The Outermost Bracket™: A Theory on D/s and Non-Monogamy

Both non-monogamy and power exchange relationships revolve around sets of agreements between the people involved. Sometimes, those agreements are in harmony — and ahhh, isn’t it lovely when that happens? Not just lovely: it is magic.

Sometimes, however, they conflict.

Both D/s and non-monogamous relationships often have agreements (and arguments) which center around control, ownership, and permission. The difference is, non-monogamy often emphasizes the equality of all parties, while D/s is about someone having authority over the other.

As you can imagine, when both D/s and non-monogamy are both happening within one relationship, that can be very difficult to negotiate.

rife and I were both in non-monogamous relationships when we met, and we quickly knew our play — and then our relationship — would have an ongoing authority imbalance (a.k.a. power dynamic, D/s). As our D/s relationship grew, the non-monogamous and D/s agreements became increasingly complicated. Our authority imbalance continued to strengthen, and sometimes it trumped — or we wanted it to trump — our non-monogamous agreements. That didn’t make sense to a lot of our non-monogamous friends or with the polyamoroy theory that we were reading, and we had a lot of trouble navigating that.

In trying to negotiate all of this (with a lot of trial and error and fucking up), we developed a theory we call “the outermost bracket,” that explores which identity is set within the other.

In other words, is the D/s within the non-monogamy agreements, or is the non-monogamy within the D/s agreements?

Quick disclaimer:

This theory doesn’t apply to everyone. If it makes sense in your world, great! Hope you can take it and make it your own and use it to negotiate these complex things with more ease. If it doesn’t apply, cool. Just take what makes sense and leave the rest.

I’m using the terms “D/s”, “dominant/submissive relationship,” “authority imbalance,” and “power dynamic” as somewhat interchangeable. There are dozens of other terms that folks might be using, too, but these are some of the main ones. All of them mean different things to different people with subtle nuance, but for the purposes of this theory, they are similar enough. Generally, I use them to mean all kinds of authority imbalance relationships in and out of the bedroom.

This theory might be most relevant for D/s relationship where the dominant has a lot of control, but some bedroom-only D/s dynamics might apply here, too, since often there are rules executed in the bedroom. Such as: you will only come when I give you permission, you will call me Mistress and nobody else, you will always keep your genitals shaved. As you can imagine, if someone who has those rules is playing with someone else, they might cause conflicts.

Similarly, I’m using the terms “polyam,” “polyamory,” “open relationship,” and “non-monogamy” somewhat interchangeably. We could have long conversations about the nuanced differences between them, and what applies to what, but for the sake of this essay, they’re similar enough.

The conflicts around D/s and non-monogamy are vast and complicated, and, while there might be some parallels and common concepts, the specific circumstances are unique to each polycule or set of folks involved. I don’t assume to speak for everyone or all experiences, and this might not resonate with you at all.

The Key Distinction of the Theory

Is your non-monogamy restricted by your D/s rules and agreements, or is your D/s restricted by your non-monogamy agreements?

Let’s break that down.

When Non-Monogamy is the Outermost Bracket

When non-monogamy is the outermost bracket for someone, a couple’s D/s relationships happen within their open relationship agreements.

This often looks like making relationship guidelines with a partner, or setting one’s own solo-poly or polyamorous family boundaries, and negotiating D/s within the confines of those agreements. Whatever D/s-based rules, protocols, or agreements are made, they do not extend to other partners — and the D/s might be restricted by non-monogamous arrangements.

For Example:

Let’s say that Mel has a partner they live with, Jay, and another partner, Alex, they are in a power exchange relationship with (and perhaps other partners, too).

The relationship with Jay is long-term and they consider themselves primary partners. That relationship has various agreements for how any other relationships happen — how many times per week, whether or not they sleep over, whether they only do certain things with one person and not another. Mel and Jay made these rules together from an egalitarian place, and both adhere to them.

Mel’s relationship with Alex is a power exchange relationship where Mel is the sub and Alex is the dom. Alex wants to exercise some control over Mel’s sexuality — let’s say they want to restrict the use of Mel’s ass so that only they can fuck it. But Jay doesn’t want any restrictions on what they can or can’t do with Mel.

The agreements within the D/s don’t extend to their primary partnership — at least, not without some negotiations between all three of them, and with Jay’s blessings for the restrictions.

(Sometimes, Alex and Jay might get together and conspire to make wonderfully terrible things happen for Mel. But that’s an exception, because non-monogamy is hard and sometimes Alex has lots of feelings and they have to spend lots of time sorting it all out.)

So Jay might have control over very specific things in Mel’s life — for example, what they wear when they get together for dates, or how they keep their hair. Whatever these are, they are not things that interfere with Mel’s other relationships.

But Jay’s control does not extend to whether or not Mel can have any other partners, and does not extend to any parts of their relationship with Alex.

In other words, the rules of the D/s relationship do not extend to the primary relationship, nor to the arrangements of any other non-monogamous activities.

