Over the past seven years I was involved in a consensual Total Power Exchange relationship (TPE), sometimes referred to as Master/slave relationship. Last week I asked, “What kind of self respecting feminist dyke does that?!?!?” The book I have been reading this week has helped me consider this question carefully and to feel a certain kind of gratitude for the experience.
[Since first posting I’ve realized that the book discussed here can be purchased electronically after all. The publishers have changed the name to “Passionate Marriage”, updated the cover art and kept the content the same.
I have also added some points about “differentiation” which I neglected to speak of specifically in the first post. This should provide more clarity.]
Before I set off on my journey this summer, my therapist suggested a book for me to read: “Passionate Couples-Sex, Love and Intimacy in Emotionally Committed Relationships, by David Schnarch, Ph.D.. I dutifully went to Amazon to download the book onto my Kindle but it was not available in that format. Further searching revealed that the only copies of the book to be found are used. I got my hard copy in the mail a few days later. The cover art was laughable. It looked to me like a scene from a low-budget, late-night, soft-porn feature; featuring a straight white couple, no less! It appeared to be some kind of 80’s sex therapy self-help book with a target audience that was far removed from me. I opened the book randomly to a page that was using the term masochist in a suspiciously derogatory manner. I forged ahead and started from the beginning; for the first fifty pages I wondered what in the world she had been thinking. The couples featured in the book were facing crises such as a woman being reticent to suck her husband’s cock and being totally squicked out by sucking it after it had been inside her. I thought, “Hello?!? What on earth does this vanilla shit have to do with ME?” I was beginning to consider the possibility that she had recommended the book in a befuddled moment, forgetting what the gist of the book was about. (My thoughts can jump to arrogant places with embarrassing speed.) After those first fifty pages the book begins to talk about “differentiation”, family legacies of differentiation, “taking care of your own feelings” and promises “an active way to work on your past and present simultaneously”. I begin to feel sheepish. By the time the author begins to discuss communication issues and says, “We love the fantasy that we can ‘understand’ and ‘express’ our way out of our dilemmas”, I laugh out loud and decide my therapist rocks. (That is such a lesbian issue; oh dear goddess how we do love to process!) When I read the epigraph for Chapter II, I sink to my knees in order to worship Dr. Lisa as my new Therapeutic Savior.
“Marriage, n. The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.” Ambrose Beirce, The Devils Dictionary
Even if that quote had lacked profundity the irony alone would have hooked me. A good therapist is worth their weight in gold. The persistent and gripping pain in my gut when I heard, or worse, uttered the phrase “master/slave” was a critical symptom that I failed to acknowledge for far too long. I’ve realized that this last relationship was a grand caricature of every long term relationship I’ve ever been in. (6+years) “Gosh, why do I seem to attract such controlling assholes?” Apparently I need extremes in my life to get the message. (Not surprising coming from a woman who enjoys being whipped or caned until she’s black and blue-but I digress.)
Part of this “Broken Door Awakening” has been opening my eyes to the causes behind some of my ex’s behavior. Coming to some kind of understanding of what had really been going on between us has allowed me to begin to get my feet back under me, to see what is “real”, to remember what is was like to be “me” before I handed that person over on a silver platter. I have come to understand that s/he was not seeing me but seeing a projection of the feminine within her that s/he could not accept. S/he saw me through the lens of her dream woman; in the beginning I was perfect, I was all she ever longed for in a partner. Then as soon as we passed some marker that made her feel more secure in her possession of me, s/he incorporated that dream girl into herself. * We became “as one”; her romantic view of the perfect relationship. The danger in that for me was when I said something that she disagreed with, through differentiating myself in that way, I inadvertently attacked her. It felt that way to her! When I disagreed with her it felt as if a part of her very own being was betraying her. That of course triggered a reaction from her and, Ta Da, the verbal/physical abuse began. (Read “The Verbally Abusive Relationship”, by Patricia Evans)
The book by Dr. Schnarch has encouraged me to see my part in that disfunction with more clarity. I know that I struggle with co-dependent behavior and that said behavior has caused me great suffering in this life. If a couple has not been able to differentiate from each other appropriately then they become- you guessed it- co-dependent! In my own way I was as much a creator of the disfunction in our relationship as s/he was. (this does not mean that I caused her to be abusive to me)
The author reminds the reader that sex and intimacy in long term committed relationships are powerful tools to be used for emotional and spiritual growth. That has been my belief for many years. I was one of those sex-positive feminists who organized tantric workshops and taught women how to look at their own cervices. Perhaps in some subconscious way I understood that although sex and intimacy had been used to damage me as a child, it would be sex and intimacy that would someday heal me.
Dr. Schnarch warns that “Intimacy is not for the Faint of Heart” and he does not hold back in explaining why:
“Sexual potential is a lifelong pursuit. Like heroes and heroines on mythic quests, we have to master ourselves in situations that frighten us: struggling with the mythic dragon-our partner- to become fully human and transcending ourselves in the process.”
I believe that if we are lucky we chose the heavy people, the dragons that will teach us the specific lessons we need to learn. My dragon is made up of sex/intimacy/co-dependency and she is a scary demon! Facing her is not pretty.
The most important theme running through this book is that of differentiation. The word used in this context comes from the magic of physiology. Every cell of every living being starts it’s life exactly the same. It is not until the new cell continues to develop and divide that a specialized cell with a specific task appears; that process of becoming is called differentiation. Each cell maintains it’s differences and special traits while continuing to work together with all of the other cells in the system it lives within; in this way we walk through the world doing and thinking all of the spectacular things that we do.
