Negotiation and Contracts in Power Exchange Relationships for Clinicians

If you have a client, even a non-Kinky client, who desires to explore sexuality with their partner, I find that discussing a sexual contract can be a great tool for developing the comfort needed talk about sex. In my clinical practice, I have found that negotiating a sexual contract can be a form of foreplay. As my clients become more comfortable and confident discussing sexual topics they eventually report developing arousal when talking to their partners about their fantasies. Sexual contracts can deepen intimacy between couples similar to the way love mapping activities allow partners to ask questions and truly get to know one another.

In the context of the Kinky client, the majority of contracts that you will be experiencing are related to power exchange and/or ethical non-monogamy dynamics. Sometimes, as therapists, we see resistance on the part of our clients either because they are very new to the lifestyle or they have been involved in the community for so long that they see it as irrelevant. In my clinical experience with these resistant clients, no matter their experience, time together, or expertise, a contract is an excellent tool to building and improving communications and expectations if they are struggling in their relationship. It is rare that I find that a couple or a polycule are completely on the same page once I challenge them to discuss their contract.

What Is the Purpose of A Sexual, Ethical Non-Monogamy, Or D/s Contract?

The purpose of a contract is to establish expectations and boundaries for all parties involved in a relationship. In a recent conference on treating relationships with trauma, Julie Gottman reported that one of the things that they have discovered in their work is that rituals of connection are one of the most impactful ways to strengthen a relationship. D/s contracts have a significant focus on protocols and rituals that emphasize the connection between partners; hence, this is why I incorporate these contracts in my work with non-Kinky clients as well.

Contract and Play Negotiation

Compromise is a term often associated with negotiation; however, in my practice, I avoid the use of the term. Compromise implies that both parties must give something up in order to move forward, which in turn, can create a feeling of defensiveness immediately. When negotiating, I instead prefer to use the term collaboration, which implies we are working together towards a common goal. These contracts can also assist couples to learn how to address conflict in healthier ways. When negotiating a contract, it is important to remind both parties they are ultimately on the same team. Creating an environment where the entire room feels as though they are working on the same team, by actively hearing and understanding the needs of all parties, can help all parties be more open to their partner’s influence.

BDSM Contract
BDSM Contract

Since those new to the concept of relationship contracts may not know what items are important to include in their contract, it is a good idea to have an assortment of sample contracts that reflect a variety of relationship styles, levels of protocol, and organizational structure that your clients can use to pick and play with some ideas. I often have clients who find several things in these examples that need additional explanation, which creates an environment where laughter and growing can be a part of the process thus reducing their anxiety. Additionally, sexual and D/s contracts are excellent ways for couples to build sexual love maps and strengthen their love bank.

Lexicon and Clear Communication

English is a very laissez faire language with several dialects that are constantly evolving and common, conversational dialect drastically fluctuates as cultures change. For this reason, definitions of words are often subjective in nature, and based on one’s own family and social culture may have completely different meanings. English, having been my second language, led me to become very sensitive to word interpretation in my clinical practice. I believe it has helped me in my work with clients, especially in this area. Miscommunication is something that naturally occurs, especially in stressful situations, so this practice reduces this potential.

I once had a couple come in for a session where the male partner was upset that the female partner had male friends, an issue which puzzled her. After some exploration about self- esteem and such, I finally asked for each of them to define what friend meant. As it turned out, his definition of friend included sexual intimacy, and he could not understand how a man and a woman could have a non-sexual platonic relationship. In his experience, he had never had a female friend he did not eventually have sex with, nor did others in his social group. For her, sex never entered her mind when defining the term friend. Growing up with brothers, she always felt more comfortable with male friends and sex was never part of those friendships. His issue was wrapped around his definition of the word, where if his mate became friends with a male it meant his relationship would be threatened. In short, we had to get to the very basic meaning of the term “friend” before we could finally get to the root of the insecurity.

Even couples who come in and claim that they did have those serious relationship talks prior to commitment may not have clarified their definitions of important terms during these talks, and still end up on different pages. This can increase expectations and ultimately frustrations when those expectations are not met. As with any culture, language, etiquette, and protocol have an important place in the BDSM community. Listed below are some of the common terms used in this community.


BDSM contract terms

  • Requests: A request by the D-type is for something they would like the s- type to do just one time rather than a repetitive duty.
  • Orders: An order refers to something D-type finds particularly important and the s-type, which may or may not be a continuous duty.
  • Instructions:Instructions are to be treated as high priority and are often include detailed specifications from D-types. The s-type may consider keeping notes on these preferences if they are not directly included in the contract.
  • Rules and Boundaries: A rule or boundary is a set of explicit regulations governing the individual’s conduct.
  • Ritual: A ritual consists of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order which reinforce the dynamic established in the contract.
  • Protocol: A protocol is the sets of rules that explain the expected conduct and procedures in various situations. These protocols may vary from low to high depending on company or environment.

