Pleasure and Pain: Power and the Arousal Neuropathway (Part II)

In part I, we reconsidered the arousal neuropathway as the addictive neuropathways have been on our minds of late. We established that the sexual activities that activate the arousal neuropathway, which is about excitement, pleasure, and intensity, can include the exertion of power over another person.


As we noted in our discussion of BDSM, that’s not necessarily a bad or harmful thing as long as two consenting adults are involved.


In the context of sexual addiction, the arousal neuropathway is an attempt to create an intensely arousing, exciting experience in order to ward off emotional pain.


Which left us with the question: How can pleasure that involves power be an antidote to pain?



On the face of it, the answer seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it?


Pleasure is an antidote to pain because of its power to distract, to numb, or to mollify our emotional wounds. Pleasure, excitement, and intensity—even in low doses—are antidotes to pain because they feel good!


Most of us understand this intuitively because we’ve all been there. Maybe your boss reams you out at work, and all you can think of is going home and flipping on your favorite TV show. Maybe you got into it with a friend and suddenly that weekend rock climbing trip without them can’t come fast enough. If you struggle with pornography, any kind of stress can make the urge to watch porn almost unbearable.


But, hang on a second.


Did you notice?


None of these examples involve power. In fact, they’re all pretty good examples of activities that might fire up arousal but also be about numbing or dissociating, or some other neuropathway.


Let’s refine our question a bit, then, for the sake of clarity: With regard to the arousal addiction neuropathyway, how does the exertion of power over another person provide pleasure that is an antidote to pain?


To answer this question, we need to take a quick peek at the dynamics of healthy relationships.



There’s no getting around it: We have and need relationships, plain and simple. Moreover, we long to be known, understood, loved, and valued in our relationships.


Try as we might, we can’t meet our own emotional needs. We need the help of others. More precisely, we need to risk relying on others to meet our needs. And that means giving up power and control.


In thriving, healthy relationships, we are known, loved, and valued by another when they are attuned to us, that is, really keyed into our experience. When someone really listens to us, and we know it, something’s really magical, isn’t it? It’s the best feeling in the world.


A relationship flourishes when this kind of attunement is exchanged between partners reciprocally, almost rhythmically, in a back-and-forth sort of way. In mutual attunement and dependency on each other’s attunement, each partner can share their fullest presence to the other without fear or hesitation, because he knows that his “turn” is coming.


In this beautiful dance, both partners can know that their emotional, relational, and sexual needs will be met and that they can depend on the other person to meet those needs reliably. Each partner “surrenders” to the other


So in a relationship like this, the imbalance of power is almost imperceptible as the back-and-forth happens. The teeter-totter of these relationships moves ever so slightly as partners exchange recognition and attunement.


It’s awesome. And it’s REALLY pleasurable.



Sounds pretty idealistic, doesn’t it?


That’s because it is. No relationship is like this, at least, not without a lot of misses, conflict, toe-stepping, and roll-up-your-sleeves-and-look-at-your-own-shit kind of work. That’s why it’s such a rare and beautiful thing to see a relationship like this.


In most relationships—even healthy relationships, the teeter-totter moves quite a bit as all those misses and toe-stepping goes down. After all, that’s what happens when two different people trying to figure out how to love each other.


But here’s the sticky part: The more conflict that happens, the more that teeter-totter moves, the more that each partner feels powerless and that the other person has all the power. It feels a lot less like, “Hey, we’re doing this beautiful dance together,” and more like, “I can’t believe he’s doing this to me AGAIN!”


As the conflict intensifies, usually around a particularly vexing issue that the couple has fought about for years, each partner feels more and more hurt because the other is unable or even unwilling to attune to his or her pain. The great tragedy is that each partner feels lost, hopeless, and yep, powerless.


So what do we usually do when we feel as though we don’t have any power?


Try to get it back, of course.


In relationships that are beginning to fray and fall apart, each partner attempts to dominate the other in order to get the recognition, love, validation, and attunement they long for. They try to make themselves more powerful by getting increasingly angry, manipulative, isolating, punitive, or you name it. The more hurt they are, the more they lash out in a reactive attempt to get the other to softy say, “Oh, honey, I did it to you again, didn’t I?”



Circling back to sexually compulsive acts, from this perspective, some sex addicts exert power and power in behaviors that are intensely pleasurable in order to feel powerful in the face of their own powerlessness to have their emotional needs met.


In effect, they are attempting to dominate the victim of their sexual behaviors as a way to soothe their emotional pain; often because of the trauma they’ve experienced, they don’t feel they can truly rely on anyone to understand them or meet their emotional needs.


They can’t trust anyone with who they really are. Instead of participating in intimate relationships characterized by an ebb and flow of mutuality and dependency, they create relationships in which they dominate so that they don’t have to trust anyone.


As author and psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin writes, “Domination begins as an attempt to deny dependency (The Bonds of Love, p. 52).”


What’s more, in a tragic twist, as the arousal in his sexually compulsive behaviors gives the addict a sense of power and control, he becomes increasingly dependent on his sexual behaviors provide him with that feeling.


His growing sense of omnipotence allows him to continue to deny that he needs others and that he can meet his own needs without depending on anyone. Yet in doing so, he becomes increasingly powerless, dependent on engaging in sexually compulsive behaviors that are progressively more intense, until his life spirals out of control.



This is why I believe that sexual addiction is an intimacy disorder. It’s intimacy—sexual and emotional—gone awry.


It’s because sex addiction is an intimacy disorder that I believe that connection is key for sex addicts in recovery.


In therapy and in small groups, addicts can learn to trust others, to engage in mutually reciprocal relationships in which they feel heard, understood, and even loved.


“No one can truly extricate himself from dependency on others,” continues Benjamin, “from the need for recognition” (idem). Though this truth is often hard won for many sex addicts in recovery, in time, in can be the most pleasurable of all.

Jeremy Mast

Jeremy is a licensed marriage and family therapist (CA LMFT90961) in private practice in Ventura, California. He helps those struggling with drugs, alcohol, and out-of-control sexual behaviors awaken to new possibilities for their lives. He lives with his wife, son, and cat in beautiful southern California.

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