What happens when men in straight relationships give the woman the reins — in both subtle and extreme ways
- In a female-led relationship, the woman tends to take on a more dominant role.
- There are levels of FLRs, from low control to a full-blown, 24/7 power play.
Traditional societal norms tell us that, in a romantic relationship between someone who identifies as a man and someone who identifies as a woman, the man should "wear the pants" — but it doesn't have to be that way.
Some modern heterosexual couples are purposely rejecting this long-standing narrative and switching things up. Enter: female-led relationships (FLRs)
Note: This term has traditionally been used specifically to describe heterosexual relationships between a man and a woman, but it can be adapted to refer to any relationship where the female-identifying partner takes the lead.
Put most simply, a woman is more powerful than a man in an FLR. There are varying degrees of this dynamic — some FLRs are subtle while others are very intense. Furthermore, sometimes FLRs are tied into a kinky BDSM dynamic.
Here's what you need to know about female-led relationships, the different types of them, and their benefits.
What is a female-led relationship?
"As the name suggests, a female-led relationship is one in which the female partner is more dominant than her partner, making all or most of the decisions, and taking on a position of authority," says Rachel Zar, a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex therapist at Spark Chicago Therapy.
Every FLR is different, but Zar says this dominance and authority can apply to all areas of the couple's lives or just a few of them — such as chores, financial decisions, social life, or sex.
Furthermore, some people may be in an FLR to some extent without even realizing it or consciously labeling it, since some women will naturally take charge and some men may naturally follow suit, Zar says.
Since today in the US we still lean towards a patriarchal society, female-led relationships are typically viewed as progressive.
"However, as women are earning more and power dynamics in relationships are trending toward a more egalitarian approach, FLRs may become more integrated into the mainstream," says Kate Balestrieri, a licensed psychologist, certified sex therapist, and founder of Modern Intimacy.
However, the modern-day term "female-led relationship" originated in the kink community, even though historically, there have been cultures that were matriarchal or female-led, Balestrieri says.
Female-led relationships in the kink community
Power play, where one partner is more dominant and the other more submissive, is a very common theme in kink play and BDSM — and FLRs are an extension of this, Zar says.
There are many ways for a woman in an FLR to dominate her submissive male partner in the bedroom, consensually, of course.
For example, Zar says a woman might:
- Order her partner to do her bidding, meaning meeting demands for attention or affection
- Punish her partner (in agreed-upon ways) if and when he steps out of line
- Control her partner's orgasms
That said, an FLR does not need to include BDSM in your sex life. It's possible the dominance may just lie in other aspects of life, but not the bedroom.
Types of female-led relationships
The levels of control and dominance can vary in female-led relationships. Every FLR is unique, but there are four general sub-types involving different levels of control. They are:
1. Low control
On the lowest extreme end of the spectrum, there are "low control" FLRs, and these lean more towards equality. Zar says in this type, the couple overall will likely share mutual decision-making powers, but the female partner might take the lead on some.
"From an outsider's view, this may look like a more progressive relationship, and less like an FLR, but between the two partners, the female partner maintains a little more authority," Balestrieri says.
2. Moderate control
In a moderate control FLR, there's an increase in intensity and power on the woman's side. For example, she may have the final say in many everyday decisions — like where to eat or what to spend money on, Zar says .
Power play is slightly more obvious here, but it may not extend into kink territory.
"The male partner is at a higher level of servitude to the female partner, and while she indulges it, she may not be fully on board with punishment or some of the kinkier aspects of higher levels of control," Balestrieri says.
3. Defined control
Low or moderate control FLRs are a bit more organic. But in a defined control FLR, Zar says there are specific decided-upon areas of the relationship where the female partner has complete control — and both partners agree on this.
Sometimes, this level is called "formal control," and it will look more obviously like a reversed traditional relationship, Balestrieri says.
Additionally, at this level, it's common for couples to tap into the BDSM aspects of FLRs. For example, Balestrieri says they may engage in chastity play where the woman controls the man's ability to have sex or orgasms.
4. Extreme control
In the most intense type of FLR, it is obvious and understood that the woman maintains ultimate control over all aspects of the relationship, and has an overall more dominant role, Zar says.
It's also extremely likely that BDSM plays a role in this type of relationship. Balestrieri says the man might take on the nickname of a pet, servant, or object for the woman's pleasure — or they may indulge in other aspects of BDSM such as bondage, humiliation, or pain exchange.
"In some cases, this level of FLRs is a 24/7 lifestyle. However, as in any healthy kink context, there are agreements about when and how to step out of role, for periodic or situational check-ins and re-negotiation of the agreements when one or both partners feel uncomfortable," Balestrieri says.
Benefits of a female-led relationship
FLRs aren't for everybody, but for those who are into it, there are certainly some benefits for both women and men, including:
1. Both partners can flip the script
In many cases, the flip of the traditional gender roles in heterosexual relationships is a big part of the appeal to be in an FLR for women and men who are tired of the narrative that society has fed us for so long. "Female-led relationships can feel like a very intentional way to disrupt the status quo," Zar says.
2. Women can own their power
In a traditional relationship, a man may discourage a woman from exerting any power, or a man might meet a woman with criticism if they try to act dominant — but this isn't the case with FLRs.
"In an FLR, they get to feel secure and unafraid of their own power, and without the conflict that comes with trying to find equality in partnership with a man who may want or expect to be in control," Balestrieri says.
3. It can feel like an escape from reality for the woman
"If a woman is feeling disempowered in her day-to-day life, being in a female-led relationship can be a wonderful, cathartic way to feel powerful and in control," Zar says. She also notes that kink is fundamentally play, and for some, a separation from reality.
4. Men can branch out
Since men are often expected to be responsible for more aspects of the relationship, an FLR is a good option for a man who doesn't want to fall into this role. Plus, it may offer new opportunities for self-exploration.
"For some men, they get to play in the space of humiliation and servitude, which gives them access to parts of themselves that perhaps they have been conditioned away from through the socialization of masculinity," Balestrieri says.
Drawbacks of a female-led relationship
However, just as with any other relationship, hardships can arise. For example, a woman might feel like this dynamic requires a lot of management or work, and a man might feel pressure or judgment from peers or outsiders, Balestrieri says.
Ultimately, the benefits and drawbacks will be unique to the individuals in the relationship since people may find themselves in FLRs for a variety of different reasons.
Furthermore, trouble can arise if either or both partners have a change of heart about the structure and dynamic of the relationship. This can lead to passive aggressiveness or resentment if it's not addressed.
"It's important that partners check in with each other frequently about how the division of power is feeling. Consent, communication, and safety need to be top priority to avoid any coercion or abuse of power," Zar says.
A female-led relationship, or FLR, is a type of heterosexual relationship where the woman has more control or power than the man does. It may or may not involve kink or BDSM. Depending on the couples' preferences, the relationship can range from low control to extreme control.
This type of relationship can be beneficial to both women and men, but it's possible for trouble to arise. Remember, consent is key, especially when exploring kink and power play in the bedroom. Always keep the line of communication open to make sure both partners feel comfortable in an FLR.
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