Courting Destruction: BDSM and an Abusive Relationship are Not the Same Thing

Photo by Corey Leopold - http://flic.kr/p/51iprX - For illustration only

Reader’s Question

I have a relationship with a physically abusive partner. We are involved (and met through) an alternative sexuality interest called BDSM. He would be considered dominant, while I am considered submissive. Rough sex and physical play is a given in our sexual life, and we enjoy it, but the abuse comes from anger and is not part of our play or sex.

In the most recent episode, during the course of an argument he choked me, punched me in the face (giving me a black eye), and slammed my head into the stairs by picking me up by the throat, giving me a concussion. After a few days’ talk where I said I wouldn’t see him until he got help, he said he never wanted to see me again. After much agonising thought I went to the police and reported that incident, as I felt he needed help and I did not think it was right that he did that, although I do feel he had a right to punish me.

Right now we are sort of back together, although no one (including the police) knows. I know that at any minute he could get angry and treat me like he did before when we broke up, which was ridiculing me online and badmouthing me in our community, saying I was abusive and a horrible person.

But I love him. I read your article about Stockholm Syndrome and about dating losers and they are exactly this case BUT I love him. And worse, I welcome the abuse, at least the physical. I feel he has a right, even though I can never please him. I find his disdain erotic, and I fear I am courting and even desiring destruction.

What can I do?

Psychologist’s Reply

You say that the abuse comes from anger and is not part of your play, but you also say that you welcome it, feel he has the right to punish you, and that you find it erotic. As long as you have these mixed feelings about what is going on in your relationship, you are going to find it hard to take the steps you need to take to protect yourself.

Many BDSM (Bondage & Discipline/Sado-Masochism) couples have formal contracts specifying what is and is not acceptable in the relationship (any limits to what can be included in play, for example, and what constitutes an acceptable punishment for misbehavior). Such contracts specify a “safety word” which both parties agree can be used to stop play immediately. These contracts not only limit what the dominant partner (“dom”) can do, but aim to include enough play and discipline so that the sub is getting her or his erotic needs met as well. Any time that a dom is using violence outside of the terms of the contract there is a problem. Any time that a submissive partner, or “sub”, welcomes behavior outside of the contract, she or he sends the dom and the community mixed signals. This, too, will make it harder for you to get the support you need to keep yourself safe.

A BDSM relationship and an abusive relationship are not the same thing. In an abusive relationship, the violent partner puts a good deal of time and energy into convincing the victim that she or he deserves the abuse. The victim often feels completely unable to please the abuser, whereas in a BDSM relationship, the contract spells out exactly what behaviors will please the dom. A true dom has clear expectations and issues clear commands, but in an abusive relationship the victim never knows from one day to the next what innocent act (or failure to act) is going to cause an explosion. Finally, in a BDSM relationship, who is dom and who sub is clear. In an abusive relationship, the abuser often makes himself or herself out to be the victim.

When a couple finds themselves in disagreements about BDSM matters, consultation with the community leader about an appropriate contract might be useful, if there is not already a contract in place. If there is, then sometimes a community’s elders can help in amending the contract so that both members can get their needs met safely.

When it is a matter of one member of the couple or the other not keeping to the limits of a contract, then consultation with a therapist who (a) understands and accepts the lifestyle, (b) understands domestic violence, and (c) can tell the difference may be in order. Some couples therapists will not work with the partners together until the abusive partner has gotten the abuse under control, because it has to be safe for the victim to be able to say anything she or he is thinking or feeling in session without fear of injury afterward. If you do go this route and find yourselves in separate, individual therapies to start, then this may be a good opportunity for you to explore any self-destructive tendencies you may have and get them resolved so that you can be clear in your relationship.

Please read our Important Disclaimer.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. Originally published by on and last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

Ask the Psychologist provides direct access to qualified clinical psychologists ready to answer your questions. It is overseen by the same international advisory board of distinguished academic faculty and mental health professionals — with decades of clinical and research experience in the US, UK and Europe — that delivers CounsellingResource.com, providing peer-reviewed mental health information you can trust. Our material is not intended as a substitute for direct consultation with a qualified mental health professional. CounsellingResource.com is accredited by the Health on the Net Foundation.

Copyright © 2020.