Creating and Maintaining Formal Relationship Structures
For purposes of this discussion, I would like to offer some definitions. These ideas have been invaluable to me in the continuing evolution of a workable formal structure.
Structure- A framework of systems which define the authority dynamic of a given household.
Protocol- Rules and guidelines facilitating assigned behavior and priority: 1. A positive directive of assigned steps or goals – in the military sense, a directive or series of directive designating the proper course of action in a given situation. 2. A construct consisting of directives (protocol in definition 1), and/ or rules and ritual in order to create an effective governing structure.
Ritual- Assigned actions of a consistent and repetitive nature
Rules- Assigned behavior, specifically, a designation preventing or barring an action, a negative law. “Do not drive above the speed limit”, “Never be out alone after dark”, “Never limit my options in phrasing or action”.
Trainer- A Dominant whose primary focus is the teaching of systems, and the improvement and refinement of a servant’s skill set.
Owner- A Dominant whose primary focus is the authority over and possession of servants and properties.
Servant- A catch-all for submissives and properties for purposes of the conversation. (Seeing as most of the submissives being discussed here are going to be oriented towards service, it is our hope to avoid contentious discussions of terms such as “slave”.)
Dominant- The power holder in a power imbalanced relationship.
It is my hope that these definitions will allow effective communication of the ideas and concepts I am attempting to present here, they are by no means intended to designate or redefine individual relationships.
What do most people think of when they think of “Formal Protocol”? to my experience, it is almost universally misguided and negative, fictionalized and fantasy based. The contention that such a structure is impossible is based on impossible examples- fantasy fiction and deliberately contrived arguments which prove only that the situation presented is impossible- but have nothing to do with formal training.
Most often, these are based in Ritual.
Ritual has an important place in formal structure- it serves as a reminder of place within the structure creates consistent standards of behavior to keep a servant mindful and a Dominant informed that the protocols are being observed. Some rituals have deep significance, others are simply preference, and, sadly, still others are frivolous clutter. It is most often that clutter that is cited as a reason that formality cannot be maintained, that formality is a myth best kept for bad BDSM fiction.
“No –one can do that all the time. What if you are in the mall? What if the kids are in the room? What if the vicar drops in unexpectedly?”
We will address the whys and wherefores shortly, but the core concept I wish to impart here is: A well created protocol does not encounter these as problems; it incorporates them into the system itself.
Often, these misconceptions are based in fear and feelings about romance and intimacy…
But the basis of a Formal structure is the separation of the duties from the feelings involved. At the root of the problem of romance and training is the fact that romance is highly subjective, while training must remain highly objective.
Some people are not suited for that dichotomy; even fewer people are capable of entering into a D/s relationship structure from either side of the leash without love being involved.
I advocate a separation; I am NOT saying that love and romance have no place… I am saying that they complicate each other when they are both present, and such matters must be treated with care and deliberation, not just glossed over, or even expected to somehow magically “balance out”. They do not, and they (to my experience) can not.
A conscious choice must be made- one facet over the other. If it is love over structure, then love is the ultimate answer to the conflicts and questions which plague every relationship. It may have many formal elements, but at heart, it is not a formal structure.
The defining element of a formal structure is structure over romance. When push comes to shove… the rules are the rules, and they are the final answer.
Lastly, the misconceptions are often voiced that maintaining that “headspace” is impossible. “Impossible! No one can live at such speed!” Such people do not really have a firm grip on what a formal structure is, and may be confusing it for elements of formality in their play or “subspace”. One has nothing to do with the other. I may not always be in the mood to live under the laws of my city or my nation- but I do, if I choose to stay here. I may not always be in the mood to manage my staff on the job… but I do, if I wish to keep working there.
Mood? Headspace? Structure is not about play. It’s about everything else.
This is not going to be a step-by-step. It is going to be a series of suggestions, things I found helpful, illuminating, or troublesome.
Very often, contracts are dismissed out of hand. “They don’t mean anything. “ “They don’t stand up in court.” “They are just like marriage vows”.
These things have nothing whatever to do with the use of contracts in this situation, if they are relevant at all. A contract is quite relevant- perhaps vital- for a formal structure. The reasons are varied, but internally consistent.
A: Thought into action
The reason we take notes in school is not just to keep records. It is because listening and writing involves both sides of the brain, not the just the abstract. It means we are thinking more fully about what we are saying, agreeing to. It is capable of assisting in the creation of more concrete thought processes about what can be a confusing and abstract issue.
An essential reason to create a contract is that the contract does not change its mind. Memory and personal interpretation play tricks on us, especially when they become clouded by emotion. But a clearly worded contract can eliminate such variables to some degree; creating an effective “third party” – an objective, consistent point of reference.
When writing a contract, it is important to avoid getting bogged down in a few traps. A few rules might be helpful:
1. Avoid flowery language. This is not about things being pretty or romantic, this is about things being clear.
2. Avoid abstracts, this is about responsibilities, rights, privileges and obligations. Make every attempt to keep the document focused on those things.
3. When discussing limits, do not only consider the negatives of what a party cannot live with. Be certain that you are aware of what the partin in question cannont live without… (Thank you, Sir C)
4. Do not base this agreement on emotional conditions – as concrete as they may feel, they are abstracts. Love ebbs and flows, emotions run high and cool…and thus cannont be used as a solid foundation for a practical protocol. Love is fine – but you cannot promise it in a contract.
