A post on relationship asymmetry, whether long-term or situational, because everything else written on the subject drains me and apparently if you want something done you have to do it yourself.
I’m trying to put words to some things here and resist putting words to others. I’m trying to make space for a reader to think of a variety of applications for what I’m describing. I’m struggling to point out just how much more there is to center in the act of de-centering. Mostly, though, I just want to talk relationship roles involving pliability, adaptation, and following — and what they can involve, other than and outside of reverence for a specific partner.
This is my effort, from my asocial and weakly knowledgeable vantagepoint, to name some active desires and incidental outcomes that seem underexplored as motives toward asymmetry.
A reason for asymmetry of decision smithing: outsourcing executive function.
Executive function is the brain term for your capacity to make decisions, process information, and complete tasks. I most often see it referenced in relation to depression and autism, but I assume it’s relevant to a variety of neurotypes. If the medical definitions aren’t clear enough, I find that informal explanations sometimes come across better. Here’s two I’ve bookmarked: this one and this one. And in case those links break because of urlhopping, here’s some quotes: “executive dysfunction is so weird because it’s like there are all these obstacles in your way, but they’re invisible… every additional unfamiliar, unpracticed, or unknown step is an invisible stumbling block.” / ” But it can also be your brain being currently incapable of putting together the steps you need to take in order to DO those things… When you’re having executive functioning issues… you can’t quite figure out where to start, and it takes a LOT of mental and emotional momentum to start.” If you’ve ever been so tired that you didn’t feel like making choices, you know what it’s like to feel like your pool of executive functioning is all dried up.
Outsourcing is a business term you may have heard of. I’m using it here to mean taking a process that usually happens “in-house” (within the individual) and assigning it to someone else to take care of. In light of that, outsourcing executive function might be interpreted as just “letting someone else make the decisions.” Which it is, sort of, but there’s an important reason I’m framing it this way. Executive function is a task. Executive function is a job. Executive function is work. And depending on what your brain’s workload already looks like at the moment, outsourcing some of that work, when you’re indifferent enough to the potential outcomes, might be a relief. That relief-seeking — to be relieved of that work, to take the shortcut — is underutilized framing in relationship talk and plenty relevant to brainsick and neurodivergent people in particular.
There’s also more general, less diagonal examples in task asymmetry, which may be geared toward efficiency in allocation of skills, esp. with specialization and absolute advantage (ex. one of you is very good at navigating, and one of you is very good at driving, so you split your tasks according to who’s best at what). That said, outsourcing executive function could also be bracketed as part of that umbrella.
A reason for asymmetry of contact: monodirectional touch preferences.
Some people like giving or experiencing what Cor has called monodirectional touch, which you can see some diagrams for here. Touch in one “direction” means, simply, that there is asymmetry in the action — that one person does the touching and one person gets touched. Someone might seek out this kind of asymmetry if they like bifurcation of touch roles instead of (or in addition to) mutual, simultaneous activity. In cuddling or other physical interactions, perhaps they’re more comfortable strictly as a provider or recipient, and simultaneous reciprocation feels difficult, taxing, or sensorily overwhelming. Or for whatever reason — reciprocal touch or interaction may not be as fulfilling.
I’m discussing this here as a distinct dynamic, but I think there may well be people who seek out relationship frameworks with a variety of asymmetries in order to get at their desires for specific ones, such as this one. I assume this has to be even more likely because of linguistic disasters such as the use of the word “top” to mean a range of things as divergent as “shot-caller” and “transitive verb-doer.”
A reason for asymmetry of power: affirmation.
When you take an emotional risk and aren’t punished for it — when your trust is validated, instead of your vulnerability exploited — that can make for a very rewarding experience.
Not too long ago, Tanja and I had some brief correspondence about one of her projects, formulating descriptions and explanations for something she’s calling R/S. The R stands for relinquishment, and the S stands for safekeeping, the general idea behind it being to celebrate positive outcomes to vulnerability, provide an explicit framework for trust games, and produce experiences that deliberately cause nurturing and reassuring feelings of safety and care.
From those writings, the parts I want to highlight are these:
Relinquishment means to put oneself in a physical position that makes one feel vulnerable to another person, or to otherwise transfer control of some aspect of oneself to another person. The intent is not to feel pain or humiliation, but to see ones trust be justified.
Safekeeping is to respond to relinquishment in a caring manner. Normally, one would not initiate play if one takes this role, to avoid making the other feel unsafe by accident.
Under a previous name for it, Tanja described R/S as…
- making oneself vulnerable, either literally or symbolically
- … in order to give control of some aspect of oneself to another person
- … who then doesn’t use that control in ways that would be real or simulated abuse
- … to get pleasant feelings of safety and trust in the person who has been given control
Obviously, this involves risk, but this post isn’t about managing or evaluating those risks. This post is about what would motivate someone to take those risks. And if you’ve ever had a vulnerable experience that ended positively, I think it’s fairly easy to understand. Sometimes you have to take a risk in order to see your judgement validated. Validation, affirmation, and comforting feelings of safety — when the target safekeeps instead of exploits — is what R/S is all about.
Depending on a person’s thoughts on it and the specifics of their experiences, I think this style of dynamic lends itself especially well to processing and (emotional) exposure therapy, in that it someone could create new memories of relinquishment with positive outcomes in order to outpace and manage the memories of negative ones. One can rewrite the ending of the story, so to speak. Fix-it fic for your own life.