In my experience, this is how the majority of D/s non-monogamous relationships operate.

Having non-monogamy as the outermost bracket can help the D/s boundaries be incredibly clear. Mel might want Alex’s power and control over them to be in certain realms or within certain time restrictions only, and their power dynamic might flourish that way.

When D/s is the Outermost Bracket

When D/s is the outermost bracket for someone, their non-monogamous relationships happen within their D/s agreements.

The dominant in this scenario would be in control — to whatever degree they arrange — of the kind of play the submissive would have with other people.

Let’s use another example:

Carter is Devon’s dominant. Carter is in charge of pretty much every aspect of Devon’s life. Devon occasionally wants to play with other people, but Carter gets to say how that happens, when, and within what context.

That could look like:

  • The dominant gives orders when the submissive plays with anyone else
  • The dominant is allowed to play with others, but the submissive is not
  • The submissive is allowed to do certain things but not other things
  • The submissive has to ask permission for any kind of play with others
  • The dominant gives permission for all of the sub’s new relationships, but none of their existing ones

Ultimately, the submissive conforms to the dominant’s will, and the arrangements for their non-monogamy are within the confines of the D/s. The submissive’s needs and boundaries are taken into consideration here, and the rules are consented to, but they might be guided by the controlling ideals of D/s and not the egalitarian ideals of open relationships.

This means that the other people Devon is in relationships with must, to some degree, consent to their relationship being underneath the D/s umbrella that Devon has with Carter. Not everyone wants to do that.

How far does the control go?

A dominant controlling the kinds of acts the submissive can or can’t do is one thing; controlling who the submissive is in relationship with is another thing. Vetting or giving permission for a certain relationship to happen or continue can get into tricky territory that can become controlling, unhealthy, or even abusive.

When the dominant controls the kind of non-monogamy that the submissive is allowed to have, it can be a red flag to some folks outside of the relationship. The negotiations of this should be careful and intentional. All parties are in their full agency, give explicit informed consent, and understand that they can talk about it if it becomes a problem between them.

For some folks, it works; for others, it means that the control goes too far.

And this is the key distinction of the Outermost Bracket theory.

Why Does This Matter?

If you know you are into one of these relationship styles more than the other, it can be useful to bring up early on in negotiations. If you can communicate what you’re looking for, you’re much more likely to get it. So, where do you fall? Is non-monogamy your outermost bracket? Is D/s? Or do you structure things in another way?

If you’re having trouble figuring it out, I suggest doing a thought experiment: imagine you are in the most ideal D/s relationship. Do you have control over all aspects of your submissive’s relationships? Does your dominant have complete control over you? What would it feel like if they did?

In Conclusion

For me and rife, this distinction was very helpful as we were figuring out how to navigate the theories we knew about non-monogamy and the desires we had within our D/s. We even extended it with geeky HTML references to talk about hierarchies of other relationship identities (for example, our relationship is M/s first, and Daddy/boy within that). More on this later, or come to our “Art of Ownership” class!

There are probably many other theories and best practices within the overlap of D/s and non-monogamy — no doubt this is not the only one! But honestly, there’s not much out there about it. We know of very few resources, aside from Raven Kaldera’s book Power Circuits: Polyamory in a Power Dynamic.

I’d love to hear about the different kind of theories you all know about and have come up with. Please add your resources and theories to the comments!

PS: Feel free to expand on this theory and apply it to all kinds of other identities! Please do credit us and link back here if you do.

Getting Wood, Guest Post by Morris Danielson

In the woodshed, kneeling, Nia is looking away from me, stacking logs on her arm. “There’s something I’ve got to tell you. Don’t be angry.”

I might be.

“Me and Kim, last night.”

“In my bed? Did you?”

She nods, quickly, and looks up. “You’re angry.”

“I’m not. That’s really hot.”

“Really?”

I squat in front of her. “What did you do?”

“You want to know?”

“All of it. Who started?”

“I asked her if she wanted to cuddle.”

“And she did?”

“She did. I was holding her and … we started touching.”

“Did you ask?”

“She started stroking my side first. Then we were kissing.”

“Did you kiss her?”

“I … I think I started the kissing. Are you okay with this?”

“I’m so okay with this.” I’m close to her and she searches my face. For what? She still thinks I might be angry, or jealous. She can see my eyes are dark and my cock hard, and smiles. Her hand is on my arm, her touch so light it”s hardly there.

“We were kissing, and I asked if she wanted to. She just nodded.” I know that nod. She’s shy but she’s honest. “I pulled her on top of me, I wanted to see if she’d top.”

“She wouldn’t.”

“She did a bit, my hands were in her hair to keep it off my face.”

“Still kissing?”

“Still kissing, and her eyes …” she’s breathing heavily, she’s moved closer so our knees intersect. I can picture Kim’s eyes, hazel and secret and wanting, and not quite comfortable on top. I take the logs from Nia’s arm and lean into her, feeling her body tense against me. “Then she rolled us over, her hands were on my back.”

