Love, sex, and relationships come in many forms, yet what we don’t realize is that our conceptualization of what these mean are influenced by what we see in the media, culture, and our own family of origin. We many not realize that we even have meaning or expectations of a relationship, sex, or love until these expectations aren’t being met. And we often don’t come to this realization until we partner up with someone who has differing expectations or meanings, which is most people. In 2016, I completed research for my doctoral dissertation looking at marriages in which one partner identified in the BDSM community and the other did not. For relationships with a more significant difference in sexual preference, I wanted to see how they communicated and negotiated the sexual aspect of their marriage. Here, I am sharing you some of my findings.
Sex and sexuality are major components of marital (or coupled) unions, bringing together the sexual experiences, expectations, and preferences of two separate individuals. When these differ between partners, the dissimilarity can cause strains within the relationship and difficulty in maintaining connection and desire with partner (White, 2005). Moreover, when these preferences are a result of one partner’s identification with a sexual minority and stigmatized culture, as in the case of BDSM (Bondage & Discipline, Dominance and Submission, Sadomasochism), problems such as discrimination, social pressure, concealment, or relational conflicts may occur.
The visibility of BDSM in mainstream culture has increased in recent years, take for instance the recent 50 Shades of Grey franchise; yet the amount of accurate representation, including empirical research regarding intimate partner relationships and BDSM, are few (American Sociological Association, 2015). According to research by Moser and Kleinplatz (2006) estimated 10% of the United States population engages in some form of BDSM behavior on occasion. Exact numbers are difficult to obtain due to the social stigma surrounding the culture preventing people from disclosing.
Many individuals identified with BDSM culture have to take actions to protect themselves from the prejudice anticipated, at times suppressing and concealing aspects of who they are (Stiles & Clark, 2011). However, while secrecy and refraining from self-identification in the BDSM culture may be beneficial and sometimes crucial for the safety of the individuals, it may be detrimental when applied in the context of marriages. Research shows that individuals who perceive their spouses as self-concealing report lower marital wellbeing over time (Finkenauer, Kerkhof, Righetti, & Branje, 2009). Self-concealing behaviors also contribute negatively to relationship satisfaction, trust, and commitment (Uysal, Lin, Knee, & Bush, 2012).
Self-disclosure refers to the “process of telling another about one’s intimate feelings, attitudes, and experiences” (Sprecher & Hendrick, 2004, p. 858). This process was found to stimulate positive sexual exchanges, as the couple is better able to co-create their sexual script, reach a higher level of communication, and build intimacy (McNeil & Byers, 2009). The presence of concealment and level of disclosure are important factors to consider in BDSM partner relationship.
Results of the study we conducted in 2016 confirmed our theoretical assumptions that meanings of sex are socially constructed and constantly negotiated by the members involved and the contexts situated in. This process of construction and negotiation is dynamic and fluid as the meanings are reconfigured to the couple’s current and specific needs. Couples in this study through emotional expression, information, shared experience, and therapy, gradually saw how their spouse viewed sex, marriage, and BDSM and how this was different from their own.
Specifically, couples used the following forms of negotiation to better understand and form the sexual aspect of their relationship to their own couple needs:
One way the couples negotiated involved the non-BDSM identifying partner learning more about what the BDSM culture accurately entailed. Five of the non-BDSM identifying partners went with their spouse to BDSM-related social events or workshops, to better understand the culture and people in the community. For most non-BDSM identifying spouses, these visits helped expand their understanding and changed their initial negative perceptions of the culture. Problems that arose within this form of negotiation often revolved around the amount of time spent at these events and were typically instigated by the non-BDSM identifying partners. Reasons included: (1) events not being of interest to them; (2) for fear that the BDSM-identifying partner would enjoy [the scene] too much and want to hook up with someone; (3) feeling like an imposter going to these events; and (4) not wanting BDSM to become his or her regular activity or identity. As a result, conversations surrounding wants and expectations regarding frequency and level of involvement for both partners were stimulated.
