What is the difference between healthy and abusive kink? How can a therapist working with kinky clients assess the health of such relationships without over or under-reacting? How can kinky folk start talking about these issues without demonizing each other or sweeping problematic behaviors under the rug?

These are the questions that led to the creation of this blog. The first question proved to be a major sticking point for quite a few years. When talking to other health professionals, I initially found it challenging to explain how different the subjective experience is between healthy kink and abuse.

At a training event some years back, one therapist told a story I now refer to as a tale of two sessions. One day, she saw a kinky client who gleefully described the hottest, most amazing scene she’d ever had in her life. The scene in question involved very heavy impact play and language associated with degradation and humiliation. The therapist sat with the client in her exuberance and feelings of connectedness with her partner. The very next day, the therapist saw a different client who experienced almost the exact same scenario. Unfortunately, this second client was describing a sexual assault. The same actions were healing for one client and damaging for another, and this contrast was very tough for the therapist to process.

Six or so months later, I did a training in Gottman Method Couples work. For those of you who are not familiar with Gottman and his research, I highly recommend looking into it. I find it fascinating.

One of the concepts to come out of Gottman’s research is what he calls the Sound Relationship House. The sound relationship house consists of the core elements needed to promote effective communication, trust and safety in any relationship dynamic.

Couples who function effectively treat each other with consideration, and are supportive of each other. The goals of the Gottman Method include increasing closeness and friendship behaviors, addressing conflict productively, and building a life of shared meaning together. The Gottman Method involves customizing principles from the research to each couple’s particular patterns and challenges.

The first time I saw the relationship house, I couldn’t help but think about how people in BDSM and kink (ideally) negotiate relationships and scenes. The classic negotiation model, for most kink subcultures involves three phases: negotiation, play, and aftercare.

It occurred to me that this structure is basically designed to bolster the sound relationship house. I realize that it will take more than one blog post to fully do justice to this topic. Therefore, this is the first in a series of posts on how Gottman’s concepts apply to kink.

As my colleague’s experience shows, one cannot look solely at the outward appearance and language of a kink dynamic to determine whether it’s abusive. At the end of the day, we are all humans seeking connection with one another. Kink and BDSM can offer people a vocabulary that can potentially strengthen that connection.

Therefore, if you wonder whether you or someone you know is in a healthy kink dynamic, ask yourself “how’s your relationship house?”

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