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:

DaemonumX has written 1 articles for us.

50 Comments

  1. Stunning piece. Written with such exquisite honesty, vulnerability. Content very timely for me. A new favorite personal essay. Thank you dearly

  2. Oh god, my whole entire heart.

    I am in a very intense power exchange relationship with another queer person and we are in the midst of having a new set of collar/cuffs designed specifically for me, and the whole time I am on this agonizing edge of wanting these things so badly and at the same time already feeling exactly what you discuss – the knowledge that one day, eventually, they’ll come off and not go back on again???? And the grief is almost overwhelming, even though it could be years or decades in the future.

    Thank you for writing this, and sharing your experience as the dominant.

    • thank you, i’m so glad it resonated with you. i hope this piece will be a resource for everyone going through it that i didn’t have. <3

  3. oooofff this hit me right in the feels. the loss of a relationship built around power exchange cuts incredible deep, and i think its exactly that tenderness and intimacy. the thought of not having this person not holding you so tightly (physically and metaphorically) is an extremely tough one to deal with.

    i adore that last line. “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.” if you wanted to write more about/like this, i would voraciously read it!

    thank you so much for sharing!

    • I’d like to add that I have experienced multiple power exchange dynamics and vanilla relationships in which actual emotional abuse occurred. the feeling of being abused and being dominated are two completely different things. in my experience an abuse context, there is NEVER an opportunity for a check in. nothing is negotiated. in a power exchange dynamic, there is at least some opportunity to check in, to discuss, to say i want or i dont want to feel that way again.
      providing service to a dominant, if that’s your thing, is incredibly rewarding and the feeling of loss that stems from a separation of that dynamic is physically painful. i’ve read about and experienced this from the bottom/sub/little letter side but i think it’s beautiful to get the Domme perspective here. the two characters in this essay should be lauded for their vulnerability and intimacy building, i don’t see anything harmful or shameful here. it’s hot and it’s sad and it’s powerful but it’s not nonconsensual or abusive. imo.

  4. This was very beautiful. Something tells me, that both of youu grew during your relationship, and though time is cruel sometimes and moves endlessly forward, rushing and disassembling what has been carefully wrought, at least, at the core of the pain will be growth.
    Thank you for sharing your love with us.

  5. Has the person given permission for the feature image to be used? Or is it a stock image? Just conscious that the tattoos are quite distinctive and they may be recognised/outed in parts of their life where they’d prefer not to be.

    • this is not a stock image as it displays the exact bracelet described several times in the essay. yes, she absolutely consented to every part of this. we are both very public about our lifestyle. thank you for your concern.

  6. im sorry for your loss, and appreciate the vulnerability it took to write this honest and raw essay.

    i wish we could see the sub’s side of as well bc some of this sounds a bit manipulative and emotionally abusive (getting her to do daily chores aka: “actions in service,” forcing her to work through her trauma when your bio says nothing about your background in psychology or mental health studies) or at the very least codependent (owning and being owned). ovbs, this 24/7 is not for me, (im too much of a switch for that) and i apologize if my inquiry seems accusatory. i honestly would like to know where the line between consent and coercion occurs when you have a power dynamic set up (esp with a very convincing dominant) and the dominant clearly is pushing the sub in a certain direction. i get wanting to find someone’s edge and see if you can push past it, but to me, this 24/7 dynamic sounds manipulative and teeters on abusive.

    • Thank you for this comment; several things in this essay made my quietly uncomfortable reading it, and while we obviously don’t know the whole story, the pieces given painted a picture that I found rather triggering to read as well. I want to assume the best when I can, but rather than leaving feeling touched, I was unsettled. (For the record, I am involved in the BDSM scene and as a submissive, and I believe that 24/7 dynamics can be done healthily! I just didn’t find that this particular depiction did a good job reflecting that.)

      • Thanks also from me.
        I really wanted this piece to resonate with me: I am curious about 24/7 dynamics, and have been reading the book by Joshua Tenpenny and Raven Caldera the author mentions, and I think it can work well and create the deep bond mentioned here.
        But I was a bit uncomfortable with a few of the passages, for example, the proposal of entering a 24/7 dynamic right after a scene when the sub might be light-headed and not very clear about what they need/want.

