Trust, Safety, and Surrender

From Deborah Teramis Christian:

“Trust, safety and surrender are a triad that, in combination, can unlock the doors to deep submission and connectedness between D/s partners. Creating that environment takes some work, though.

Here is an online talk I gave on the subject, getting into some detail about how trust, safety and surrender interact, and how to foster them. This chat is left with some participant’s questions scattered throughout, because I think they brought up some good points. Names are replaced by initials to maintain anonymity.


I’m going to talk tonight about the triad of elements that I think best create a healthy foundation for effective power exchange: Trust, Safety, and Surrender. D/s is predicated on trust, unlike in vanilla relationships where we are often content to negotiate relationships that hedge on the factor of trust. You can’t do that in D/s and have a relationship that will endure. Trust is the cornerstone of what enables power exchange to happen (as I will be elaborating)

There is also a given here, a background assumption in what I’m going to be saying: namely, that communications skills exist and are being used, and that you and your partner both have a mutual dedication to creating a trusting and safe environment in which to do D/s. You cannot build trust one-sidedly. It takes two…just as it does to create safety.


First thing I want to say about trust is this. Trust comes from your self. No one can make you trust them. We trust others to the extent that we trust ourselves… trust ourselves to make good decisions, to read the other person right. When trust is broken or betrayed, you might feel that it has been so damaged you can never trust again…this happens when a person no longer feels sie can trust hirself to judge others’ trustworthiness correctly. That is a difficult place to be in. It destroys D/s and relationships and hobbles one’s ability to relate to others.

I think there are some ways we can approach trust, though, that make it a more manageable thing. One big tactic is this: listen to your heart. Use what I call “the heart monitor” – that twinge, that feeling that something is amiss – (or a-right). You already come wired with intuition and sensitivies that let you judge the trustworthiness of others, on many levels. It is vital that we develop the skill to listen to ourselves. To listen to our intuition – which is perhaps an energy-based thing, or according to some studies is the reading of 1001 subliminal clues about what messages a person is really sending. However you regard it, it is possible to use your intuition to help create a foundation of trust – i.e. to decide if it is safe to trust someone.

Remember that intuition is not a predictive tool: it is a read in the moment. It is real-time. If you read someone as trustworthy and later they betrayed your trust, I would ask you this: did you check back in on your intuitive read frequently? Or did you scan them once and file that impression away as “the way they are”? If you did the latter, it is easy to miss red flags. Red flags come up frequently in relationships – that heart twinge thing I mentioned. It is absolutely vital that you pay attention to this danger signal. Not the 100th time it happens, but the very first. It is your Self urging your self to notice something that needs to be addressed. If you want to maintain trust you need to address the discordant event that caused your heart to twinge like that.

That is where your communication skills come in. “I have an issue I’d like to discuss…” then you sit and talk about it. This not only keeps your relationship clean, it enables you to kill all the little monsters that otherwise will grow into great large unmanageable monsters that will eat your relationship. <g>

Trust starts with yourself…but there is also this big question: is the person you want to trust, trustworthy? Do they demonstrate that they are worthy of your trust? You want to invest trust where it is worthwhile to do so, of course. There are certain things to look for that help you determine if someone is worthy of your trust. One big one is: integrity. Integrity comes from the word integral. “Of a whole; of one piece”. Is the person someone who is of one piece? Are their actions consonant with their words?

Do they say what they mean and mean what they say? When actions match words and intentions are clear, there is integrity in behavior. Life interferes with all of our plans, at times; maybe someone says they will call and then they don’t. Once or twice may be understandable – but if there is a pattern of repetitive behaviors that lack integrity (or reliability)…that is a red flag.

Another point is reliability: can you count on someone? Can I count on you to show up for a play party date? Can I count on you to play hard with me and help me get put back together when I’m a snotball crying in the corner, at the end of it all? Will you do what you say you will do, when all is said and done, and can I rely on that? Reliability is closely related to integrity, as you can see.

Honesty is another biggie. Is the person truthful with you? Do they obfuscate, omit or lie in matters big or small? If someone has a difficult time conveying the truth to you there may be many reasons that is so….but in the end, the result is that you will not know if you can trust their word. This not only undermines trust, it makes it very hard to place trust and stay trusting of someone who tells you untruths.

I mediated a dispute between a Master and his slave last year. He was busy insisting he treated his slave with honor, that he was an honorable man. Her problem, however, was that he lied to her about his sexual partnerships, and he continually broke his word. When they fell apart he was baffled: he had treated her honorably (he thought). He never saw that unreliability, lack of integrity, and untruthfulness destroyed the basis of trust the slave needed to be in relationship. When judging trustworthiness it is important to be aware of those elements.

