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.

Open Relationship Mini Interview with Dani: Know Yourself & Respect Your Instincts

Dani, daninelson.com, okayokayigive.tumblr.com

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

I’d want my teenage self to know that it’s really okay – and not weird – to feel happy when your lover and your friend fall in love with each other. That yes, you really can be dating one person, friends-with-benefits with a handful of others, and falling for that blonde chick…because they’re all okay with it too.

More importantly, though, because I came through that okay, all things considered – I’d tell my 20-something self (and anyone else who asked) that you need to know yourself – and respect your gut instincts – above and beyond anything else. There are different types of poly out there, and so many of them are just not right for you…and can make you as uncomfortable – if not moreso – than a monogamous relationship with a borderline abusive asshole. Be upfront and open and honest about what you really need.

Because that honesty? That leads to great things like rules about gorillas.

Finally, I’d tell my 30-something self that it really is possible to identify as poly and not be actively dating outside your main relationship. It doesn’t make you any less poly, or weird, or broken. It’s just that dating is not a priority, and that’s okay.

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

The relationship I’m in now started as open – it was never a question, or a point of negotiation, for either of us. In fact, I think all of the open relationships I’ve been in were like that – open, in one way or another, from the get-go, all cards on the table. I have been in a semi-closed multiple-partner relationship, however, and the hardest thing about that by far is that the rules that we agreed on were not necessarily the right thing for all of us. (See the note to my 20-something self above).

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

The relationship I’m in now – with Meredith, who was interviewed earlier in this series – has been by far the strongest and best relationship I’ve ever been part of. Not because we’re still together or still in love or anything like that, but because we came into it with very specific requirements. We both knew what we wanted, and were strong enough to say “it has to be this way for me”. Fortunately, our needs were well-matched – and that includes a level of communication that I wish everyone could have.

4. Anything else you’d like to add?

Relationships are hard; that level of hardness goes up as you add people to the mix. Talk to each other. Be open and be honest with yourself and with each other. (With yourself most of all.)

And, to share a lesson that an ex taught me – even if you think you’re just sleeping together, or it’s just casual, there is a relationship there. It might not be a long-term relationship, or a deep relationship, but if you’re interacting with someone else, there is absolutely a relationship there. Relationships take time and energy and nurturing. (And communication.)

Protected: Love Letter #20

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Protected: This Is … It?

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“I Want To Be Fearless”

Ever since I got Ellis’s newest album Right On Time I’ve had it playing over and over. I like to listen to it at the gym (along with the Bryan Adams anthology) because I can crank it in the headphones and hear every word, every note. Somehow she has captured every emotional state that I’ve been going through lately on that album, and I’m continually surprised by her eloquent writing.

When I ordered Right On Time I got a note back from Ellis thanking me. I kind of assume she does this with everybody, though I can’t guarantee she’ll send you a note too, maybe she just happened to have some extra time on her hands right then. So I emailed her back and we corresponded a little, which is what led to her mini-interview on Butch Lab, which I’m so happy to have there. I’m keeping a watchful eye on her summer tour schedule—I hope she’ll be somewhere in the Northeast that I can easily attend.

I just ordered her Scrapbook 2-disc set which includes a DVD and an mp3 CD with her entire backlist (64 songs for $40!). I used to have a couple of her early albums, but I’m not sure what happened to them, they disappeared in one of my moves. I’m excited to hear the other albums, can’t wait to get to know all of those other songs of hers.

Here’s one from Right On Time that I’ve been obsessing over lately, listening to a lot and trying to keep in mind while things sometimes feel tumultuous.

(She adds another verse in this live version … “Let’s pretend we’re smaller than / the ants under the grass” but these lyrics are for the album version.)

Close to You
Ellis

let’s pretend we’re taller than
the highest part of everest
giants with a lions roar
but lighter than a bird
and we build upon our shoulders
buildings high into the sky
and we look out of our windows
wishing we could fly

I want to be close to you
to know how close we are
I want to be fearless
in the face of love
and not be afraid of falling apart

each day there’s a sunrise
beauty I can barely see
if I saw it all my heart would fill so full
I couldn’t breathe

I want to be close to you
to know how close we are
but I cover up my heart
afraid I am weakening
I have ways to escape when things get hard

here we are
this is
the way it is
the sun, the rain
how things are always
changing

let’s pretend we are at the end of our lives here
all our troubles that seemed so big
have all disappeared
when we are deep in the shadows
bringing light into the dark
I will reach for you till the end of me
when I can’t tell us apart

’cause I want to be close to you
to know how close we are
I want to be fearless
in the face of love
and not be afraid of falling
I’m falling apart