“Where was your leg?”

“You know where my leg was.”

“Tell me.”

“Between hers, rubbing on her.” Does Nia know she’s started moving against me? Her little skirt up around her waist, her pants tight and moving, just a little, on the leg of my jeans. Can she feel that I’m packing, hard against her leg? She’s looking up at me, light grey eyes holding fire. “I put her hands above her head and held them, and touched her side with the other hand.”

“Like this?” My hand traces her curved flank through her tee shirt, around her waist and into the small of her back, pushing her down against my leg, and she draws breath, quick and harsh. She wants me to kiss her, but I’m not going to, not yet. I lean down to her, she closes her eyes, but I move past to her ear and whisper, “Then what?” Her cheek is against mine, my hand at the nape of her neck. I’m holding her close, not letting her kiss me. I’m in charge here and she likes it, riding my leg in earnest now as I pull her to me and breathing hard in my ear, I wonder if she’s let go of her story, but she hasn’t.

“I let go of her hands, and she took mine and put it on her cunt, and pushed up against me. A sound escapes me, because I’m all of them, I’m Jodi on top of Kim, parting the trimmed fur to find slick wetness, I’m Kim feeling Nia’s weight on me and the sweetness of surrender, I’m Nia, pushing her cunt into my leg and wanting to feel my fingers on her, I’m both of my selves, Leah, wet with my packer pressing in just the right place, but most of all I’m Lee, my cock on Jodi’s leg, hard and real and mine, and now I have to take her face in my hands and kiss her.

“Did you go inside her?” I need to know, my voice is harsh and urgent. My fingers brush her lacy pants and she moans in my ear. “Did you?”

“Her clit … then inside … please …” she’s lost the story now, as I slip my fingers inside the fabric and find her clit, circle it with my thumb, move my fingers inside.

She’s close, I can feel it in the tightness of her shoulders and her breath in my neck, but the house door opens and someone calls out, “Are you getting wood or what?”

“Just coming!” I yell back. She’s looking up at me, her eyes wide and needing more. I grab a handful of her hair and yank her head to the side, lean down and bite her neck, hard, and mash her face into my chest to muffle her cries as her body twists in my arms and her cunt contracts around my fingers. The door slams, they won’t come out; I have time to hold her while her breathing slows, feeling her melt into me, every muscle letting go. Then I kiss her. “Are you going to do it again tonight?”

“Probably.” Her voice and her eyes are soft now. “Can I tell you about it tomorrow?”

“I’ll look forward to it.”

Open Relationship Mini Interview with Roma Mafia: Acknowledging the Worst Parts of Yourself

Roma Mafia, www.romamafia.com

1. What insight about open relationships do you wish you had when you started?

I’d wanted to open up my relationships since I was in high school, but I thought I was alone – it never occurred to me that there was an entire community of people out there having healthy, communicative, consensually open relationship structures. Because I was disconnected from that community and didn’t have the language to articulate my needs and desires, I was unfaithful in my earliest relationships to maintain my own happiness, and I regret that. So, in short, I wish I’d had more information sooner, or the wherewithal to seek it.

2. What has been the hardest thing about opening your relationship, and how have you overcome that?

Situational jealousy. Being poly is harder for me when I’m in an emotional or vulnerable place – all I want to do is feel the warm, protective reassurance of my primary partner. It comes so suddenly sometimes – I’ll have an awful day, and all of a sudden can no longer stomach the thought of my partner going out on a date that night. There’s no way to “fix” this, I’m afraid, but my partner and I have certainly learned how to better deal with it. I’ve turned introspectively to try and determine the warning signs that indicate when a period of vulnerability is coming. I’ve examined why my “panic mode” necessitates I cling to my partner – why I feel like I “need” that specific support, why I “need” to assert my possessiveness at that time. And I’ve explored other options – calling a close friend to be with me during those times instead, for instance, or even seeking comforting company with another trusted play partner. A work in progress, of course, but I’m lucky to be surrounded by extraordinary people.

3. What has been the best thing about your open relationship?

Speaking of extraordinary people, I’ve met countless numbers of them since I opened up my first relationship (4+ years ago). My poly identity came hand in hand with my kink identity, though, so opening up can’t take all the credit! But I truly feel as though I’ve met the most sensitive, intelligent, and creative people through non-monogamous avenues. In addition, I’ve come to know myself incredibly well. Being non-monogamous means that you’re constantly asking yourself to acknowledge a lot of really difficult subjects, the worst parts of yourself, really, and be willing to consistently reevaluate them and commit to evolving. Finally, I’ve become a superb (though not perfect!) communicator and mediator, and it’s worth mentioning that I’ve had the best sex of my life since opening up, both with my primary partner(s) and others I’ve had the pleasure of connecting with along my journey.

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