Emotional Command Systems and Protocols

In the continued spirit of adapting the Gottman Method to alternative relationship expressions, I found that the Emotional Command Systems, as discussed in the groundbreaking book, The Relationship Cure, lend themselves well to discussing the various power exchange flavored relationships (Gottman & DeClair, 2012). Emotional command systems refer to the concept developed by Jaak Panksepp whereas, the caveman brain subconscious that coordinates the emotional, behavioral, and physical responses needed for functions related to survival such as self-defense, coupling, and procreation. Composed of various committee members, the Emotional Command Center uses a number of factors, such as external stimulus, illness, relational interactions, trauma and so on, to decide which of the committee is best suited to establish the care priorities for the individual.

These committee members are described in the table below:

Commander-in-Chief: Leadership, Dominance and Control

Sentry: Safety, Defense, and Vigilance

Nest Builder: Affiliation, Bonding, and Attachments

Jester: Recreation and Diversion

Sensualist: Sensuality and sexuality

Energy Czar: Regulates Energy Levels, Rest and Relaxation

Explorer: Discover, Exploration, and Eternal Student

Saboteur or Villain*: Saboteur and Chaos

Nanny*: External Caregiver

*not included in Panksepp’s original theory

Through the duration of a relationship, it is not uncommon for command systems to be a mismatched at various times, such as two Commanders-in-Chief. This can lead to conflict if the patients are unaware of these subconscious influences and how they can affect the way we connect and communicate. Making the patient aware of these command centers and teaching them to be mindful and aware of needs and bids can help prevent conflict. When negotiating a D/s contract, being aware of which committee member is the primary for each party can help to establish clearer expectations and desires. For example, a jester s-type is more likely to want to pair up with loving dominant versus a sadistic D-type. When command systems complement one another, such as an explorer and a jester, then the relationship can be healthy and fulfilling.

I also hypothesize that there are two more Emotional Command System committee members that are not discussed in the Panksapp’s original Emotional Command System theory: the Nanny and the Villain. I see the Nanny as the primary system of empaths, who choose to take care of everyone else at the cost of themselves. The Villain is that nasty voice in the back of one’s head that carries over childhood messages and sabotages healthy thoughts. The Villain is the command system, more commonly called the “fraud police” that enforce negative self-image and who feeds imposter syndrome. These command centers may not be present in everyone, but I have seen a significant number of clients who discuss these parts of themselves as if they are almost an alternative personality. I have found it helpful for my clients to create a tangible manifestation of them within the Emotional Command Systems in their self-work.

I also use the theory of Emotional Command Center to help non-Kinky therapists and students understand the D/s concepts by helping them understand the emotional needs of the D/s patient. For example, all of my littles vacillate between the Jester to the Explorer and tend to pair well with Nest Builders in power exchange dynamics. Energy Czars are responsible for aftercare while individuals whose Commander-in-Chief is primarily in control are controlling. The Commander-in-Chief and the Sentry primarily control D-type behaviors and because of this, a Commander-in-Chief s-type may be accused of topping from the bottom or may identify as an alpha submissive.

Important Sections to Include in Contracts

Conflict and Repair Protocols

Having clear defined protocols for handling conflict can help a couple be mindful during disagreements, regardless of dynamic. Empirically, I have found that having a protocol in place and a set of soothing tools helps to reinforce non-violent communication skills and can allow both parties space to self-sooth. Additionally, for clients who may be conflict avoidant or are introverted, a structured tool can help to empower them and quell anxiety by allowing them to voice without having to compete for it. With all of my couples, I like to establish protocols for conflict. We know, through the work of Drs. John and Julie Gottman (2000) that self-soothing and conflict management help to prevent and neutralize the Four Horseman: criticism, defensiveness, withdrawal, and stonewalling. These four actions are exceptionally toxic to even the strongest of relationships. With good conflict resolution skills and clear protocols, both parties are more likely to feel heard, making repair a smoother transition. In relationships where there is a non-monogamy component, having protocols for conflicts helps to prevent triangulation and gives all parties a voice. I have often heard from secondaries in these dynamics that they feel as if they have no rights to a voice during times of conflict or that they struggling to engage in a non-threatening manner during these conversations within their polycule.

