Abuse & Toxic Relationships

BDSM can seem abusive to outsiders not knowing that THE key difference is that every activity must be mutually consensual. A challenge I’ve seen time and time again is that even those within the lifestyle can forget this simple fact. Worse, that there are those that enter the lifestyle looking for those that feed their dysfunctions.

Now let me be clear, I am not talking about edge play, consensually non-consensual (CNC) scenes, or total power exchange (TPE) relationships. I’m talking about recognizing potentially abusive behaviors ranging from the most basic of interactions to long-term relationships.

Case in Point

BDSM, Abusive and toxic relationships

A friend asked me to review their text message exchanges with a potential Dom for a relationship. The escalation rapidly proceeded with huge assumptions about how the relationship dynamic was going to work, what was and wasn’t tolerated, and “knowing their place”.  Mind you, no consent had yet been given, they were both still exploring the potential of a relationship.  Clearly this Dom could not separate the difference between fantasy and the daily reality (and needs) of a healthy relationship. Essentially, the abuse vector pretty much went from zero to 100 in about 4 minutes. Suffice to say, the red flag was screaming to abort.

The thing is, gender or sexual roles have little to nothing to do with many of the key problem behaviors. I’m not referring to odds, tendencies, physical versus emotional, etc. I’m speaking about the signs which tend to be common Human behavioral issues that indicate a tendency towards abusiveness. For some, these are intentional actions of abuse, while for others these behaviors are completely unconscious but still habitual.  For the target of abuse it does not matter if it’s intentional or not – it’s still harmful, hurtful, unhealthy, and wrong.


An abuser behaves in a way that will intimidate, frighten or coerce another’s behavior to their desire. Manipulation is thus often by using levers which strikes to the target’s sense of vulnerability, insecurity, or need. The target will often feel like they are constantly “walking on eggshells” or “waiting for the other shoe to drop” – in other words, a constant state of fearful anxiety. To reduce the anxiety, the target seeks to avoid the triggers through compliance or avoidance in hopes to minimize their own pain, which can be based not only on physical, but also emotional through verbal lashing out, threats of abandonment, attacking value or self-worth, turning others against you, etc.

However, the question of WHY an abuser does something is far less important than one might think.  Understanding or dwelling on the Why is appropriate for treatment, but actually works against the target of abuse. Ruminating on the Why allows for one to buy-into or build excuses for unhealthy and harmful behavior.   I would caution to avoid the speculation or excuse making as a result of a bad childhood, cruel parenting, or some psychological disorder. The Why matters much less than how it makes you feel.


So what are the signs? Consider the below as an offering of common behaviors which, regardless of reason, are considered abusive.  While some of these may be aspects of elements of scenes (i.e. humiliation/degradation play), or that of power exchange relationships, the defining difference is that of Consent.  Either all parties are agreeing to the mode of behavior and action within the relationship, or not.  If not – then it is not fully consensual, and more likely to be a matter of abuse.

Please be mindful that I am not offering a definitive or comprehensive guide, but examples for those who may be doubting themselves, so they may hopefully feel a touch more confident about what might be going on.

Devaluing Attacks

There is no requirement for physical violence for someone to be abusive. Often it can simply involve words designed to emotionally manipulate, diminish, and destabilize the abusers target. There is a way to express concern about behavior or actions without belittling the person themselves. Its one thing to fault bad or unfitting behavior and quite another to attack the person. If you are hearing attack messages such as you’re stupid, unattractive, useless, no one will love you, etc.… that’s abuse.

Hair Triggers

When one partner has a disproportionate response to minor infractions it’s a problem sign. Did you fold the underwear the wrong way? Fail to wrap food in the fridge just right? Put back forks or spoons in the wrong direction?  Did things like this cause outrage and hurtful behavior??  If your partner routinely has emotionally volatile reactions, it’s a problem. Very likely you feel as if you are going to “set them off” at the slightest thing – as if you are “walking on eggshells“.  If you see reactions that feel unreasonable to you, don’t doubt it.

