There are about as many types of power exchange relationships as there are thoughts and feelings about topic. A nearly endless spectrum of power play dynamics can be found within Kink. This is not foreign to you. You’ve played with power exchange before if you’ve ever had rough sex, held a partner down by the wrists, or allowed yourself to be blindfolded. The amount, type, and duration of power exchange are all variables that are negotiated between partners, but in all power exchange relationships the participants agree that there will be an exchange of both control and care.
S/M vs D/s
Though sadomasochism, and certainly discipline, all can play roles in a power exchange relationship - and most of the time they absolutely do - the exchange of pleasurepain is not at all the same as an exchange of power. Not all submissives are masochists, and not all Doms are sadists.
The idea of a power exchange relationship is not new or even unique to BDSM. There are a few reasons why power might be transferred in a relationship other than for the sake of kink, such as religion or culture. Christians may understand a variation of this sort of dynamic as “domestic discipline,” in which the male takes on the role of head of the household, and the woman defers to his judgement and leadership as the religious leader of the household. Some of them even spank each other, those freaks. The same dynamic appears in conservative Muslim relationships. Though not given cute little monikers to hang on to, this kind of patriarchal power exchange happens in many cultures and is easily folded into the norm without much pushback.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for power exchange dynamics inside Kink. From the outside, people sometimes wonder if the submissive in the relationship is living out some kind of abuse cycle, or lacks the ability or self-confidence to be independent. Likewise, people sometimes assume that any Dom is bound to be abusive or domineering or just an asshole. Some are. Most aren’t.
Who Does This?
The misconceptions can be difficult to overcome. Kink doesn’t always get the best PR, but the statistics have been out for a while. Kinksters, on average, bare little statistical difference than vanilla counterparts. Just as many of us are college educated, professional, productive members of society as in VanillaLand. Don’t misunderstand - we’re total freaks. But we’re not unwell. Kinksters are actually less likely to have some of the neurosis common among Vanilla-sexers. Even the American Psychiatric Association, who long kept BDSM practices under a heading of a mental disorder much like homosexuality was until the 1950s, now has revised the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) to state that BDSM is part of a normal, albeit unusual, array of sexual activity among consensual adults.
In contrast, if they declare no distress, exemplified by anxiety, obsessions, guilt or shame, about these paraphiliac impulses, and are not hampered by them in pursuing other personal goals, they could be ascertained as having masochistic sexual interest but should not be diagnosed with a sexual masochism disorder. - Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), p. 694.
I could try to explain to you the kaleidoscope of power exchange archetypes, but that information is already out there, and ultimately what works for you and yours is a journey of personal discovery, evolution, and revolution.
The point I want to stress, and one that I don’t hear enough about, is that along with the transfer of control also comes a negotiated expectation of care. Both roles, Dom and sub, can take a toll on the individuals involved and the relationship in which the dynamics are employed, and both have a responsibility to serve the other. Yes. The Dom serves the sub, too. In fact, it's often quipped in the kink community that if you don’t know that the submissive holds all the power, you don’t know much about BDSM.
Power exchange relationships are no different than vanilla relationships in that each partner must feel certain that they can trust the other person to respect boundaries, look out for the well-being of others in the relationship, and to actively try to give more than you get in the relationship. Careless relationships will still be careless even if it is malformed with power exchange, and power exchange is never an excuse to be careless.
The “care” the submissive partners bring to the relationship can take a lot of different forms. We live for variety in Kink, but it usually revolves around some kind of service - domestic, sexual, or otherwise. The best service predicts necessity, and is offered with humility.
But submissives aren’t the only ones who serve in a power exchange relationship. A Dominant cares for his or her submissive by offering guidance, leadership, stability, structure, and a sanctuary of acceptance.
Perhaps the most demanding act of service a Dom can provide is constant creativity in scenes. True, they get to take the lead, but that requires that you have some idea of where you want to go and how to get there.
In the past I have attempted to guide young Doms who may be a bit too gung-ho about taking control of another person without thinking about this process of Care. I explain that if they don’t take care of their toys, they are going to break.