I have a news flash for the BDSM community, when it comes to abusive relationships: we’re not that unique. Abusive relationships can and do happen, I would guess at about the same frequency in the bdsm community as within the rest of the population. I would also say that abusive relationships have the same markers, it just sometimes gets a little trickier to identify when you have overt and consensual power exchange going on at the same time.

I think there is this weird assumption that people in the community make, that somehow because we consider ourselves “better” at negotiation and more observant about various types of power exchange, that that means negative and non-consensual power exchange (i.e. abuse) doesn’t happen at all, or happens very little. Wrong.

I mentioned in my previous post that I consider some of my experiences in a previous relationship abusive. I also mentioned that it had nothing to do with safewords being ignored, a scene being taken past stated boundaries, etc. What I did experience was emotional abuse that was so textbook, in retrospect it’s ridiculous that I didn’t recognize it sooner when it was happening to me. But as I said above, it gets tricky when in a relationship that has power exchange as a part of it, murkier to identify, easier to blame yourself.

The ironic part of my figuring things out is that the workshop that opened my eyes was taking a Body Electric course, which my then-partner had “strongly encouraged” me to go to, in the hopes that my silly boundaries and needs would be changed if only I would become more enlightened in the same way he had. I went, because at that time I was doing anything I could to prove that I would look at all of my own faults and shortcomings, everything he was blaming his unhappiness on. I went because I was trying so hard to be who he was demanding that I be, instead of wanting to be with someone who valued who I actually was.

I know I felt very fragile during that period of time, like I could literally crack in two at the slightest thing. Even at the workshop, where more than one woman gently inquired as to whether I was in an abusive relationship, I wasn’t considering my relationship abusive. I was desperately trying to hold on to the image I had of myself as someone that would never happen to. As the strong woman everyone thought I was, and that I’d always thought myself to be until tiny bit by tiny bit, my self esteem was eroded away.

That workshop weekend changed my life. It was also the weekend I discovered that my primary reason (for which I am ashamed now) of staying in this relationship “for the children” was false, when their father called me while I was there, saying he wouldn’t take them to my home until I got back. They had told him they were afraid to be home without me there. The reaction when I called my then-partner, to tell him they wouldn’t be dropped off? Instead of concern at their feelings, it was rage directed at me, shouting into the phone, asking whether he needed a lawyer. I changed my flight to the next one I could get on, and he moved out when I returned.

It’s taken me years – 8 years – to even write this much about my experiences. I had blogged and journaled online for 6 years at the time, but when I couldn’t relate the experience, I found that I totally lost my voice. I have written very little since then, because it’s been like this bottle-stopper for me. That’s one of the reasons I’m writing about it now. I’m hoping, after all this time, to finally get my voice back.

Even now, even still being vague about details, I feel fear in my body in those same places. I’m shaking, my chest feels tight, panicked. It’s not logical, when I’m safe now, but logical plays very little part in things like this. Even now, I want to make excuses for his behavior, to somehow take the blame for everything I must have done wrong.

One of the other reasons I’m writing about it is this: the bdsm community has no tolerance for someone voicing an ugly truth. I know that I’ll be called a liar in some circles, derided by some for “airing my dirty laundry”. That hurts. It is a community I care about, for all of the good in it, and one I feel betrayed by at the same time because I’ve seen people in my position before, also staying silent. I’ve seen people who don’t stay silent further punished for daring to speak.

Eight years to even have the courage to write this much.

What I learned, and I’ll share this too for anyone who is ever questioning themselves about whether something is “abuse” when they have been/are in a consensual power exchange relationship:

1. It can actually happen. Just because you at one time had a GOOD relationship, bdsm and otherwise, with someone does not mean that this isn’t your new reality. Remember, vanilla relationships that turn abusive start out good too, otherwise nobody would be sucked into them.

2. This is a bad time to introduce further power exchange as a way to “fix” the relationship. If you’re being told that you must, that it’s part of why things are bad, that part of why YOU are bad is that you are unwilling to participate, that’s kind of a huge red flag.

3. As I mentioned at the start of this post, the markers will be the same for emotional abuse (and physical abuse, for that matter) as it is in the rest of society.

  • Are you being isolated from your supportive relationships?
  • Are you being blamed for the other person’s choices or unhappiness?
  • Do you feel afraid of your partner much of the time?
  • Does your partner have an unpredictable temper? Do you never know what will set him/her off?
  • Does s/he threaten your ability to take care of your children? (this can be financial or otherwise)

4. You will probably have the live with the fact that your abuser will never consider him/herself as such. You will never be able to get even understanding, much less an apology. You will also have to live with the fact that many, many people will question your story and your motives.

I’m going to end this story with a very telling anecdote from the couples counseling we went through at the end. As I mentioned, I was doing anything requested of me to “prove” that I was willing to try anything to fix things. To fix me, since I was being told that’s where the problem was. I said to him that I was only invested in being happy, it wasn’t that I was trying to control him, I was just trying to control my OWN choices. I said to him, “you are saying you love me, but if I do what you ask, if I let my life become that, I will be so unhappy that there won’t be any ‘me’ left. Can’t you let me go instead? How can you love ‘me’ when I’m telling you this will kill me? Knowing I feel that way, is this still what you want from me?

The answer he gave was yes.

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