Unresolved: Establishing Authority

I wrote this to post over at This Thing We Do Forum, and then thought that it would be a useful post for the Punishment Book as well. I also want to encourage people–especially tops, we REALLY need some tops over there–to check out the forum and join in the discussions there, if they are so inclined. It’s a pretty great place, or so the people who are members keep telling me. 🙂

W asked me to post about this, although I admit that I can’t remember all of the specifics of what she wanted me to say. So I will go with my best memory, and add some things from my own perspective, and we’ll see where that gets us.

We have been struggling for a while with W establishing her authority. I am frustrated. I feel like either I’m making myself follow the rules and behave–which undermines my perception of W’s authority, because I feel like I’m the one in control of what happens, and whether or not we get into fights. Or else I’m breaking the rules, and causing W to respond to my behavior–that kind of topping-from-the-bottom thing, which makes me feel like I’m still the one in control of the situation.

W, on the other hand, is frustrated because she feels like she *is* establishing her authority. From her viewpoint, either I’m following the rules, or I am breaking the rules, and she is enforcing them. And then she’ll get feedback from me, usually afterward, that says, “Well, but I felt like I was the one in charge of that situation.” Which, frankly, undermines her confidence in her authority.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to tease out what’s going on for me, and I think that a lot of it is that I need W’s authority to come irrespective of my behavior. Which is to say, I feel like I need her to be able to visibly demonstrate her authority even when I am not misbehaving. And that is a huge shift in the dynamics of our relationship.

For lots of reasons–our basic personalities being the core of it–the usual dynamic in our relationship is that I tend to make the decisions, and take care of household organization, and really, boss her around without thinking about it. And the problem is, I’ve realized that I wind up not really respecting her… if I’m not paying attention, I’ll be thinking about her like one of those buffoon-ish husbands on a sit-com, and (obviously) thinking of myself as the all-knowing sit-com wife. Which, when it gets down to it, is not a great dynamic for a satisfying relationship (or for a good sit-com, for that matter).

Someone posted a snippet to the forum a while ago, from one of those HoH type sites, talking about the dynamics of that kind of relationship, and how a woman’s natural need to submit, and a man’s natural need to be dominant, have been thwarted by things like feminism. And that’s the kind of thing that I normally dismiss out of hand, particularly since we’re both women in my relationship, and that dynamic that the site attributes to gender is full blown. (Plus, if you’re looking at the surface, my dear wife is about 100 times more femme than I am, which would make her the “woman who needs to submit” in that theory, and she is totally not.)

But the person who posted it suggested looking past that for some useful insight to the dynamics of our relationships, and when I did, it really did help me to get in touch with where I feel the problems are. It’s not about gender. It’s about personality. Heck, it might even be that I’m a frustrated submissive, and need someone to establish dominance over me.

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, at least in my relationship, the benefit of W establishing her authority, and both of us consciously treating her as the Head of Household is not that I need to have her be in charge of everything, and me totally submitting. It’s that, as it currently stands, the dynamic is the opposite. By having W act as the HoH, we rectify that. Where it will bring us is into a more equal balance. Because, let’s face it, I’m not going to become all *that* submissive. I’m a smart, capable, confident person. Plus, I’m utterly perfect and always right. (Okay, maybe not so much the last part.) If we are consciously treating W as the HoH, I will hopefully learn to treat her as someone who is as good at being in charge as I am. I will hopefully learn to consider her opinions equal to mine. And she will hopefully get some practice in standing up to me, putting her foot down, and pushing back when I unthinkingly begin to steamroll over her in the relationship.

One of the problems we’ve been having with this, though, is that W is not accustomed to being in charge. And, for a lot of reasons, she is uncertain in her role as an authority figure in our relationship. We both believe in a consensus-based style of decision making. Well, her more than me. I act like consensus is pretty much me convincing everyone else that I’m right. W is waaaaaay better at actual consensus than I am. We want everyone to have their say. We want everyone to feel like they are sharing control.

And then we add beliefs about parenting and discipline. We both believe that rules for children should be there for a reason–I mean, you don’t let them run into the street because it’s dangerous, not because you want them to submit. Rules, in our mind, should be there for a reason. Consequences should be saved for times when rules have been broken. Authority, in this sense, can be very much in the background, rather than constant and overt.

During one of our endless processing sessions, trying to figure out what’s going wrong and how to fix it, W said something like, “Well, I can’t just tell you to wear a dress or something like that. It would just be arbitrary!”

My immediate response, emotionally and verbally, was, “YES. You could! That would be the point of establishing your authority. Doing it just because you *can*.”

But it’s hard, and W isn’t in the habit of looking for ways of establishing her authority arbitrarily, just because she can, just because she and I both know that even if I’m following the rules, I’m doing it to maintain control of the reins of our relationship and resist her authority.