Try an exercise in empathy and turn the mirror around as well. Ask yourself: am I behaving in ways that are trustworthy to my partner? Try to see your actions through your partners’ eyes. This is not an ultimate answer (we all have our filters, of course) but it can be a useful reality check. Also ask: is my partner willing to trust? Or withholding trust? Because that comes from within, you cannot “make” your partner trust you. They must find their way to that place of trust themselves – aided by your trustworthiness.

Now here’s a Stupid Human Trick I will caution you against <g>: Blind Trust. Don’t go there. Subs seem to be wired to be readily vulnerable, and often want to be vulnerable and trusting. We too often give trust where it is not warranted! We hastily decide to trust someone we don’t know anything about, or at least have not seen their trustworthiness demonstrated. Later, when things fall apart we feel our trust was betrayed. But why was it betrayed? Could it be we made a poor choice about whom to trust and how far to trust them? It is often so.
I am about to talk about how trust relates to safety, but before I leave this topic I can either take some questions now, or we can leave them til the end. Preferences?

R. asks: So it comes down quite a bit to communication, both with ourselves and our partner?

Humongous amounts of communications, R. In fact that is a whole ‘nother workshop I teach about this stuff. But it is absolutely essential that you be able to say “I got something going on here”.

T. asks: I’m kind of curious about your remarks on intuition. I guess at the very beginning, you almost have to rely almost entirely on intuition – and it’s nothing you can articulate. So if something “seems funny” at that stage, how can you bring it to the table?

That’s a good question. There are a number of techniques for figuring out what feels off to you. You can do things like…. journaling; talking to your various inner selves; sometimes just quiet introspection and asking the right questions (why did xyz bother me?”) Introspection plays a big role in figuring out what’s off. If you listen to yourself, something will come to the surface. Often it is something that reminds us of “old stuff”, too. But it is crucial to identify “what’s wrong with this picture”.

J. says: I have found that talking things over with others really helps me.

That can certainly be a help. I would note though that some people process maybe too much with others, looking for validation or affirmation. Ultimately it is your own gut you must trust – must learn to trust.


When we are doing D/s, we want to trust our partner, and we need to feel safe with someone in order to submit and surrender. In the matter of safety, we end up asking ourselves two key questions:

1. Can I trust you not to harm me? If I am open and share my heart, can I trust that you will not belittle me, hurt me, kick my teeth in, in consequence? We hope the answer is “yes”, of course. If so, then you can feel safe with your partner and relax internal defenses in their presence. The second, closely related question is this:

2. Can I trust you to keep me safe? In D/s we are very resonant with the energy of protective authority figure watching out for the well being of the vulnerable submissive figure. Although it is also true that subs safeguard the emotional well being of their doms as well (or do in a healthy relationship) – the “nurture/safe/caretaking/protective” energy is often directed a little more towards the submissive. In either case, when we ask “can I trust you to keep me safe”? – I am referring here primarily to emotional safety. This means, simply, “will you safeguard my emotional well being?” This is a proactive stance, more engaged on behalf of the partner than the prior reassurance that no harm will be done. Once we know we won’t be hurt, the next step is to know we will be safe.

Physical safety is also included in this, but whether or not we are physically safe is easily judged. Easy to see if the dom is tying loose knots or flogging unsafely, etc. Or acting out abusively (physical abuse, that is). It is a finer line, to judge emotional safety, but a place we must learn to become conscious. Note also: I am not talking about coddling or catering to subs in order to “make” them feel safe in some kind of artificial environment. Rather I am talking about respecting and honoring authentic connection with your partner, and caring for their heart, no matter what side of the whip you are on.

There is a great synergy between trust and safety. One feeds off the other. First you trust a little and feel a little safe; when you feel safe, it is easier to trust; the more you trust, the more you let your walls down and discover (hopefully) that it is safe to keep those walls down. We become tremendously close and interconnected in this way. The reverse is also true: get hurt, trust less. Trust can be erroded by diminishing the feeling of safety until there simply is no more of either left.

Important note, here: safety is not equivalent to vulnerability. It is easy to make someone feel vulnerable, especially if there is aggressive domination happening that strips defenses and flattens walls. It is easy for a sub to mistake feeling wide open (vulnerable) with feeling safe. Subs are often very invested in being vulnerable to their dominants, and so come pre-wired wanting to feel safe enough to be vulnerable. It’s easy to confuse the two.

