Why Surrendering to Your Lover Is Delightful
... and why being submissive to your lover is humiliating.
Posted May 13, 2019
"Surrender isn't about being passive. It's about being open.” —Danielle LaPorte
Both surrender and submission involve yielding to a superior power. However, in romantic relations, they differ in a way that makes only surrender a delightful, thriving experience.
Romantic surrender and romantic submission
“Submissive is a duty from the mind. Surrender is from the heart, an emotional attitude that gives all to your beloved as you have each other.” —A married woman
“My lover told me he loved me, but he was only invested in the controlled sexual encounters he could orchestrate. In the end, that is what is was . . . no reciprocation!” —A married woman
The words “surrender” and “submission” are considered nearly synonymous. Thus, the Oxford English Dictionary defines surrender as ceasing resistance to an opponent and submitting to his/her authority, whereas submission is defined as yielding to a superior force. Such similarity holds in most areas, but when it comes to the romantic realm, things start to get complicated.
Romantic surrender and romantic submission part ways not in the activities themselves, but in the circumstances and emotional attitudes associated with each one. Both experiences involve a power imbalance and yielding power to another. The difference is whether the yielding is limited in time and extension or, rather, is an enduring, built-in aspect of the relation.
In romantic surrender, yielding is brief and limited to the romantic (often sexual) circumstances. Such yielding can be part of the behavior of both partners. The basic emotional attitude here is that of enhancing the experience of the surrendering partner, thereby promoting both partners’ well-being.
In romantic submission, yielding is an enduring and built-in aspect of the general relation between the partners, and it also slides into the romantic realm. The activity here aims at increasing the pleasure of the superior partner, while damaging the autonomy of the submissive partner, thereby preventing this partner’s flourishing. In romantic surrender, we trust and nurture the other; in submission, we exploit and humiliate the other. Romantic surrender is a thriving experience for both partners, who thereby expand their horizons and self-knowledge. Romantic submission is humiliating for the inferior party, whose perspective is contracted to that of the superior partner (Hale, 2016).
Along these lines, Stacey Martino says that the key in romantic surrender is that her partner leadership “is always for me, meaning, he acts in my best interest.” When surrendering to her spouse, she states: “I’m delighting in something that he is providing for me. It’s a gift, and I enjoy every second of it . . . It’s a ‘vacation’ for me not to have to plan everything . . . Nothing relaxes me more than being led by my magnificent man . . . It’s also very hot and feels so deliciously seductive.” Martino argues that unlike the generous nature of surrender, submission is selfish, serving the best interest of the other, despite being against the best interest of you. It is submitting “to what they want you to do when you do not want to do it.”
There are cases in which lovers first surrender to their mutual attraction—by just drifting along the stream. However, when mutual surrender does not go beyond the attraction stage, one of them may become nasty—making the other submissive.
Sometimes, powerful people also like to be sexually submissive, as a kind of play. Such play, which can be pleasant, is legitimate as long as it is time-limited, reciprocal, and remains playful.
The idea of “surrender” is often used in religious contexts, when describing an attitude toward God. While romantic love is similar in attaching value to surrender, a significant difference is that love directed toward God is a love between unequal entities, while in romantic love, equal status is essential. Here, I focus on romantic love.
“Letting my lover see me entirely, nude and otherwise, is part of my surrender to him and his love. I am starting to feel fearless with him.” —A married woman
Is surrendering more common among women than men? Two major circumstances are relevant here: (1) throughout history, women were more submissive than men in their everyday behavior; and (2) the superficial similarity between surrendering and submissive activities in general and in the romantic realm. These circumstances are increasingly changing now. Women are much less submissive in their everyday behavior, and the issue of self-fulfillment and personal flourishing is increasingly gaining greater significance.
Accordingly, I believe that surrendering, rather than submission, is becoming more common, and the gender differences here are decreasing. More men will find romantic surrendering a pleasurable experience, and fewer women will take part in romantic submissive circumstances.
Surrender and working on your relationships
“I love you no matter what you do, but do you have to do so much of it?” —Jean Illsley Clarke
In my book, The Arc of Love (2019), I discuss the issue of working on your relationship. There, I write that while almost everyone should invest a conscious effort to maintain their relationship, not everyone has to invest equally to keep a loving relationship alive. Furthermore, as Laura Kipnis (2003) tells us, “good relationships may take work, but unfortunately, when it comes to love, trying is always trying too hard; work doesn’t work. Erotically speaking, play is what works.” Surrender is a kind of enhancing love without working—a kind of vacation from romantic work, just letting oneself play and enjoy the romantic flow led by the partner.
Profound love is indeed marked by its spontaneity—lovers are often natural with one another, reflecting a flow and resonance between the two. Deeds tend to stem from the heart, without involving a great deal of intellectual calculation. If these deeds are beneficial for both partners, the issue of yielding one’s power is of hardly any importance.
Surrender and freedom
“True freedom is the capacity for acting according to one's true character, to be altogether one's self, to be self-determined and not subject to outside coercion.” —Corliss Lamont
Can surrender be an expression of our most profound freedom? Although it seems that surrender flies in the face of the notion of freedom, I believe it does not.
Our autonomy is best realized when we have an order of priority and allow our more profound values to determine our conduct. As Spinoza (1677) claimed, being chained by our values is the greatest freedom we can achieve. Accordingly, when Janis Joplin, in the beautiful song “Me and Bobby McGee,” sings that “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose,” she is dead wrong. When you have no values, and nothing left to lose, you are not free—just a leaf blown about by the winds of external whim.
Freedom means that you behave according to your values. But which values? For example, there are brief (and often superficial) values, and there are enduring (and often profound) values. Both types of values are important for our thriving—it’s establishing a balance that’s so tricky. In any case, an order of priority is necessary. Real freedom is acting in accordance with this order and having the flexibility to respond to changing circumstances.
We are limited creatures, whose basic fate, such as being born and dying, is not in our hands, in any case. So, there is nothing wrong in letting our most trusted, beloved partner occasionally lead our way in accordance with our basic needs and wants.
Sex in Stockholm
Consider the following real case illustrating the issue of freedom and desire:
Rebecca is a nice-looking Canadian woman who traveled to Stockholm for a business trip. Among the team she met was a young, very handsome man half her age, who pointedly bragged to her about his ability to seduce and satisfy older women. She finally decided not to go along with the flirtation—explaining that the emotional part was missing, and she does not want to have the bad feeling of the “morning after.”
In her decision, Rebecca restricted her sexual interactions to those in which the emotional aspect is meaningful. Did Rebecca restrict her freedom? Clearly, the answer is “no.” Rebecca behaved in light of her profound order of priority, and she is likely to feel good about this for a long time. If she had gone along with the tempting sexual desire, she would have been bounded by external factors whose benefits are momentary and whose enduring effects could be harmful.
“Fully to surrender to love can be terrifying. But it is the price life asks in exchange for the possibility of ecstasy.” —Nathaniel Branden
A main concern in romantic behavior is whether it promotes the beloved’s (and, to a great extent, also the lover’s) well-being and flourishing in both the short and long term. The issue of controllability is of lesser significance in such concern. When yielding to the power of another is not restricted to occasional interactions, however, but becomes common in one’s life, as in submission, this is emotionally and morally bad. When yielding is a sporadic part of the sexual game, as in surrendering, it can be highly fulfilling, by providing a relaxed, open, and exciting atmosphere.
Ben-Ze'ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic lives change over time. University of Chicago Press.
Hale, J. (2016). The truth about surrender. Rebelle Society, 30.9.2016
Kipnis, L. (2003). Against love. Pantheon.
Spinoza, B. (1677). Ethics.