So the reason she asked me to post–and by “asked” I actually mean “told”–is that she wants advice. She wants suggestions of different ways she can establish her authority. And it doesn’t work out very well for us, if I’m the one giving her the suggestions. Particularly because, being as consensus-oriented as she is, she then wants to ask my opinion about the smallest mechanics of any particular suggestion I’ve offered.

I am stating here for the record–and much as I dislike it, dear readers, you can feel free to remind me that I’ve made this promise–that I am consenting to W making decisions without my input. I trust her, deeply and absolutely, to hear me and respond appropriately if I tell her that something is dangerous or not safe for me to do. I trust her, even, to listen if I honestly believe something she’s asked is unfair. But I am right now giving her the authority to steamroll over me, whether it’s for my own good, or just because she can.

Also, in the interest of getting the discussion off to a good start, and getting people thinking of ideas that play to W’s strengths, I will now describe an incident in which she quickly, easily, and directly established her authority.

Several weeks ago, we were going to the movies one night. We hadn’t been talking about rules or structure, we were just going through our ordinary, daily life. I was feeling irritated by people getting in my way and annoying me (hazards of urban living!), and as we walked into the theater, I breezed through the door, letting it go so that it closed in W’s face.

She caught up to me halfway across the lobby, rested her hand on my arm, and said quietly, firmly, “Let’s try that again.”

I had no idea what she meant. She explained, and my initial reaction was, “That’s STUPID. Why go back outside? You’re in now. Sorry I didn’t hold the door for you. Oh well. Next time.” (I didn’t say all of that, but I know I said some of it.)

She continued to be firm: “No. We are going back outside, and you will do that again, properly.”

I was caught thoroughly off-guard. Was she serious?!?! I had to walk back outside, for the sole purpose of opening the door again? Yes, she was serious. And she made me do it.

And, honestly, that was the point where I started thinking really hard about how often I am not respectful to W, in all of those little ways. How often I get caught up in my own life, and don’t take the time for basic courtesy and respect. How I take for granted that she knows I love her and respect her, that she matters to me, and that I want her to be happy. And so, in little day-to-day ways, I treat her badly. And she doesn’t do that to me. She is courteous, respectful, and remembers me in the midst of her own busy and challenging life.

So I’m asking for suggestions of ways that she can demonstrate her authority to me, and enforce it strongly until I’m able to be as respectful of her as she is of me. Knowing myself, that’s not going to be easy. But I think it will be worthwhile.

mija kindly suggested that i add a hotlink to my follow-up post over at this thing we do. so i have now done that. this whole process has really gotten me thinking, and i’m sure that i’ll be posting *something* more *somewhere* in the very near future. i’m sure everyone is just thrilled to hear that. 🙂

11 thoughts on “Unresolved: Establishing Authority

  1. recidavist

    Sometimes it can help to build the confidence of a tentative dom/HOH to give them some structure to work with so they understand what’s expected of them and when and have the confidence to address the right types of behavior when it happens.
    You mentioned the idea that rules should be there for a reason (absolutely right), and it follows that the consequences that flow from breaking them are better appreciated by both because the reasons are understood and because they matter to both of you………
    So, agree some rules, things you both think are important and the consequences of breaking them. Choosing things which matter to both of you will help a lot because W will be more willing to enforce them than rules she doesn’t see the importance of. You may have to be a bit more in charge and suggestive in this process but once the rules and consequences are set up, they should look after themselves. Don’t go for too many 10 or 15, maybe 20 at first, and have a rule board on the fridge or something like that, with agreed black marks or whatever awarded for breaches and agreed consequences as part of the rule board for when the tally reaches a given level.
    W then knows what behavior she should enforce and if its not in her nature to react to every transgression you can prompt without having to take control…”do I need a black mark for that?”..she gets to make a decision, has a chance to take control, send you off to write up your offense and then when punishment is required , you don’t have to orchestrate what she should do because its is already prescribed.
    With a structure like that to work in W’s confidence will quickly develop and the incident at the movies will soon become the norm.
    Hope this helps. Good luck

  2. Lily

    This is a really insightful post. One of the things I’ve come to is that it’s not so much about control — it’s about leadership.
    I’m an assertive and accomplished person, so I’ve made plenty of decisions and I’m going to keep doing so; what I think it is that I want is this: I want my partner to have an idea of who they think I could become, and not back off and shrug when I don’t live up to that potential.
    I’ve done that alone up to now, and I could continue that way, but doing that as a collaborative process, and having my partner’s active engagement in that, is something that would be very welcome.
    It’s also something that’s kind of transgressive in our society, where individualism and “being a rebel” are such a big part of the culture. I’m proud of what I’ve done so far in my life, but I’m not sure my best self is a solo effort.