Here is a second Stupid Human Trick I caution against: Blind vulnerability. Going to that space in faith that one is safe. Knowing if you are safe or not requires an exercise of judgment. When things blow up we say, “I thought I could trust you! I thought I was safe with you!” – “thought” being the key word here. At some point we run those emotions through the rational brain filter and come to conclusions about how safe we are (or aren’t)

One aspect of self that plays a role in this in a subpersonality we all have that is called the Protector Persona. (There are entire schools of psychotherapy built around work with subpersonalities, but for now I just offer this as a useful paradigm for this discussion). Your Protector keeps you safe. Its the part in your head saying, “Is it wise to do that?” or “No way I’m gonna let that happen to me!” Our Protector personas are engaged almost constantly. That element is also closely linked to the internalized parent that we all have – and therein lies a major issue on the road to submission and surrender.


I want to distinguish first between submission and surrender.
Submission=at some level a rational choice to bow to the will of another.

Surrender is a more ego-disengaged state of “giving it up”.
Surrender enables the sub to go just about anywhere the dom wants to take hir. It is essential that the Protector persona become disengaged, in order to permit surrender to happen. A lot of people struggle with their submission for many reasons. But at the heart of a lot of the struggle is this voice (Protector) that insists that on some level it is not safe to surrender. I’ll be at risk. I may be hurt. I fear xyz will happen…. You simply cannot achieve surrender, when your ego is at cross-purposes with you like that.

Now here is how trust and safety work to effect surrender: When you trust enough that you can truly feel safe, and a safe atmosphere prevails between dom and sub, then you have cleared the landscape as much as possible to allow the submissive to disengage the Protector persona. When the Protector stands down, surrender can occur. Ultimately the act of surrender, of giving it up completely to the dominant, is something only the submissive can do for hirself. But the path there can be eased and enabled, by establishing the maximum amount of trust and safety. This enables the sub to get out of hir own way, and “go there”. That, essentially, is why it is so hugely important to establish trust and nurture safety. Then compliance and submission become easier and surrender becomes possible in D/s relationships.

S. asks: The protector persona.. how does one work on getting comfortable in turning it off? I mean… how do I say.. I know it’s something one has to work on with themselves, but are there steps to help? (like when people do relaxation techniques) for flying or something.

Good question. There are self-dialog techniques that are useful. In the end, though, the Protector won’t shut down as long as there are big issues (or even small niggles) that prod you about being unsafe. So the best way to deal is to face your insecurities and fears squarely, and come to resolution about them. And yes, this requires some serious self-work. The pay-off is great, though.

S. says: I would imagine it would be rather freeing.

Very. There is also a certain amount of the Protector stuff that is old tapes, parent tapes, baseless fears…it’s much easier to shut that stuff down when you see it for what it is.

T. asks: do you really want the Protector to shut down completely? what about accidents, etc.?

We’re talking about a situational disengagement here, Tessa. I find there are certain basic self-preservation issues that never turn off. But, for instance, if you’re going to play in a way that pushes all your limits – that might be a very good time to disengage the Protector.

Also, “no Protector” is essentially an ego-less state. Humans being humans, that doesn’t generally prevail as a way of life. LOL. Mother Teresa and Ghandi perhaps excepted.

T. asks: I can see disengaging the Protector’s scrutiny of the person you’re playing with…but is the Protector that selective? If you’re alert enough to be able to notice if the ceiling is about to collapse, aren’t you also keeping an eye out on what your partner is up to?

I find the Protector is on, or off. If it is off, you have surrendered your judgment circuits for the time being. That is the point of ‘surrender’ – you are trusting the Other to keep you safe (which of course you can’t do if you doubt on some level that you are safe with the Other).

If the ceiling really is going to collapse and it catches your Protector’s eye, you will come out of that space of surrender.

T. says: so your Protector can take a break if you’re willing to let your partner substitute for it, I guess


K. asks: Is there a reason some people don’t seem to understand that trust has to be built? Maybe to make communication easier?

Poor boundaries. Not always, but often. Some people come from a space of, I’ll spill all my guts, now you spill all of yours. They think that boundary-less behavior is “normal” and expect it from those they interact with.

I also think some people are very intuitive and simply have very good instincts about who to trust and how much….they are sometimes surprised that others don’t read people as accurately as they do.

K. asks: Do you think that’s a sign that person might not be “safe” to scene with?

The poor boundaries thing? Personally, K. I see that as a big red flag that says “Run and hide! Run and hide!”. I don’t touch them with a ten-foot pole. I look for people who have developed an appropriate sense of boundaries. Letting walls down is meaningful only when you know why they are up and that they are there in the first place.”

(c) 2004 by Deborah Teramis Christian. All rights reserved. Contact the author at for permission to reuse.

NOTE: This email address is not currently working.  If anyone knows how to contact Teramis, please let me know.

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