Another process of negotiation involved the non-BDSM identifying partners trying the other’s preferred style of sex. All six couples reported engaging in some form of BDSM play, such as dominant/submission type sex, light implementation, or role play, at least once in their marriage.
Finally all of the couples reported having engaged in or continue to attend individual, marital, or family therapy. Some sought therapy to help them navigate the newness of the experience or to better communicate their own experience in a way that was effective and less harming to their loved one.
Through these different forms of negotiation, couples were able to identify what meanings coincided (e.g. monogamy, non-monogamy, traditional sex) and what meanings did not (e.g. BDSM as personal identity, BDSM as physical activity, frequency of sex) and further co-create rules and expectations that reflected a new shared meaning.
Furthermore, findings of this research corroborated the power relations that existed within the cultural and marital systems and throughout the couple’s negotiation process. Understanding how these differences of power are determined is important for identifying in what ways influence is used in getting needs and wants met. Consistent with Weiss’ (2006) research, participants in this study recognized the power of the mainstream and how its negative view on BDSM affected their interactions with spouse, friends, families, co-workers, and the larger society. Increased availability of accurate information in media and to the public would greatly benefit the wellbeing of couples in this marital dynamic. On this level, the BDSM-identifying partners appear to hold less power.
However, we saw the BDSM-identifying partners exercising their relational power and using their influence on their spouses during the reconstruction of the couple’s shared meaning of sex. The BDSM-identifying partner’s self-disclosing and expressions of their needs and wants in marital sex life can push the non-BDSM identifying partner to engage in BDSM related behaviors, which further strengthens the connection and intimacy within the marital dyad. Self-disclosure requires one to be vulnerable and embrace the belief that they will be secure even if the revelation is not met with acceptance (Sprecher & Hendrick, 2004). Results of this study support this notion by looking at the patterns of negotiation and the reports by both of the partners. Furthermore, the BDSM-identifying spouses have more resources with which they can make available to satisfy their partner’s needs and promote the attainment of their own BDSM-related needs. For example, BDSM-identifying participants have the abilities to enjoy non-BDSM sexual activity, to separate BDSM activity from the sexual activity they engage with their spouse, and to open up different options such as rules for polyamory. It is important for clinicians to be aware of the power and resource of each partner and its effect on their sex and marital relationship.
All participants described overall equal relationship with their partners and no significant gender difference was found within the marriage unit. However, female participants in this study developed a strong voice pertaining to their own marriage. They initiated conversations for negotiation by expressing their emotional experience of the issues presented. This often countered traditional response of avoidance that would otherwise prevent rules being relooked at and needs being met. Consistent with previous research (MacNeil & Byers, 2009), this expression of needs or perceived distressing information promotes positive sexual exchanges with their partners.
Another factor to consider in this type of marriage is the spouse’s selected BDSM power role and exchange. Half of the couples in this study recognized their spouse’s BDSM power role (i.e. dominant and submissive) carried over into how they operated in their marital unit.
Finally, in alignment with previous research (Kolmes et al., 2006; Garrott, 2008), many participants underlined the importance of therapy in resolving the marital conflicts caused by sexual discrepancy between partners. Participants had a strong preference on a kink and BDSM aware therapist over a traditional therapist due to fear that traditional therapists would have a judgment or be unable to fully comprehend their unique contexts and issues.
Every couple is subject to differing sexual preferences and the need to adapt shared meanings of sex. One of the biggest conflicts for couples are to have conversations surrounding the wants and rules pertaining to the sex in marriage. Types of sexual preference become accepted or rejected according to the level of mainstream cultural acceptance, gender roles, and social expectations within each marriage unit.
For a complete copy of my dissertation work or references. You can request it through ProQuest:
“Resolving Conflict in Marriages with a BDSM-Identified Partner”
Or email Dr. Cat Meyer, PsyD. LMFT at: DrCatMeyer@gmail.com
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