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Explaining The Dom/Sub Relationship Dynamic

Dom/sub relationships seem simple, but what’s really going on in these couples? It’s time to pin down this term and show it who’s boss!
Editorial team
November 29, 2023
June 20, 2024
min. read
Table of Contents

Within nearly every relationship, there's usually someone who takes the lead and someone who follows. Sometimes, people describe these dynamics in a spiritual way, with one person being the gardener and the other being the flower. Alternatively, they might prefer to be a master and a filthy pig boy who needs a good spanking. 

Whether you’re picking dinner or getting gagged and bound, this dichotomy is incredibly common. Dom/sub relationships are part of human nature, and they’re becoming increasingly recognized in the mainstream.

But where does D/s come from? And why do some people cultivate more pronounced dom/sub relationship dynamics? It's time to hang up any hang-ups about this relationship archetype and discover what makes the dom/sub connection unique — and why it's much more common than you realize.

What is a dom/sub relationship?

Dom/sub relationships consist of two or more people who fall into the categories of dominant or submissive. Essentially, it’s a consensual exchange of power, usually to heighten intimacy, sexual desire, or both. It often translates into sex for these relationships, but it can just as easily be something they practice everywhere, from social outings to the grocery store. 

Here's some quick decoding for our gay and queer fans, too: Dom doesn’t mean top, nor does sub mean bottom. There are sub tops and dom bottoms; you may have heard them referred to as "service tops" or "power bottoms." And if that doesn't sound like an intriguing power dynamic, you need to loosen up a little. (Poppers might help.)

However, the dom is often the more "active" and the sub more "passive" in the relationship — unless your dom gets off on barking orders. And to confuse things even further, some people use the terms top and bottom interchangeably with dom and sub (thanks a lot, straight people). These people typically aren’t referring to a strict D/s relationship but rather where they fall on a general dominant-to-submissive spectrum.

Regardless of how things shake out, there should always be copious communication and care in these relationships, especially if they play out in ways that involve BDSM. Everything is a negotiation of power, and basically any activity — sexual or otherwise — can exist within a dom/sub framework. It all depends on how much the adherents want to incorporate it into their lives.

Is the dom/sub relationship a kink?

Most of us have heard about dom/sub relationships through kink. But that doesn't mean it's exclusive to kink — far from it. It's more about an explicitly outlined energy dynamic that two people share. That means the dom could be a leader or protector just as much as they could be a daddy or enforcer. The result is an agreed-upon power exchange, which can be spoken or unspoken but is always consensual.

Domination doesn't have to be intense or aggressive, either. It can come from a warm, loving place, and there should always be an element of mutual respect and adoration, no matter how the nuances of the relationship play out.

Similarly, a submissive isn't necessarily the dom's doormat — far from it. Subs often control the flow and boundaries, deciding what they're comfortable with and when. It's the dom's responsibility to transmit that into their relationship safely. It's only through this trusting connection that they can safely explore their erotic fantasies or sadomasochism.

Sub/dom relationships also aren't necessarily attached to sadism or masochism. But, like any sexy hot pot of desire, there's a decent amount of overlap. 

S&M is about inflicting physical or emotional pain, usually for sexual gratification, with activities like spanking or humiliation. It's just as possible for a dom/sub couple to have no interest in S&M as it is for a couple into hardcore sadomasochism to eschew a lot of the dom/sub tropes. No one has to live in a box (unless they're into that).

Even if a D/s couple doesn't engage in fetish play, there's still merit in open and honest discussions in these relationships. Some couples might also enact a BDSM checklist or safe word to let their partner know when they've reached or crossed a boundary.

Types of dom/sub relationships

That's the essence of the dom/sub relationship explained. Now, let’s throw a wrench into things and define the different subtypes of this relationship style.


Yes, we just said that no one has to live in a box, but sometimes categories help people contextualize their lives in relation to the world around them. So with that, here are some common types of dom/sub relationships:

Master and servant

This dynamic is self-explanatory; the sub primarily serves the dom in these relationships. That doesn't necessarily mean sex is the focal point. Sometimes, it's as tame as always making sure you have lunch ready precisely how they like it or doing whatever they ask without question. 

D/s bondage

This relationship is likely the one most people think about when they think of dom/sub, but it only makes up a fraction of those who participate in D/s relationships. Still, bondage is pretty normal in D/s relationships because it involves a very physical, visceral power exchange that strongly reinforces the roles. 

Some D/s couples practice their power dynamics exclusively through bondage, but nothing is stopping any of these subgroups from throwing a pair of handcuffs into the mix here and there. Bondage-focused doms and subs will usually follow similar rules to those in S&M relationships, including developing a safeword and thoroughly discussing boundaries before erotic or kink play.

D/s lovers

The D/s lover group is more about sexual pleasure and gratification. In this dynamic, the sub is told what to do sexually by the dom, and they get off on providing the service. This dynamic is the sleeper cell of many sexual relationships; tons of people practice some version of this erotic power dynamic without even realizing it.

Because this can involve some degradation or sexual power exchange, it's common for D/s lovers to engage in aftercare or develop a safeword.


A more unique dynamic is the dom taking on the role of caregiver, while the sub acts as a helpless subject, like a child or pet. Consensual age play can be gratifying for submissives who want to release themselves of their anxieties and let their dom or domme (that’s a female dominant) care for them. 

Of course, this doesn't always have to be solely lovey-dovey either; there's room for discipline and punishment in these relationships, but the extent varies widely between couples.


Keyholding relationships also tie into S&M, specifically with chastity play. In these relationships, one person will wear a chastity belt or cock cage. The other either holds the physical key or decides when they're allowed to take it off. It can also be less literal and just involve the dom deciding when their submissive can touch themselves, have an orgasm, or engage in sexual activity.

Training relationships

In training relationships, one person is still the master, but the sub is less of a servant and more of a student. This still sets up a unique power dynamic, but it focuses on a training regimen, usually honing the submissive person's sexual skills or techniques.


24/7 is exactly what it sounds like — these people are in the thick of the dom/sub life every second of the day. These couples usually won't switch roles, whereas the dynamics in others might. These relationships are notable because the D/s dynamic plays into everything the adherents do, but it must be navigated with care. If you aren’t into it, then that’s just plain-old abuse.

Female-led D/s

Female-led relationships, or FLRs, describe any dom/sub relationship where a woman dominates a man. They can take the form of any of the previously mentioned dynamics, although most people would probably recognize the "dominatrix" trope.

Although they might incorporate bondage or S&M scenarios, FLRs can be as simple as the domme dictating the submissive's attire or behavior. Many men or masc-presenting individuals get excited by female dominance, regardless of their sexuality, so this ends up being a prevalent D/s dynamic.

Doing the D/s thing right

It doesn't matter if you lean toward being a father figure or damsel in distress: D/s relationships are around every corner, waiting for you to explore them. And with support and connection from the right person, it could be the fulfillment you’re looking for. After all, what could be more gratifying than exchanging a little power?

If you said hooking up with your hot neighbor, we'll hand it to you; that's a pretty good argument. Fortunately, there's an easy way for you to facilitate that kind of relationship, as well — with Grindr!

Download the Grindr app today, or start browsing hands-free with Grindr Web. Use it to search for doms and subs in your area right now!

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