5. Do not confuse the rituals with the rules or protocols. For example, to declare a list of offenses and assign fixed penalties to them is painting the Dominant into a corner, and creating a world of dilemmas for the servant. Temptation to play lawyer with the rules “You never said I could not do that” or “I know it said I get 5 strokes with the cane- I thought that this time, it was worth it” is just as annoying as the real world bringing forth a dilemma that you have no set answer to, and feeling undercut by your own contract. Such things are ritual- and they may have a place in your life, but not in this document. A list of rituals is a good thing- but they are enforced by the structure… they are not the structure itself.
The action of writing a contract forces consideration of these and other issues, rather than letting it all ride on feelings and concepts which may not be as closely shared by everyone involved as one might think. It forces levels of understanding and objectivity which simply talking may not do.
Another advantage of the contract- especially while creating and testing one’s protocol is the short term contract. One month, three months. Eliminate the “forever” and create a period of optional renewal. This is NOT just to the benefit of the servant, but the Dominant as well. Never forget that BOTH parties have the right not to renew.
One of the hardest challenges I have ever faced was asking myself the question” What do I want?” Much, much harder than it sounded- at least for me. Paring through the mythology and the misinformation, the weight of culture and the pressure of the community… digging through all the concepts to find the few jewels that really mean something to me personally. The responsibility here initially rests with the Dominant. It is an oddly vulnerable time for the Dominant, as the process of paring away the crap, outside pressures and other people’s opinions leaves one showing only what one wants- and exposing one’s wants is a vulnerable place. The more carefully and deliberately worded, the better. Again- skip the poetry, and stick to things you can create and demand- not things you would have to make a special effort to inspire. The inspiration for obedience to inspire the servant should be coming from who you are- not special favors you have to maintain. In short order, the Dominant would feel trapped and obliged to perform the service or services- and then no one is happy. The Dominant feels obliged, cannot be pleased, and the servant is unable to provide any service which would make the Dominant feel any less trapped.
Obedience you can demand, love forever you cannot. Run through protocols to create the dynamic effects you desire, then rules to eliminate things you do not. Finally, pick and choose carefully among rituals- choosing only rituals which genuinely have meaning for you, or those which are worth the effort of deliberately maintaining.
1. Create protocols (the “Do List”) Use it as a tool to allow decision making in your best interest in a given situation, stating the final end result, and what the necessary steps are to maintain it.. Varying levels of formality are often the best way to do this. Define informal, formal, and high formal situations- and write codes of behavior outlining what you expect in all of them. Informal is ideal for dealing with the complications of life, but it does not have to be the default.
2. Create rules (the “Don’t List”) Easier than the “do list”, most people have a better grasp of what they don’t want than what they do.
3. Create ritual last- if it is necessary to you at all.
A note about ritual in protocol.
The easiest thing to be confused by, the easiest thing to be misused. Apply it after the fundamental structure is complete. Remember that every ritual, no matter how small, will need to be carefully and consistently enforced. If you add superfluous ritual which you do NOT enforce, the system begins to break down from there. Again, no one is happy.
Formality vs. Informality:
There is a time and a place for both, and that decision can only be made by a particular Dominant in regards to their own structure. However, as entropy is the natural state of things, order demands effort. Little things make a difference. By way of example, I’ll talk about honorifics.
I am called “Sir” in my structure. The only exception is when the situation would be inappropriate- and I have specific guidelines regarding what is appropriate, and what is not. There is a reason for that. The servant who addresses her Dominant as “Sir” at all times is that much less likely to forget their place and allow their expectations to become inappropriate. “OK and “yeah” are not acceptable acknowledgements, nor are anything but a small handful of designated answers. Why? Would a drill sergeant accept a “yeah”?
Never- because the sense of identity or names gives us and others strongly defines who they are in our lives, and who we are to them. This is what I consider a useful application of protocol, rule and ritual, to help create a “speech protocol”. (It is far from the entirety of my speech protocol- but makes a fine example to start.)
Informality- uncontrolled, default, casual intimacy- erodes structure quickly on both sides of the leash. It has a place- but I would keep in mind that although it may be the most comfortable mode moment to moment, it can be very alluring, very comfortable, and very costly in the long run.
The Third Party:
I cannot stress enough the importance of the Third Party concept. Once a structure has been created, it should be looked at as the third person in any question or dispute. When faced with a difficult choice, the servant should not think “Would I do that for Him/ Her?” that personalizes the choice- makes it about emotion, likes, dislikes, resentments, personal issues, good and bad. The question is” Is my collar worth this? Is my word worth this? Am I living up to my commitments if I do not do this?” The Dominant, when faced with a difficult decision- especially one that hurts to make- is not asking “Will I still be loved? Will it be held against me? If I really loved… would I ask this? What kind of person am I?” The question becomes “Does my collar demand this? Am I maintaining my integrity? Is this about my collar, or is it about my feelings?”
All of these questions demand answers- but in order to maintain a formal structure, the answers must be separated between personal issues, and issues of the collar. This does not prevent the Dominant from making exceptions based on feelings… but makes that a deliberate choice, and not the default. It takes practice and dedication.
With any luck at all, these ideas will be of some use to those who wish to explore- or even understand – formal relationships. They are more work, more attention, more focus than a standard arrangement.
For some of us- they are more than worth it.
June 18, 2002
Copyright 2002. Flagg. All Rights Reserved. No portion of this may be reproduced without permission of the author.