Not One Argument

Abuse happens as a habit, be it emotional or physical, often over a sustained period of time.  The abusers behavior is therefore not about just one argument, but where there is repetition which manipulates, diminishes, or instills fear or threatens (physical, emotional, financial, and social, etc.) in order to manipulate and control the other. If you are seeing a habit or pattern, trust that it is not likely to change.


Healthy relationships are not a one-way street. We can accept that if one person has particular need, their partner will also have needs of their own. Abusers will not think about their partner’s impact or feelings.  There is a pervasive sense of entitlement to behave a certain way regardless of cause or consequence to others.  Abusers not only tend to put themselves first but also hold themselves to different rules or standards, and typically to the exclusion of other’s needs or feelings.


When a partner communicates how unhappy they are with another’s actions, one may be upset or annoyed, but they eventually get over it and move towards finding a solution and correcting the problem. An abuser, however, is unwilling to listen about concerns or feelings other than their own. Moreover, they will often minimize what has happened and spend more time explaining how their behavior is justified or how your feelings are wrong.

Never Happened

Gas Lighting” is when someone acts or behaves in a particular way and then denies or pretends it didn’t happen. More often than not, the abuser will shift blame to their victim, usually with statements similar to “well if you hadn’t…” and “well you made me…” This kind of reality warping can be very confusing and instill significant doubt upon the target’s sense of reality and even identity. The harm from this can last a long time and leave deep emotional and psychological scars.


Abusers don’t typically start that way – at first they are often approachable, charming, alluring, and even empathic.  The majority of those who abuse their partners are two-faced: one reserved for their target of abuse, and one which is friendly and respectable for the rest of the World. It’s an insidious duality, a façade that serves to undermine their victim’s credibility with their peers, neighbors, even close friends or family.  Be it a conscious effort or not, it’s an exercise in image-making that most, if not all, abusers employ.


Very often an abuser will attempt to influence others and get external players involved in order to suppress the victim’s voice or confidence. Since many targets of abuse have a need to please, using others against them is a way to silence the targets doubt with social pressure.  This may begin with casually undercutting the abused in front of friends or peers, diminishing the partner’s credibility.  Then it may be speaking of the target as selfish, unreasonable, and crazy, while the abuser is perfectly reasonable and sweet.


While part of BDSM is about control, with abusers that control is obsessive and multi-faceted to the extent that it shuts the other’s life down. Common examples are not letting the partner go out or visit family, see friends, connect or interact online, have any financial means, even the ability to read books or take classes. These are common areas of an individual’s emotional support network, education, and well-being.  These are necessary for self-empowerment, and as such are a perceived threat to abusers.  Good practices in BDSM a partner has the option to leave a relationship, in abuse the means to leave are stripped away and leave the target a captive.

Closing Words

There are at least two major perspectives to consider, that of those within a relationship, and that of outsiders. For those within a relationship that is abusive, it is my hope the above will help allay the self-doubt and instill some confidence in your own thoughts and feelings.  Trust your feelings, your instinct, and put aside the Why and instead focus on the What, and how that makes you feel.  While fear can make any change seem insurmountable, it IS possible.  There are those that care, that will listen, and that can and will help once you ask.  Remember, it does not matter what others think, feel, or do – but whether your partner’s behavior is making you miserable.  That is enough in and of itself…

For outsiders it’s very hard to know definitively what is happening.  There is the risk of jumping to conclusions and making assumptions that can cause more harm than good. The best you can do is privately and discretely ask, listen, and provide the support by being there for them with patience, acceptance, and compassion.  You cannot rescue them, you cannot act for them, but you can be supportive and be there when they voice the need.

For those readers that may disagree, that is up to you. We support healthy and responsible BDSM practices which foster capability and growth, but neither abuse nor excuses.


Additional Resources

US & Canada: 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or at http://www.thehotline.org/

International Directory of Domestic Violence Agencies – http://www.hotpeachpages.net/







– Sir Vice
Copyright 2016 Limits Unleashed