      • wow it really sucks that my grief in the loss of this relationship came across that i was missing a housemaid and not a person. unfortunately, it is difficult to convey the intimacy in service relationships to those who may not have ever experienced them. acts of service is a well defined love language for many vanilla folks as well. if your partner cooks dinner every night and suddenly you have to cook your own and eat alone, would you be sad? or would you just miss your private chef? if i wanted a housemaid i would just hire one :)

    • hello. the line between coercion and consent is always an issue we grapple with in power exchange relationships. it requires a deep trust that i probably couldn’t put into words if i tried. please know that in no part of this relationship was there any coercion. she was not forced to do “daily chores” or “forced to work through her trauma.” the sub/my ex partner that i wrote about has not only read this essay, but she was happy for me that it was being published.

    • Created an account to chime into this conversation. My partner and I are into sexual BDSM dynamics but not lifestyle dynamics, so I acknowledge this may need to be taken with a grain of salt in that way. YKINMK, and this is in no way meant to criticize the concept of lifestyle dynamics. 24/7 lifestyle dynamics in their own right are not inherently abusive, but there are red flags about this particular relationship dynamic based on this essay. It’s of course important to point out that the relationship may not be being represented accurately or fully in this essay, so perhaps none of this is even warranted, but the topic is important enough that it should be mentioned regardless.

      This passage started putting up red flags for me:

      “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.”

      There may be much context missed here about the growth in the relationship and among both partners as humans over the following year until the acceptance of the proposal, although I’m inclined to agree with Fluor that the second proposal happening after an intense scene when their partner may not have been in a mindset to properly consent also sends up red flags. As it’s worded here, though, this sounds like the author dismissing her partner’s assertion that she’s not lifestyle submissive and asserting that she knows her partner’s wants, needs, mind, and body better than her partner does. In any kind of close relationship, when that kind of assertion isn’t being made in the context of a larger survival concern- like someone putting their foot down toward a loved one refusing major medical treatment- there’s at least cause for reflection to make sure that’s not pushing into abusive territory. This paragraph reads like the author judging their partner as clearly submissive in their eyes and ignoring their partner’s comfort level based on their own assessment, whether that was the reality of the relationship at the time or not. As a dominant partner myself, I can’t imagine hearing a partner say “I’m not into that, I’m not submissive in that way” and responding with anything but “okay, awesome, time to dial back, thank you for telling me you were uncomfortable,” especially not a response where the answer to something a partner had said “many times” (the author’s words) was met with questioning and “already [feeling] her submission.”

      I’d also echo the concerns about seeming to miss a servant more than a partner, about the connection between personal failure and fixing a partner’s mental health concerns, and about the alluded-to mental health concerns in general and how they played into this relationship dynamic. Though it’s not about 24/7 lifestyle dynamics- so again, that may need to be taken with a grain of salt- the related article link “Bottoms Up: BDSM and Abuse” by a staff writer shares a concerning amount of content overlap here, particularly with regard to the dominant dismissing boundaries set by the submissive. This quote from that article feels relevant to mention here, just in case, if not for this relationship situation then potentially for those who might misread this essay and take away negative ideas about BDSM they might apply in their own life:

      “Sometimes the line between BDSM and abuse can get blurry, and a lot of potential for abuse revolves around the fact that often being a “good sub” is conflated with giving away all your power to a dominant, while being a “good dom” is conflated with taking all the power from a submissive.”

      • also as the author of that bottoms up that you’re talking about (and all of them lol) i feel it important to say i’m glad my words helped you suss out the differences bt bdsm and abuse for YOU, AND also i feel very uncomfortable with them being used to say another person (who you do not know in an ended relationship you did not witness) is potentially abusive. obvi use them as you will, you cited me and put my words in quotes so you didn’t do anything wrong, but this was never my intention for such words.

    • yo mod’s note for this whole thread: unless you’re an expert on bdsm and mental health please don’t comment on how you think this was abusive. especially when you’re reading something that was definitely edited and definitely written to get across a specific thing and obviously isn’t a second by second breakdown of a relationship.

      we should not go around calling authors of very vulnerable pieces about their own grief abusers bc someone else’s yum is our personal yuck, you know? comments on autostraddle should be in good faith, please keep that in mind.

      breakups are hard period. bdsm maybe adds another layer! it is also NOT for everyone, and even if it is for you, people practice it differently in e v e r y relationship. since none of y’all were in this relationship maybe don’t place your own ~stuff~ on it. just a thought!

      also, the author included some really lovely resources, so if something in here raised a red flag, maybe go to your local public library and check them out and learn some more about 24/7 power exchange before suggesting abuse!

    • Thanks for this comment. As someone who was in a relationship that was eerily similar to this one but ended up being *extremely* abusive, this article sets off a TON of red flags for me. The way she started the 24/7 lifestyle thing, the “working through their issues,” thing… just all of it seems extremely *extremely* questionable. I saw comments from the author that I can no longer see (were they deleted? Or is my browser just messed up?) about how the sub OK’d the article… but like… the trauma I carried from the relationship I was in that echoed this one took years for me to even process, I probably would have done anything my partner asked for a year or two after that relationship ended. Everything about this skeeves me out. I don’t know. Reading this was honestly extremely triggering.

