Whenever healthy kink is discussed or explained to people outside the “lifestyle,” the primary focus is on consent. According to prevailing wisdom, so long as everyone involved is a functioning adult, and all parties consent, everything is kosher. While consent is super important, it is not the only characteristic of healthy kink. Necessary but not sufficient is the phrase that comes to mind. Communication and connection lie at the heart of human interactions. At the end of the day, kink is an unconventional expression of human connection. This brings me to the third level of Gottman’s Sound relationship in kink/BDSM relationships: Turning Towards instead of away.
Watching couples interact in his Love Lab, Gottman observed that couples constantly bid for one another’s attention to various degrees. These bids could be as small as asking their partners to pass the salt, or as big as asking for support in an emotional crisis.
Gottman explains this in 7 Principles For Making Marriage Work:
Comical as it may sound, romance actually grows when a couple are in the supermarket and the wife says, “Are we out of bleach?” and the husband says, “I don’t know. Let me go get some just in case,” instead of shrugging apathetically. It grows when you know your spouse is having a bad day at work and you take sixty seconds out of your own workday to leave words of encouragement on his voice mail. It grows when your wife tells you one morning, “I had the worst nightmare last night,” and you say, “I’m in a big hurry, but tell me about it now so we can talk about it tonight,” instead of “I don’t have time.” In all of these instances husband and wife are making a choice to turn toward each other rather than away In marriage people periodically make what I call “bids” for their partner’s attention, affection, humor, or support.
In level 1 Gottman couples training, we learned that a bid could be responded to in one of three ways: turning towards – which is illustrated in the quote above, turning away – shrugging apathetically, or turning against – getting angry and combative towards your partner. The more bids turned towards on both sides of a relationship, the healthier the relationship is likely to be. According to the research, healthy relationships have a ratio of 5:1 positive to negative interactions. In struggling relationships, the ratio is 0.8:1.
Bids take place in any relationship, so of course they play a prominent role in BDSM dynamics. Bids are everywhere in kink, from casual/pick up play to intense, long term power dynamics. In The Ultimate Guide to Kink, Madison Young wrote an essay called Submissive: A Personal Manifesto, in which she depicts the power dynamic she shares with her partner. She talks about how they work their power dynamic into their daily lives. Her essay is a beautiful example of kinky bids in action.
Sometimes it’s just for a moment, something as simple as Sir pulling my hair and bringing me to my knees before he leans down, kisses me on the crown of my head, and whispers, “I love you, slut.” Or me saying, “I love you, Sir” before we head out to work. Sometimes that is all the time we have. But it only takes a moment. It’s a subtle shift of power, an opening of my being, slipping into that quiet stillness of perfection and tranquillity. It’s a state of Zen submission.
In this case, Madison’s Sir makes a bid for her affection by pulling her hair. In accepting this gesture and allowing herself to slip into that momentary stillness, Madison turns toward her Master’s bid. In a different context, hair pulling could also be a response to a bid, where a submissive might feel lost or disconnected and the dominant uses hair as a gesture of affection or reconnection. Madison’s quick bid of “I love you Sir” is met with a kiss, a look, or a response of “I love you, slut.” (In the context of this relationship, slut is a term of affection, part of their fondness and admiration map.)
Thus, while Madison and her Sir’s dance of dominance and submission has the outer trappings of degradation, it actually fortifies their relationship house, and allows Madison space where she feels seen, loved, empowered, and free.