On Power, Words and Disarming
How to release people and not fuck them up forever.
written by Manuela Bosch, co-edited by Ruth Cross
April 13, 2018
“It is complicated” I hear people saying about relationships. This probably means we cannot use common sense anymore to understand the other’s behavior and we don’t seem to find adequate responses to them, either. I think relationships are not a complicated thing to solve, but rather a complex being in their own right, that – if at all – we can learn to handle. Complicated refers to linear systems we can finally learn to understand, after studying them long enough. However, complex ‘living’ systems we can never fully understand, since their number of indefinite parameters is high and constantly changing(1). We might have just learned to understand one aspect, and already another one that we once understood has changed. We can lose ourselves in trying to understand something as complex as a relationship – so, maybe a better way to go is to not even try to ‘understand’ a relationship, at least not with your logic mind.
“It is only with the heart that one can see right; what is essential is invisible to the eye” says Antoine de Saint-Exupery. A beautiful attitude that values feeling and intuition. And also systems theory credits intuitive insight for helping to deal with complexity. But does it mean to follow our heart, trust into what we feel, even though a relationship – when we look at it rationally – is not healthy and working? When is a relationship working at all? This probably needs to be defined by those in the relationship. For me, mutuality, respect, care, and ability to move through conflict are values I would attach to a well-functioning relationship on any level. It’s healthy when moments we appreciate exceed ones we suffer. And the big question, what to do with relationships that are not working? How to get out of them? Can I “get out” of a relationship at all?
From a systemic and spiritual viewpoint, I cannot not be in relationship, same as I cannot not communicate. I can get out of contact, until possibly the unease someone brings is not so present anymore. But the unresolved thing will stay with me, no matter how far away someone is. It might get very silent, but it’s still there, back-ground noise sucking up energy. It can be that there is just no better thing to do than getting out of someone’s way and living with the noise. This might work well for some and for others less. For more sensitive people the noise of an unresolved issue can be highly disturbing. I also believe that those outwardly less sensitive, are in a less conscious way, also disturbed by unresolved issues.
A more favorable and mature way would be helping a relationship to heal. There are possibly many things that can support this healing. For sure it requires some personal reflection and work, most likely for all participating in the relationship. Looking back at my difficult relationships, I don’t think I can say I’ve been entirely uninvolved. I get really angry, when one of two counterparts behaves as if they have nothing to do with how things are and especially with how they could become. So apart from doing personal work, I think both also have to come together and collaborate around going beyond what’s difficult. But, agreeing on that can be difficult, too. I do acknowledge that it does need some inner capacity, knowledge and skills, because: it is complex!
Three tips to co-create healthy relationships:
Before you find yourself in intense and complex power-dynamics:
1 – agree on being equals in the relationship
2 – talk about how you both envisioning a sound relationship, and
3 – define your safe-words, words you say to get you back on track,
in case you find yourself departing from a healthy path.
It can be a long way. Most people don’t go down that path at all. When staying in relationship, the question is: How much pain can one accept? If I am not able to withdraw or silence, I suffer. It’s a privilege to withdraw ourselves from emotional intensity.(2) “When we don’t have to think about it, it’s a privilege”(3). If you are reading this here and you don’t know what I am talking about, you have this privilege. It is the same as with other privileges, when we don’t have to think about money, housing, crossing boarders, we have a privilege, too. So if in a relationship we don’t struggle, but someone else does, we have a privilege. A privilege someone possibly does not have, because of their history. Just because we have never experienced the same pain, it does not mean it does not exist. Our history might be even part of why it exists.
So we have a relationship that’s dysfunctional and possibly one person suffering more than the other. And we know it requires 1st personal work to see yourself, the other, and, the issues from various perspectives, and; 2nd communication and active listening to really understand where the other is coming from. But the other might not be interested in collaborating to address the conflict or changing the dynamic, because they don’t see a conflict, they feel uninvolved, it’s too exhausting or they don’t have the capacity right now to look at it and so on. We are torn between accepting that the other just does not want to go there, and suffering from our personal need for change. It’s too painful to stay in the same and we can’t change it by ourselves either. It’s out of our control, because the other is not collaborating. It’s a torture we do to ourselves. It’s actually pretty masochistic. And if the other is aware of how we are suffering, and allows this to be, they may possibly be what is called a sadist.
