention is placed in curating the connection between the dominant and submissive. Deciding what rules, rituals, and protocols each will commit to takes constant work and attention to build and grow. Unlike regular relationships, performing the default of what everyone else does isn’t really an option because unless you’re deeply involved in a community, there are very few examples to follow. There was so much creativity in our design, vigilantly searching for ideas from unlikely places – Catholic mass, horror movies, erotica. What I mean to say is that we built this house with our bare hands and sweat and tears, and that its undoing is unlike any pain I’ve experienced before.

The vulnerability in erotic dominance is wildly unacknowledged. Culturally, the leather and whips signify extreme sexual power commanding an uncompromising hardness. It’s almost a secret how annoyingly tender it all is at the core. Intimacy is born at the intersection of uninhibited desire and reciprocity. Being a woman and a lesbian, I am supposed to feel ashamed of my desires and take a passive role in sex and romance. As a lesbian dominant, my entire lifestyle is the opposite of what society wants me to be. I have a deep hunger for the submission of my partners, and I take the responsibility of their care very seriously.

Part of our relationship design was a promise to always try to be better, an almost spiritual ode to self improvement and self discovery. It was my job as dominant to remind her of her own potential for growth and greatness, not accepting self doubt or defaulting to the easy way out. My whip cracked in many different directions. I asked her to show up with the best version of herself, and as a result, I supported her through finally facing some very old demons. Just by demanding a certain level of intimacy and transparency, I realize that I caused her so much pain — all consensual, and from a place of love. However, when pain is caused from a place of unresolved pain, we knock down houses, we break windows, we transform into the bull in the china shop. When we feel it’s just too hard to sift through it all, we let our trauma hoard our happiness. But trauma doesn’t speak the language of pleasure; it’s all futile.

Tonight I was reminded that exactly one year ago I posted a photo on Instagram of the last time I suspended her. The shot was of her already-bruised ass, tied and hanging upside down. Her hands were secured behind her back with the Daddy bracelet faithfully on her wrist, just where it belonged. My heart sank and my breath slowed as I was taken back to that time when she was my strong, brave masochist. There isn’t a word for the specific kind of pride a dominant feels when their submissive endures an impressive amount of pain at their hands. My shoulders sank when I remembered that it was the next time we started a rope scene that her panic attacks came back for good.

There comes a point in mourning a relationship when you eventually adjust and figure out how to orient yourself towards its memory. I have not yet become accustomed to the frequent and dense pauses filled with the absence of not only a lover, but a submissive. I feel I have failed to accurately articulate exactly how it makes me feel so I take copious notes, data points, on the somatic impacts of this new grief. I started eating again. I am here, but I am not. If I’m being completely honest, in moments like tonight, in this photo, where I’m reminded of her strength and deep capacity for physical pain, it’s hardest not to feel like a failure as a dominant. My love seeped into her most wounded places and pushed out from the inside. My deepest desire of all was for her to believe that she deserves good things, and I realize that sometimes taking a beating is a million times easier than looking in the mirror.


For more information on consensual power exchange, BDSM, and service-oriented relationships:

Daemonum X is a femme dyke, Polyamory Coach, and BDSM Educator. She is the founder and Editrix of FIST, a zine for leatherdykes.

DaemonumX has written 3 articles for us.

50 Comments

  1. I originally didn’t click this essay because it felt weird to want to read about a bdsm relationship ending while I’m a sub in one, but I’m extremely glad I did. Instead of making me feel sad or fearful, it read as deeply intimate and even romantic during some recollections. Thank you for writing this and exploring these spaces that have been left in your daily life. I would love to read more from you!

  2. I apologize if I’m misunderstanding this, but this sounds like the author asked her ex for something they had given a “hard no” to in the past right after an intense scene and while their ex was still in some form of sub drop (which can last for days, especially after such extreme scenes).

    As someone that’s been practicing the lifestyle for 14+ years, this strikes me as an extremely manipulative tactic and the way the author has been shutting down other commenters as “not /getting/ the lifestyle” and “this is about *my* grief tho” when bringing up the essay’s need to mention their ex’s mental health is really making me wonder why Autostraddle (which is typically *wonderful* about enthusiastic consent) would condone this kind of article being published where people new to the lifestyle could think this is acceptable.

    • I can elaborate and fill in the blanks of context that was not provided in the essay, which is not an essay on how to consent, nor is it meant to be a how-to for anyone. First of all – we are extreme players and waterboarding is like kissing for us. She didn’t go into subspace or have any reaction to this scene that would make her unable to have a conversation. It’s not up to Autostraddle or anyone else to tell people what they can and can’t consent to, that’s an individual choice, which many people seem to be stripping the sub of in these comments. She asked to be waterboarded just like she asked to do service for me long before we defined the relationship as D/s.

      We had been planning to have a relationship check in conversation after this scene, and that’s exactly what we did. It was planned and she said yes and no many times during the conversation. She said yes to something she had changed her mind about over the course of a year, which is pretty normal for any relationship. Consent is cyclical and ongoing and she gave it and showed up to co-create this relationship constantly.

      If a couple wants to have a discussion after an intense scene, it’s not inherently manipulative. They are able to decide on their own headspace and ability to consent.

      No one is concerned that I was in top space in this conversation which could impair my judgment. Interesting.

      • 1. As someone who also participates in extreme scenes — well yes, I can cut and be cut by someone every single day and it can seem as normalized as giving a hard kiss. That doesn’t change that even for the non-neurotypicals, it still creates a hard change in functioning and reactions. I am concerned you think waterboarding, a form of simulated dying, has the same impact as kissing someone even if it has become as mundane of an action.

        2. “No one is concerned that I was in top space in this conversation which could impair my judgment.”

        Right, but you weren’t asked for something you already received a firm no to while you were in top space. Additionally, it is your job a dominant to maintain control of the environment you place your submissive into and if you don’t think that’s a responsibility then you really have no business dominating anyone.

  3. Having been on the other side of a breakup like this, I am glad to have read this and am sorry for your loss. This was beautifully written.

  4. hello! i’m the editor who worked on this piece, and this will be the last comment posted on the piece, which i stand behind 100%. we are closing comments on this particular post now because the conversation has reached its limits of productivity, and it is unfair to the author, our comment moderator, myself, the other commenters, the writer’s former partner (who has read the essay and approves of it), and the subject matter itself. if you have a different personal essay you’d like to write about BDSM, i welcome you to pitch me or other AS editors. have a great week, everyone.

Comments are closed.