A couple weeks ago, I started talking about applying Gottman’s concept of the here.

Don’t worry. I’ll wait.

All caught up? Great! Let’s move on.

This week’s post is about the most fundamental aspect of just about any relationship: knowing your partners’ worlds.

According to Gottman, Love Maps are the foundation of the sound relationship house. After all, if you know what makes your partner tick, the rest of the relationship house kind of falls apart. To quote from Gottman’s blog:

[emotionally intelligent] couples have made plenty of cognitive room in their minds for their relationship. They remember the major events in each other’s histories, and they keep updating their information as the facts and feelings of their spouse’s world change. They know each other’s goals in life, each other’s worries, each other’s hopes and dreams. Without such a love map, you can’t really know your partner. And if you don’t really know someone, how can you truly love them?

When examining love maps with couples, a Gottman trained therapist will usually give their clients a list of questions to ask one another about their lives, hopes, dreams, sexual preferences, etc. Another version of the love map is designed to test how well partners know each other. This version reminds me of those cheesy game shows where newlyweds had to guess what their spouse’s favorite vacation spot was or place to “make whoopee”. (Do they still have those shows on now? I might live under a rock when it comes to that sort of thing.)

For most kinksters, the process of building love maps is called negotiation. In its most basic form, kinky play involves three stages: negotiation, play, and aftercare. This basic structure can apply to people playing together for the first time, long term play partners, spouses, and anyone in between. More often than not, negotiation takes the form of explicit dialogue between the people planning on playing together. There are those who engage in non-verbal and more fluid/ongoing forms of negotiation, but I will save that discussion for another post. In their fabulous book, Playing Well With Others, Lee Harrington and Mollena Williams describe the whys and wherefores of negotiation.

Clarifying our own personal definitions during negotiation can help us avoid misunderstanding: water sports might mean a lively game of “Marco! Polo!” or a hot piss play scene. By being clear about what we mean, and the source of our desires, we can deepen connections and get everyone on the same page.

Understanding the wants and needs of your partner is crucial not only to the health of any relationship dynamic, it is also a pillar of informed consent. According to The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom‘s statement on consent, without some form of negotiation or “love map,” it’s pretty much impossible to give informed consent.

BDSM activities are based on the ethical principle that what we do is done by informed agreement amongst all of the participants, which means all the participants communicate what they agree to do and not to do, as well as the nature of the relationship that they agree to enter.

One of the healthier aspects of kinky culture, in my opinion, is that love maps are essentially woven into its fabric. In my experience, there is a lot of social stigma in more conventional relationships around explicitly communicating desires of any sort. Before I learned about kink, I bought into a pretty classic relationship trope that mind reading = love. Unless my partner knew what I needed or wanted without prodding from me, their demonstrations of affection didn’t count. It took longer than I’m willing to admit before I figured out how this script can set everyone up for failure. For me, finding a framework where I was expected to speak up for myself was frightening at first, but ultimately liberating. Clearly, the Gottmans figured this out for more mainstream couples. I can only imagine how they would react to negotiations in kink.

For those of you who want to learn more about Gottman’s relational frameworks and practicing healthy, consensual kink, here is a short-short list of recommended reading:

Playing Well with Others: Your Field Guide to Discovering, Navigating and Exploring the Kink, Leather and BDSM Community

Screw the Roses, Send Me the Thorns

Oh Joy Sex Toy’s sex list and consent comics

Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

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