As we know with non-Kinky relationships, how we manage conflict and repair has a direct impact on the strength of the relationship. When negotiating a power exchange contract the rules, boundaries, and protocols for all parties in handling conflict are especially important. A common complaint among s-types is that they feel that while they receive punishments for violating contracts there does not seem to be similar consequences for the D-types. When working with D/s clients, I discuss the importance of not placing their D-types on a pedestal and that humility on both sides is required for strong dynamics. Additionally, I refer to consequences for s-types as “punishment” and consequences for D-types as “repair.” Punishment refers to various negative reinforcement techniques and protocols that are set in place for when an s-type errors in some way. Examples of punishment given by Daddy D-types have included essay writing, journaling, and physical punishment. Repair refers to the act of making up to the s-type as a way of taking responsibility for the error and reconnecting with their D-type. This is important because the responsibility of a D-type is to care and protect for the s-type, thus, they need to take responsibility for their behaviors and show that they have the strength to face error. I require that they place conflict protocols in their contracts because one of the main sources of anxiety that I see on my long-term D/s clients is that the s-type does not always know how they are allowed to address unhappiness in their dynamic.

Exit Protocols in a D/s or Non-Monogamy Dynamic

Commitment, like so many other words, has a range of meanings but consent is a priority within these communities. Although the signing of a contract does represent a commitment between parties, it is vital that any contract include an exit clause should either party decide that the dynamic or relationship is no longer working for them.

Hard Limits or Boundaries

Hard limits are the strongest boundaries that one will discuss when negotiating contracts or a scene. “Hard limits” are generally non-negotiable in nature and can include anything from the use of certain toys to the openness of the relationship. It is important to note very specifically what each partner’s hard limits are when discussing their contract.

Illness and Injury Clauses

Illness and injury can be inevitable in all relationships, but as a D-type or s-type, they can directly interfere with contracted duties and expectations. This can affect the self-esteem and security of the relationship. Having protocol modifications and clauses that address injury and illness can be very comforting to both parties. In ethical non-monogamy dynamics, it is important to discuss what the boundaries are for caring for an ill loved one. I have had many clients where the hospital visit or an illness have become an issue when, for example, a client is not out to their family and suddenly another romantic partner shows up.

Conflicting Kinks

“Your Kink Is Not My Kink”, or YKINMK, is the term used to describe when two people’s Kinks are not a match. This is one of the more challenging negotiation topics that I see in practice. In most of these cases, it is important not to get trapped by the principle of a subject and explore what the underlying need is for the client. Discovering the nature of the Kinks and getting to the root is an excellent way to collaborate.

Love Languages and Bids

Two factors that are key for helping any relations flourish is identifying partners love languages, languages of apology, and styles of bidding. Love languages are the ways in which an individual gives and receives love and affection. The five types of love languages, as described by Dr. Gary Chapman in his book The 5 Love Languages: Secrets to Love that Lasts, include: acts of service, gifting, quality time, physical touch, and words of affirmation. Languages of apology, like love languages, allow for individuals to connect openly in this case as they repair after an incident. In Dr. Chapman’s When Sorry Isn’t Enough, he lists the five languages of apology: accepting responsibility, expressing regret, making restitution, genuinely repenting, and requesting forgiveness. Bids are the behaviors we use to elicit connection from another individual. The receiver of a bid can turn towards, away, or against the bid of the giver. Everyone bids differently and successful couples will have a pattern of turning towards bids more often than turning against or away.

Where identifying an individual’s primary Emotional Command System can be an excellent way of matching potential D-types and s-types, identifying love languages and bid styles can be an invaluable asset when negotiating power exchange contracts by assisting in the creation of protocols and rituals appropriate for each individual within the relationship. For example, an s-type whose primary love language is acts of service is more likely to be attracted to service related protocols while a D-type whose love language is words of affirmation, is more likely to be receptive to mantras and dialog from their s-types. In contract negotiation, identifying languages of apology can be used to establish appropriate rituals of repair and consequences.

Love Languages

  • Acts of Service: Doing the dishes, caring for a D-types leathers, drawing a bath for an s-type
  • Words of Affirmation: I love you,” “you are appreciated,” “thank you for guiding me” “Good Girl”
  • Gifting: Sending flowers, giving a D-type a new toy, sending an s- type to the spa
  • Quality Time: Setting aside time only for the two you to do an activity; engaging in a scene, providing one on one service
  • Physical Affection: Hugging and holding hands, brushing a little’s hair, giving a D-type a massage

Apology languages

  • Expressing Regret: “I am sorry”
  • Accepting Responsibility: “I was wrong”
  • Restitution: “What can I do to make this ok again”
  • Making Amends Repentance: “I will stop doing that”
  • Requesting Forgiveness: “Can you find it in your heart to forgive me please”


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