  3. dykegrrl

    thanks, both of you, for your responses.
    recidavist: the funny thing is, for a bit more than four years now, we’ve been working with something like what you describe. And it’s been frustrating to me, and to W, because there’s a level where if I’m telling her what to do to demonstrate authority, I’m still in control. And really, I’m very good at being in control (kind of like what Lily described).
    I think part of what’s happening right now is that we’re working on moving this to a different level. The growing pains of it have been… painful. But if W’s response tonight was any indication, our lives will be much richer and happier for the change.
    @Lily–I really do understand what you say about this being a transgressive choice on our parts. On the other hand, it could be said that by choosing to do ttwd, which is so far against the culture, we are rebelling against prevailing norms by choosing to submit to our partners. We can get all SORTS of meta with that. 🙂

  4. Étienne

    I’ve been reading the archives of this blog for days now, and am sure you folks know more about this than I do.
    Still, I also live (as a male sub to a female dominant) in a BDSM household, and I would tweak one thing you said just a little bit: rather than making rules “just because she *can*,” I suggest she makes rules “just because she *wants to*.” Having you open the door for her is a perfect example–it wasn’t arbitrary, it was something *she* wanted you to do.
    If the rule is arbitrary, it’s there because I want rules, and I feel like I’m being catered to and that I’m the one in control. If the rule is something she *wants*, then it’s about her, and *not* about me–and that means she is in control.

  5. Indy

    This is a really interesting post. Even though I don’t practice DD, the issues you raise about being a take-charge person with submissive tendencies really resonate with me. In RL, I want an equal partner, one who can and will stand up to me, especially when I’m wrong. The fact that he might do so when I’m right is a bit more problematic, of course.
    That’s hard enough. In spanking play, I want my partner to take charge. That’s even harder. I generally don’t submit easily (perhaps not at all, sigh), so I make it a lot more difficult for my partners than it has to be.
    One of the traps we fall into is that I’ll start to argue, and my partner will join in. That’s a lost cause, really. What I want him to say is, “Who’s in charge of your spankings?” (Hottest line ever, which I must credit to Bonnie & Randy of MBS). Then I have to admit that he is and we’re more than halfway there already.
    Would it help you and W for her to make some purposely silly rules, allowing you to break them and her to enforce them as more of a game than something so serious? I realize there are all sorts of complications in your dynamic that you haven’t described in this post, so something that obviously sexual might not work. If it did, though, that might ease her concerns about having arbitrary rules.
    Good luck with all of this, and it’s great to see you back on the PB.

  6. dykegrrl

    Would it help you and W for her to make some purposely silly rules, allowing you to break them and her to enforce them as more of a game than something so serious?
    well, in some ways, this is true of most of my rules. well, the ones i’m willing to break, anyways. yes, there are rules about safety and respect, and i do try hard not to break those at all. but honestly? rules like “i need to text w by 2 pm to let her know what i’ve eaten” are there solely to be broken. we have been careful to choose some things that i can consciously break. the problem is, with me being who i am, i’m very GOOD at following rules (well, less good about respect, which is hard for me to admit). so it has been frustrating, since we get into the power struggle where i resist authority by seeming to comply with it.
    rather than making rules “just because she *can*,” I suggest she makes rules “just because she *wants to*.”
    oh, wow. i’m definitely going to have to pass this along to w, because i think you really caught it in a nutshell. this isn’t about her controlling me because i want that… well, i do, but still. it’s about her asserting power to get things *she* wants.
    she said last night, after taking some of the much more specific suggestions from the forum (where they’ve had to sit through all of the messiness of us wrangling through all of this!), that she actually felt taken care of last night, because she was able to tell me what to do. it seems that this thing we do has benefits even for reluctant tops (which is my dear wife’s name over on the forum).

