Dominantsubmissive Adaptations Among Couples

Lovers for whom mutual dependency is a primary concern often form very troubled but durable relationships in which there appears to be a strong dominant-submissive gradient between them. They sometimes attempt to perpetuate the fiction that the dominant partner is strong and free. This allows them both to participate in his apparent "strength." Nonetheless, whether dominant or submissive, the lover engaged in the drama of power is utterly dependent on his beloved. In submission, the lover needs the beloved as the source of strength; in domination, the lover needs the beloved as the objective guarantor of his own strength. In each case, he senses his abject dependency on the Other. And however he may try to suppress it, the knowledge of his vulnerability acts to intensify his need to cling to the beloved, the result being that he needs to dominate or submit even more. A vicious circle is initiated, one that is extremely hard to break.

Whether dominant or submissive in such relationships, the self is diminished, and the assertion or enactment of power in love will most often lead to mutual resentment, anger, and even aggression. Nonetheless, while the psychological maneuvers of power can dilute the purity of love, on occasion they also stabilize love. It would be naive not to acknowledge that some of the most intimate and intense love affairs are generated within the context of manifest power relationships, bondings which draw their passionate intensity from the highly charged mix of love and power.

And, interestingly enough, such lovers may struggle hard to hold on to each other, even to the extent of living through power reversals. In other words, the master will sometimes become the slave when his relationship is threatened by his slave's revolt, and this may, for some people, be an effective stratagem.

I know very well a woman who was a gifted businesswoman but inhibited in the pursuit of her own career by her slavish devotion to an eminent lawyer. She worked on his behalf every night, entertained for him, and spent time scheming to get him ever more glamorous clients. Some years into their courtship, she was astonished to discover that she was but one of two mistresses. He offered very thin excuses and made no move to make amends. Although hurt, she went on catering to him, by this time caught up entirely in the fantasy that she could only realize her ambitions through him. Eventually, however, she found the courage to have a surreptitious affair of her own, and considered marrying this second man. But she revealed her intention to the lawyer, and what followed was an amazing transformation in each of them and in their relationship.

The lawyer, formerly dominant, demanding, and controlling, now became abject and pleading. Whereas before he had claimed he would not abandon his other mistress for fear that she would commit suicide, now he decided to give her up. He was disconsolate and despondent to the point of threatening suicide himself if his beloved would not marry him. She, in turn, exhibited more dignity, self-respect, and presence than she had had in years, and put off giving him an immediate answer. Eventually, though, she was clearly moved by his apparent transformation and hyperbolic promises, and, although cautious, was ultimately persuaded to return to him and they were married. Of course, their relationship gradually drifted back to its original power balance. But, subsequently, whenever she became sufficiently alarmed at the intensity or direction of his involvement elsewhere she threatened divorce or had an affair. This was always enough to precipitate a recurrent suicidal crisis in him which was invariably resolved through a joint reaffirmation of their mutual love.

The moral of the tale is not that she was seduced and abandoned, for that never happened. In fact, both seemed to thrive on the intensity of their involvement. It was not a distant relationship but an extremely intimate one, the subacute pain and suffering notwithstanding. This love was precariously balanced in the direction of her subordination and his domination. She served him, investing all her hopes and plans in him, while he played the tempestuous, sensitive, suffering soul who longed to be true to her but was unable, by nature, to do so. However, the tension and intensity of the relationship was kept alive by their mutual knowledge that she might bolt.

A few of their intimate friends claimed to feel a little bewildered and off-center in their presence (though they were always extremely good company). There was something definitely wrong between them, and her fundamental subordination rankled some, but at the same time they always appeared to be more intensely involved than most other couples. And each openly professed a deep affinity for the other, a deep spiritual bond. He regretted her insistence on fidelity, but also cursed himself for his obsessive womanizing. She sincerely believed (or rationalized) that, despite her periodic suffering, they were bound by love and that he would eventually change. Their relationship was important to them both and they had a variety of strategies for preserving it, including their mutually reinforcing rationalizations for his behavior. And hers! For it must be added that part of their pact was to proclaim her sound mental health and superior nurturing skills. They both rationalized her submission as a kind of spirituality that placed her above the mundane concerns for fidelity and conventionality demanded by other women in other relationships.

In addition to their almost ritualized roles and rationalizations, they also contrived to have a good friend in attendance most of the time. This was sometimes his mentor, sometimes a soulful friend of one or the other, but always someone who cared for them both and perceived them as a loving couple. This third party was part confessor, part conciliator, but in whatever capacity served a strategic function: to validate the existence of their love should their own belief in it ever waiver. While this maneuver appears to triangulate the relationship, its mode was not Oedipal; that is, the third person was never a potential rival for either of them. Instead he (or she) served the roles of externalized conscience and guarantor of the relationship. A large part of the couple's psychological investment was in the "couple" itself, in the "we" they presented to the world.

This relationship illustrates a "successful" love dance of power. It is through a delicately balanced power relationship (sometimes with fluctuating power positions), that some intensive, passionate relationships are maintained for very long periods of time. It is as though the choreography of power is intuitively understood by both lovers, and the dance that emerges is nothing if not intricate.

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