Power Exchange vs. Power Struggle

handcuffed couple

When I was married I was in a power exchange relationship – except I didn’t know it. He believed that we should have certain roles in the relationship. It wasn’t based on gender. For example – if one person works, the other takes care of the house. Who works depends on who makes more money. As far as personality he was dominant, but not in a healthy way. Without disclosing too much I will just say that I think it was that “take charge” attitude that attracted me, yet I didn’t realize at the time (I was only 18 when we met) that it was more of an unhealthy control issue for him. However, even though there was a control dynamic there, it was in a very vanilla way. I had not consented to a power exchange and, in fact, had no clue what that even was. I had no idea about this world of kink and D/s. So having been raised by a very strong and independent mother, I struggled for control in the relationship as well.

Now that I’ve been in this scene and in D/s relationships I can look back on my vanilla marriage and see that it was a power struggle. Not power exchange. I believe that many, if not most, vanilla relationships deal with power struggle. There are no clear boundaries or expectations set. Both people are vying for control and the result is fighting, passive aggressive behavior, and built up resentment.

Disclaimer: if you find yourself thinking, “not all vanilla relationships are like that” or “are you saying vanilla relationships are inferior?” or ……. (you get the point). I am not saying this theory applies to all vanilla relationships. Nor am I saying that vanilla relationships are inferior. I am speaking to one little piece of the puzzle that I see as a common theme in vanilla versus power exchange dynamic.

I will use a simple example. For many couples it’s common for them to let their partner know they arrived at their destination safely. (friends do this too) Let’s apply this to a vanilla couple first. One person (person A) is going somewhere and their partner (B) asks them to send a text when they get there so they know they arrived safely. Person A forgets. Partner B is worried and finally gets thru to person A. They are relieved that person A is safe, however, now they are also angry that person A forgot to text and feels it was inconsiderate and not taking their feelings of concern into account. When person A gets home, person B expresses their anger and they get into a fight about it because person A didn’t mean to be inconsiderate – they just got distracted. Yet, arguing ensues due to feeling hurt, disappointed, unfairly accused, etc.

Apply the same scenario to a power exchange couple. In this case it has been established that the text is a part of their protocol and it is an expectation. Partner A knows that if the text doesn’t happen there will be some sort of punishment. Partner A forgets to text. Partner B is worried, then angry/disappointed, just like in the vanilla scenario. The difference is twofold. First, the expectation was set and, therefore, person A accepts responsibility for their mistake and doesn’t try to argue their case. Yes, there is human error regarding memory, distraction, etc. and person A didn’t do it on purpose. However, the protocol was broken. Second, later that night when they come home, person B explains why they were upset, reminds person A about the reason for the protocol and carries out the punishment. Person A accepts the punishment and apologizes for breaking protocol. They hug it out. They move on with their evening. No struggle for who’s “right” or lashing out in anger. It’s done.

If looked at from this perspective I really think this is one reason why D/s relationships are my preference. Everyone knows what’s expected of them. There isn’t a struggle for Dominance or control. It’s not to say there isn’t struggle or fighting in D/s relationships. However, I think there’s a lot less, especially when it comes to the smaller things. Please feel free to tell me about some of your experiences with power struggle vs. exchange in the comment section below!

Jennifer Masri is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, specializing in Alternative Lifestyles for individual and relationship issues. She also teaches the BDSM 101 class series at Sanctuary LAX in Los Angeles every Monday evening. Read more about Jennifer on her blog, A Kink Shrink.


  1. Subadubdub says:

    Please don’t set expectations for people that a D/s relationship is somehow easier than a vanilla relationship.

    There can be problems in a normal relationship and there can be problems in a D/s relationship.

    Passive aggressive behavior is not the result of a power struggle. Being passive aggressive can be a form of abuse. It’s resorted to by people who don’t know better ways of dealing with things.

  2. In no way did I say or mean to imply that D/s relationships are easier. Relationships overall take work. D/s relationships can take even more work due to expectations of transparency and communication. I was simply pointing out (with a broad stroke obviously) that some of the struggles we may face in vanilla structures can be dealt with differently when we apply power exchange. Thanks for reading!

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