I learned from our culture, as did you, that intimacy is created by “joining two people as one”, through trust in each other, reciprocal transparency, and validation from your partner. You’ve done it! You know you have, think back:
Dream sequence with music and muted colors: We expose our inner selves…I’ll tell you mine and you tell me yours, we are open, we are honest… we create trust….we accept the other as they are and we ALWAYS validate what the other is wanting, saying or feeling. This…This is communication my child…
Ahhhhhh….. dreamy…. stars, hearts and puppies…
“Ironically, intimacy seems to develop through conflict, self-validation, and unilateral disclosure.”
What?!?!?! Conflict!??!?!? SELF-validation?!?!?!?WTF?!?!?
Calm down; if a person looks to “the other” for validation in order to “know themselves” things can go bad fast. When “the other” doesn’t give the validation that we are looking for, when we want it, our world falls apart or it’s war!
The book points out that “other-validated intimacy” is weak intimacy; it just isn’t going to stand up to the storms of life. If we are waiting for our “other-half” to tell us how wonderful we are, or how right we are in order to feel good and/or at peace, tension will rise as soon as our “other-half” needs to concentrate on themselves for some reason. On the other hand, “self-validated intimacy” is always going to be there for us when we need it as long as we have a strong sense of self. That necessitates that we feel comfortable being distinct from our partner and sure of ourselves (here’s the kicker) no matter what they are thinking, feeling or doing. Whoa! I don’t know about you but-Not the tools I got in my toolbox.
In this TPE relationship that I was in, I was trained (seriously) to work as one with her. Our goal as a couple was to blend completely into one person; most specifically her person. I was to know what she wanted before she wanted it and to do it immediately. I was trained (seriously) to gain my sense of fulfillment by serving her and taking care of her needs, by putting her needs before my own. Incidentally, this is what my mother taught me too. The Master/slave relationship is based on a fusion fantasy. Schnarch refers to these couples as “Emotional Siamese Twins”.
Think about how you would have to treat a Siamese Twin…Reciprocity would be the golden rule. Empathy wouldn’t be a choice. You’d be constantly aware of the tremendous impact your partner could have on you, even by doing self destructive things. … In an emotionally fused relationship, when one partner starts to hold onto him or herself, the other partner feels controlled!
When I read the above paragraph, I am stunned by how well it describes how I have always been in relationships. This last one was the same thing-on steroids. I can tell you, after having come up from the depths for a breath of air, that level of dependence (fusion) is a very dark place to be.
The author points out that many couple’s therapists recommend “other validated intimacy” as a fix for couples in trouble. This can patch things up for a moment or two but he points out four drawbacks.
1. Each partner becomes more dependent on the other’s whims and less capable of true intimacy in times of stress. Basically- it’s just not sustainable. It’s exhausting being expected to hold another person up for life. Although it is important to remember that supporting someone by choice, rather than as a mandatory part of an exchange agreement, is a gift for both people.
2. Other validated intimacy leads you to hope your partner has his/her act together- at the same time it leads you to hope that he/she doesn’t. As we play the game “I’ll disclose mine, if you disclose yours” we build up ammunition of sorts to use against our partner if they “go against us” or we just hold onto the faults because, if we are looking to them for validation of who we are, doesn’t it make us feel better to see that they have faults worse than ours?
3.Other-validated intimacy is inherently limiting because it leads to self presentation rather than self-disclosure. When you need a reflected sense of yourself and acceptance/validation from your partner, your most important priority becomes getting the response you want. To accomplish this less than virtuous goal, you start misrepresenting, omitting and shading information about who you are.
4. Other validated intimacy allows one partner to manipulate the other’s sense of reality. For example: you’ve just finished fucking each other’s brains out (or whatever your version of that is), within a few minutes you role over and ask “did you come? Wasn’t that the best sex we’ve ever had? Wasn’t that amazing?” Think about that, what if you don’t get the response you are looking for? What if your partner’s experience wasn’t the same as yours? (maybe he had a mild headache) If he tells you the truth, is that going to make your memory of the amazing sex less delicious? If you are relying on other-validated intimacy- the answer is yes. Your reality is your reality, it shouldn’t rely on someone else’s experience.
Lack of differentiation in couples or families creates the kind of co-dependency that says “Your experience is my experience.” “Your anxiety is my anxiety.” From cowering in the backseat because my dad was having a panic attack about traffic, to resting my well being solely on that of someone else, I’ve been the picture perfect Co-De for a long time. Perhaps it took seeing my pattern performed with excruciating over-dramatization and blown up the size of an I-MAX screen, but maybe now I see the problems clearly enough to make progress.
Last week I wrote about my struggle to remain present and be who I am in each moment. Attaining that mindset allows me to remember the essence of who I am and to see the current consequences of past actions. When I am calm, when I acknowledge myself, when I am content to stay with that self even in the face of opposition or loneliness: footlights illuminate spontaneously, guiding me down a path I need to follow. Recently I’ve done just that; I’ve taken care of myself and so it followed that my astute and awesome therapist happened to recommend this book, I miraculously took the initiative to track it down, and I am finally mature enough to absorb it’s wisdom.
Vision Quest-52, it’s my own personal Heroine’s Journey.