  7. Mija

    I’ve been thinking about your writings on this (both here and on the forum) for the last couple of days, trying to absorb everything everyone else is saying and figure out what I think. Do keep my tendency to read closely into language (occupational hazard) in mind when you read this.
    For me, I think part of the problem could be the way this is being framed. You both are seeing W as needing to establish her authority over you as though it is something she’s having to wrest from you rather than something you’ve freely given her. At the same time, she’s presenting herself and you see her as “reluctant” — doing this only because you want / need her to as though it gives her no pleasure or satisfaction. The term “reluctant” makes me think of someone being dragged along, an idea that would really sting me if Paul played into it. My thought is that neither of these circumstances are likely to instill either of you with confidence.
    For me, it’s been hugely liberating to know that Paul, however he may have come into disciplining and punishing me, is into it — likes doing it, likes the feeling it gives him in his own right — apart from whatever good it may do for me. At the same time, it’s important to him to know that I trust and believe in him and won’t try and undermine his confidence — that how we do this is his choice.
    I think you both need to convince each other of these things — that you’re ready to give control, JA and that W is excited and happy to be in charge of the areas she wants to be (and that you’re comfortable with her having).
    My advice to W, since she’s asking, is to choose a couple (no more than five) of your behaviors that matter to her and she wants changed, make sure she has your buy in, and focus on those. Her attitude (in my opinion) should be outcome oriented — that is to say, whether you’re holding the door for her because you believe she has the authority over you or because you’re “making yourself” do it, for her, the fact you’re holding the door open for her is a demonstration of her control over your behavior.
    The “arbitrary rule” thing probably will only work on your side. That is, the rules may seem petty and arbitrary to you. This doesn’t matter so long as you’ve agreed to follow them — once you have, you opt out should only be done as an emergency because the rules W makes should have meaning to her, be things she wants you to do or not do and she should trust that once you’ve agreed to them you’re going to try and follow them. (More thoughts on the fairness thing coming in an entry by me, whenever I get around to it unless someone else does first.)
    Meanwhile you tell yourself that you’re holding the door for W because she wants you to and has told you to do so. If a little voice tells you you’re doing it because you’ve decided to, remind yourself that you’ve decided to BECAUSE W wants it and you’re submitting to that request / demand. That’s the arching reason, whatever undermining self-talk you’re giving. Sometimes, when I’m thinking “maybe I’m just going through the motions, I’ll do what I’m supposed to, but then ask Paul what might (because it could be different another time) have happened if I hadn’t just to remind myself that the limits are there and he’s enforcing them. This is a huge turn on for me, remembering and being reminded when I’ve been good that had I not been I would have been punished. It’s at this point that sexual play mixes in with the discipline and punish dynamic.
    Anyway, hope you find something useful in these thoughts.

  8. Zille Defeu

    I wish I could add something to Mija’s incredibly thoughtful and insightful response (and the ones that went before it!) but my Master and I are still working on figuring that one out, ourselves. Well… he can specifically order me to do something just fine, but day-to-day he wants to be reasonable and considerate — not something one would normally bemoan in a partner, but which has gotten in the way of his maintaining authority over the years. I too have ended up feeling like the sitcom wife — and I don’t want to be stuck in that show!
    Actually, as I’ve been typing this, I’ve had an idea, coming from the movie theatre door situation. Since W is femme, maybe some of the things she can require from you are old fashioned gentlemanly behaviour, like opening car doors and giving her a hand up a step, seating her at a table — things that have sadly fallen out of modern life.
    I don’t remember who first gave me this little item to consider, but think of this: A fellow takes his lady out for dinner. He takes off her coat, seats her, orders for her, stands when she stands to go to the toilet, pays for dinner, helps her into her coat, opens the door for her on the way out. One of them was the Master or Mistress, the other was the slave. Which one was it?
    It could be either, and either works very well. Either he is an entirely submissive person, who attends his Mistress with his full self offered up. Or he is a very controlling Master, who is in charge of his slave’s entire experience and behaviour. You can make the ritual of refined manners work for you, no matter what side of the Top/bottom divide you are on!
    I know how hard it is sometimes to offer up your service when you feel it’s not being demanded, taken. I want to feel out of control of the situation more often then I do. But we all (unfortunately) have to balance being mature human beings who can navigate out in the cold hard world with our roles in the safety of our (all too fragile) relationship bubbles. So I love Mija’s idea of asking, “What if I didn’t obey you just then…?” I know I’ll be using that in future!

  9. dykegrrl

    thanks to everyone for the replies. something has shifted in our relationship in the past few days, and it feels like we are in a very good space just now.
    partly, this was from me: i was able to accept things that were happening to cause resistance on my part, and was better able to let w in. at the same time, w has been able to connect with her assertive side, which has made it easier for her to establish authority.
    the funny thing is, it seems that almost as soon as i (collectively) felt safe in her ability to be assertive and authoritative, i (again collectively) was able to understand that w *also* has a very submissive side, and the needs of that part of her were *not* being met. and so at this point, i suppose we’ve taken responsibility for each other.
    and i really want to thank mija for her suggestion of w changing her name, because i think that helped her to recognize a turning point in her own relationship with this.
    (the funny thing is, with the switching that has happened recently, i have a LOT more empathy for tops, because things are definitely hard from that side, too!)

  10. dykegrrl

    oh, i definitely will. the changes over the past week convince me that all of this really is worthwhile. and this thing we do–the thing, the forum, the people i’ve met–have definitely been a huge part of my healing process. if it can work for me, it can work for anyone.
    and i am thrilled at having more tops on the board–the more, the merrier!


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