      • (Clearly my browser was just messed up, all those comments just appeared again)
        Sorry to go against the mod comment or whatever but like I said, I’m just speaking from personal experience here and again, shit dredged up some deep trauma from years ago. I don’t know if it was the tone of the article or whatever but damn.

  7. “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.”

    I’m uncomfortable with the juxtaposition of statements and images here. I would never presume to know the author’s mind or intent, but there’s a possible reading where the panic attacks signal the sub’s literal inability to be — not just do — what the dom wants.

    Panic attacks are not a failure to be a good kink partner, any more than asthma or hemophilia. Hell, they’re not even uncommon in rope play. We all have physical and mental limitations built in, and good kink doesn’t ask us to change that but to incorporate them, to establish an understanding and communication (physical and mental) which interweaves individuals’ unique needs with their play. A person’s “no” — for any reason! in any form! — is not a failure on their part. Top, bottom, sub, dom, period.

    It’s a very beautifully-written essay. There’s just some stuff in there that… yeah. Again, I don’t presume to know intent. I just feel better having written out my comment.

    • hello! the mention of panic attacks during rope was not fleshed out because this is not an essay about my ex’s mental health, this is an essay about my grief. please know that having a panic attacks in rope is absolutely not common and for this particular situation was a symptom of much larger issues that are deeply personal and i won’t get into here.

      panic attacks during play should be taken very seriously as they usually signal a trauma response. no where in this essay did it even remotely allude to the sub’s “no” or panic as being dismissed or treated as a failure. the particular quote above was my reflection on painful memories.

      • but how can you separate your grief from your ex’s mental health, especially since you as an author explicitly chose to weave it into this otherwise beautiful, affecting essay? you are the one who chose to highlight for us the association between her panic attacks and rope scenes with you. you write about her trauma, her “most wounded places.” you conflate the end of her relationship with you with some kind of failure to heal, either your failure to heal her or her failure to let you.

        honestly, i thought i was upset about some of the kinky stuff in this as a mentally ill submissive, but i reread it, and al’s comment above, and agreed that maybe it’s just that there’s more we don’t know, maybe it’s just artistic/rhetorical choices i don’t agree with. what i really find to be the problem is just i think this is kind of a crummy way to represent loving, and even owning, someone with mental illness/mental health problems. even if it worked for this particular relationship/your ex consented to and is happy about this essay, the author and autostraddle have an ethical responsibility to pay attention to the way they represent mental illness, especially when it’s relayed through someone else’s eyes like this, especially in an article where potentially-dicey bdsm practices are easily conflated with loving and “healing” a mentally ill person.

        (also, if all the bdsm red flags raised by other commenters would have made sense or been ok with more context, why did you (a) not include the context or (b) include the red flags? because uh. they’re pretty noticeable to the bdsm community…so treating commenters like villains for worrying about both the individuals involved and the way that bdsm is represented seems like a woeful lack of perspective.)

        but even

  8. Thank you for posting. An extremely well put essay. My friends not understanding why I’ve been grieving so much. I think this nails it.

  9. Thank you for this reflection on a very heartbreaking topic. And thank you for your comments on the comments. You’re speaking a language of love, full of respect.
    Keep communicating, we Vanillas will eventually get it! At least I hope we get to understand and apply the same values in our own relationships.

  10. this is one of my favorite things we’ve published all year, and i am so grateful you trusted me as an editor and autostraddle as a publication to tell this story. i echo the commenter above who said “i’d love to read more from you” – i would love that, too.

    thank you for this essay. it is so important. <3

  11. thanks for trusting autostraddle to publish this story. it’s important and from a perspective i’ve almost never read before, i love it.

  12. Thank you for writing this, it’s beautiful and I love reading thoughtful, caring, honest perspectives from dominants, and especially femme dominants. I’m sorry people are questioning the clear love you have for your submissives. Also, it definitely makes me want to buy copies of “Fist” even more than I did already. (Yes, she has a badass fucking multi-issue zine y’all with rave reviews)

  13. This is amazing. I have been in quite a few D/s relationships. When they end they leave you so much emptier than relationships without the dynamic. Thank you so much for writing this. I really could have used this essay so many times in my life and just hope I won’t need to come back to it one day. There aren’t enough pieces about this out there and I really hope to see more!!

  14. 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!

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.