There is an international movement of BDSM practitioners who work with sadomasochistic dynamics wilfully and consciously. It’s individual’s share values such as neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness(4), knowing that it makes more sense to find a safe outlet for power-play, instead of unconsciously acting them out in every day relationships. In BDSM practices people create scenes around dominance and submission, one person is tying, flogging, or in another form, penetrating the other. In their play they consciously create scenes where one person is in control of the other. In a way it is a like re-construction of situations that could in normal life cause trauma. Rope & kink teacher Honey Bare, has a background as a trauma-therapist and defines a traumatic experience as “being overwhelmed by something outside your control”. Harm is done when things happen outside your expectations. So to avoid harm in BDSM play, things needs to happen in collaboration. First there is a conversation around “What are we going to do?” before diving into the play. The conversation involves talking about limits, triggers, injury, risks and also desire, intentions, fantasies. The harm that could be caused, especially the emotional ones, need to be clear. Finding a shared language is key in this conversation.(5)
Shared language does not mean English vs. Chinese. It means to be sure and ask: What do you mean by that? Why is it important for you? “It’s always better to ask to be really, really sure”, Honey Bare shares in her class called World Lust. In this case it’s helpful to label ourself in order to give the other some idea where we are coming from. “Labels are beacons, not fences”.
“To know how to release people and not fuck them up forever”, it helps to know shared ‘safe-words’. It can be words like: slow down, too much, please, etc. to ask for slowing down in a ‘scene’; or use words like stop, enough, done, or calling someone by their full name, when meaning “I need you to stop this and be equals again for a second”. Be clear to be clear on all of this. Generally we only hear about 7% of the words people say.(6) I assume in a highly activated state this number reduces radically. It makes sense to make sure you talk about collaboration before things are getting intense.
When I heard about this knowledge for navigating through a power-play, I was completely struck. I can clearly see that these principles and behaviors can be applied to power-dynamics in all kinds of relationships, sexual or not, where people generally agree on being equals. We don’t need to practice BDSM to torture someone. Words and also silence can do so, too.
Maybe it helps to enter into relationship with some acceptance, realising that we are ‘in play’. People getting into serious relationships, sometimes say, “I am finished with playing around” or “I’m out of the game”. But we could consider the time when a relationship becomes formalized is when the play can truly begin?
In any case, intense experiences with others might touch upon taboos, limits caused through trauma and systemic oppression in our history. To not stay locked in this war forever, we need to find ways of disarming, coming back to a place of loving care, since we believe in the equals we are. This is my call: Please, let’s be equals again, at least for a moment, let’s share our expectations and make sure our words are understood. Show me you understand me; show me how I can understand you, too. This can lead to massive release of unnecessary tension. It’s actually not so complicated, when both are willing to cooperate.
Taken by Ruth Cross in Spain. Meaning in english: ‘How beautiful is love when both people love each other!!’
(1) Dave Snowden, “Cynefin Framework”. En.M.Wikipedia.Org, Last modified 2019. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cynefin_framework.
(2) Sady Doyle,”The Cost Of Male Comfort Is Female Pain”. Medium, Last modified 2018. https://medium.com/s/powertrip/male-pain-is-male-power-3db257db15e4.
(3) “Check Your Privilege Campaign, General Template”, University of San Francisco Website, Myusf.Usfca.Edu, Last modified 2019, https://myusf.usfca.edu/student-life/intercultural-center/check-your-privilege.
(4) Mc Greal MSc., Scott A. “BDSM, Personality And Mental Health”. Psychology Today, 2013. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/unique-everybody-else/201307/bdsm-personality-and-mental-health.
(5) Honey Bare, Word Lust: Intentional Language to Enhance Play and Power, Presentation, San Francisco, November 2018
(6) Mehrabian, Albert. Silent Messages. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1977