Are Relationships of Domination and Submission Safe?

Sometimes, relationships of domination and submission go beyond the bedroom, and end up affecting the lives and well-being of the partners. We'll tell you more here.
Are Relationships of Domination and Submission Safe?
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 27 May, 2022

When we talk about relationships of domination and submission, we usually think of certain sexual practices similar to those that appear in the famous movie 50 Shades of Grey. However, sometimes these dynamics go beyond the boundaries of the bedroom and end up completely permeating a couple’s life. Are they safe? Are they appropriate? This depends on several factors that we’ll discuss below.

Domination and submission relationships are based on a power play. If we look closely, this component exists to some degree in most couples. Due to the personality characteristics of its members, it’s common that one is more extroverted, more determined, and tends to take the lead, and the other is more passive and prone to be carried away by the decisions and preferences of hir or her partner.

However, the problem can arise when these roles are taken to the extreme, as they can end up threatening the integrity and psychological well-being of both people.

Domination and submission relationships: What are they?

Relaciones de dominación y sumisión, ¿son seguras?
A domination and submission relationship can generate emotional wounds when it extends outside the bedroom.

In a domination and submission relationship, each person adopts a certain role. The dominant protects, directs, and controls the submissive, who, in turn, is obliging, compliant and devoted. As we said, these practices are frequent in the sexual sphere, forming part of a broader category known as BDSM.

In these cases, both members of the couple consciously and deliberately decide to assume these roles, there being consensus between them and a great deal of communication regarding expectations and boundaries.

As long as they’re done with consent and in a safe manner, these dynamics carried out between adults don’t pose any problem and can even be an incentive for sexuality and enjoyment.

However, on many occasions, this power dynamic permeates the daily life of the couple’s relationship and this occurs unconsciously. That is, this assumption of roles has not been discussed, has not been agreed upon, nor have boundaries been established; it has simply arisen in the couple’s interaction.

In this situation, the submissive person can develop powerful emotional dependence, be personally limited and renounce or harm several areas of his or her life. They may become isolated, distanced from friends and family, controlled by their partner (on a personal, sexual, or economic level), and even be the victim of humiliation and abuse that affect their self-esteem.

Why do we get involved in relationships of domination and submission?

Any healthy relationship must be balanced, reciprocal, and fair. Both partners must feel that they give and receive in similar proportions and that they contribute and benefit at the same level. When an imbalance appears and when one person adopts a position of superiority and the other is subordinated, suffering arises.

We’re not talking about freely chosen sexual practices here, but about a lifestyle that overrides one person in order to build up the other. When these dynamics appear, we tend to victimize the submissive person. However, we must be aware that the relationship is maintained because the attitudes of both people are dependent on each other and therefore the responsibility is shared.

Thus, it’s worth asking why some people end up immersed in relationships of domination and submission and why they maintain them despite the dysfunctional and toxic nature of the bond. These are some of the factors involved.

Attachment style

Attachment style is the way we’ve learned to bond emoitonally with others. It’s the way we learned to think about ourselves and others. It’s forged in childhood in our relationships with primary caregivers, and is repeated and reflected in our adult attachments.

Thus, those with a secure attachment seek to pair up with people who are equally balanced, know how to give and receive, and can be emotionally involved without being dependent.

In contrast, those with an anxious attachment seek excessive closeness, fear abandonment, and are capable of putting themselves aside in order to gain and maintain the affection of the other person.

It’s common for them to choose partners who present an avoidant attachment style who are characterized by emotional coldness and self-sufficiency. Thus, this person naturally takes a position of superiority, and the anxiously attached partner is forced to submit to his or her desires in order not to lose him or her.

We think you may also enjoy reading this article: 7 Toxic Emotions that are Keeping You from Being Happy

Self-esteem and personal security

Baja autoestima en el síndrome de la niña buena.
People with low self-esteem have a higher risk of falling into dominance and submissive relationships.

We can clearly perceive that dominant people usually possess high self-esteem (or at least this is what they project) and emanate more security and confidence. Precisely these characteristics are lacking in submissive people, who are generally insecure and in need of approval.

Thus, an idealization arises, leading to both members perceiving the dominant as naturally superior. The latter shows him or herself as willing to protect, teach, guide, and control, something the submissive feels he or she needs.

In this way, roles are perpetuated: the dominant person (usually a person with narcissistic traits) gets the admiration and devotion he or she feels they deserve, and the submissive person (usually a person who’s lacking in self-confidence) can cede his or her will and responsibility to another who takes charge of him or her. Despite the negative aspects of this bonding, both feel comfortable in it because it responds to the shortcomings and needs of each of them.

We think you may be interested in reading this, too: Toxic Friendships: How to Identify and Distance Yourself from Them

Childhood wounds

The early experiences we have during childhood sometimes negatively mark us. Specifically, 5 main childhood wounds have been identified that mark our character and influence how we relate to others. In the case of domination and submission relationships, the wound of humiliation is likely to be present in the submissive person.

This leads the person to feel unworthy and to believe that he/she doesn’t deserve affection, respect, and consideration. He/she is ashamed of who he/she is and considers him/herself incapable. Thus, this person builds a dependent personality and lives feeling that his or her value depends on external approval. In such a way, they forget themselves in order to dedicate themselves to meeting the needs and expectations of their partner.

How to get out of relationships of domination and submission and learn to bond healthily

In the past, it was women who were most often found in the submissive pole of relationships (the most disadvantaged role). However, nowadays this distinction between genders has blurred and many men are overshadowed or annulled in their relationships.

Whatever the case, sustaining these bonds deeply damages self-esteem, generates anxiety and emotional discomfort, and places a person in a vulnerable position: that of depending on another.

So, if you identify with this dynamic, the best thing to do is to seek professional help. Ending the current relationship is usually not enough. If the patterns that led a person to choose and sustain that type of relationship are not healed, it’s possible that it will be repeated in the future with future partners.

Remember that a relationship must be a safe, secure place full of love and respect, and, above all, balance. Psychotherapy can help you take back your power in this regard and learn to bond healthily.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Benjamin, J. (1996). Los lazos de amor. Psicoanálisis, feminismo y el problema de la dominación. Gaceta universitaria16.
  • Bourbeau, L. (2011). Las cinco heridas que impiden ser uno mismo. OB STARE.
  • Castelló, J. (2000). Análisis del concepto dependencia emocional. En I Congreso Virtual de Psiquiatría (Vol. 5, No. 8).

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.