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Power and Control Issues and Sexual Addiction

by Mark Robinett, MFT  Copyright 2008

A sexual addiction is sometimes an outer manifestation of a deeper power and control issue.  Another way to say it is that a problem with power and control caused a sex addiction to develop.  A power/control issue is basically an issue where a person has not developed a healthy balance of appropriate power and control in their behavior, in their interpersonal relating with other people, and in their thinking and emotions.  When someone has a power/control issue they might have difficulty in controlling certain behaviors like eating, or drinking or sex for example.  Or they might be too controlled with these and/or other behaviors; for example they might be over-controlled with their sexual behavior in that they only occasionally allow themselves to be sexual, even when they have a willing partner.  In interpersonal relationships, a person with a power/control issue might be vulnerable to being easily controlled by others, or they might be too controlling of others, or they might do both depending on with whom they are relating to at the time.  In terms of emotions and thoughts, a person with this issue might have thinking that gets out of control, or emotions that get out of control, or that are too controlled (ie. they can’t allow their emotions to flow appropriately, or their thinking to let go appropriately into new or creative ways). 

Power and control issues typically develop in childhood because of what parents; caregivers or older siblings do or do not do.  For example, if a parent is too controlling, a child is likely to develop a power/control issue.  Another way to say this is child will have a lot of trouble with developing their own appropriate power and control in areas of behavior, people and sometimes even in their thinking and emotions, because they were too controlled.  If you were too controlled when you were a child it might be difficult to have your own a healthy level of power and control.  Children start out in life with a tremendous amount of out-of-control ness in all kinds of ways.  Lots of stuff spews out of their bodies, emotions and minds early on and parents have to work to help them gain healthy control of these things at the appropriate time in their development.  As a child grows, he also pushes in many ways with his behavior and expressions.  It’s like a child is doing emotional weight lifting when they do this.  And it’s the parent’s job to be the right amount of weight for their child so they can lift it and get stronger.  If the weight is too heavy (the parents are too controlling) the child won’t be able to lift and won’t be able to develop healthy power and control.  If the weight is too light (the parents don’t give any limits or control) there’s nothing to lift and again he can’t get stronger and it will also be hard to develop healthy power and control.  Either parenting style of too much control or too little control will in general result in a child not being able to develop its own appropriate power and control. 

Once a child has grown up and is out in the world, chances are he will have this issue show up in some way.  He might have trouble controlling his spending, or he might be too controlled with his spending.  Or he might be easily controlled or over-powered by other people.  Or he might be too over-powering of others.  Some people will manifest this issue only as a vulnerability to loosing control.  For example, they might loose control to other people, to sex, to food, to alcohol, etc.  Some people may manifest a power/control issue only by being too controlling in some areas.  And for some people with this issue, it will manifest in both ways.  Both styles of behavior are two sides of the same coin and neither is a solution to the problem. 

Most people that come to therapy for sexual addiction resulting from a power/control issue typically have trouble controlling their behavior; in other words, they behave in an out of control way.  In other words, they are out of control or too easily loose control with their sexual behavior.  And most commonly these are people who were too controlled by parents or older siblings.  Too much control is very disruptive to a child’s autonomy and boundaries whereas when there is too little control by parents, not as much damage occurs and one’s autonomy and boundaries stay much more intact and there’s an easier time developing appropriate control through the natural limits and consequences of living. 

The task in therapy then is to master this issue.  Sometimes there is trauma from the over control that happened in childhood that needs to be healed.  Sometimes a person just needs help getting a good healthy amount of control developed within so they can not loose control when its going to hurt them – this would be considered a developmental trauma issue.  Usually it helps a lot for a therapist to first frame the issue as a power/control issue so the person can see what is going on.  Clarity about the issue is essential as a first step.  Then secondly, a therapist can help guide the person towards developing more and more healthy power and control.  This can take time to develop because it’s a developmental process.  I often tell people that when you were a kid, your parents where supposed to give you good healthy limits all the way along so you could internalize them.  If you didn’t get them from your parents or caregivers as a kid, now it’s you’re job to give them to your self.  In other words it’s like having an inner kid, or several inner kids / teenagers and these internal parts of you don’t have any limits, or very good limits.  So you have the difficult and challenging task of setting appropriate limits with these parts of yourself and giving yourself consequences when you don’t stick with the limits.  For example, lets say you’ve set a limit with yourself where it’s not OK to masturbate to any kind of porn because you’ve found that this kind of masturbation always makes you feel lousy.  This is the limit and you’ve set up a consequence that if you slip, you’ll disable your computer for a week (this is just an example of a consequence).  So when you slip, then you need to give yourself the consequence.  This is a good example of a consequence because when kids break a limit its most effective to give them a consequence that reflects a direct result from breaking the limit.  In other words, disabling the computer in the above example is a consequence of misusing the computer and the message is direct and powerful to take the computer away.

Another aspect of the work in therapy with this issue involves working with anger to integrate it into healthy power, control and boundaries.  Children often express anger as a way to find out what’s right and wrong with the world they’re in and what is appropriate or inappropriate with theirs and other’s behavior.  Children have a natural need to express anger when things don’t feel fight, fair, or needs aren’t getting met.  When parents are too controlling a child will usually shut down his anger and submit to the parent’s control.  This causes a lot of problems because anger is so important to the healthy development of power, control, boundaries and one’s autonomy.  When this has happened, often a lot of the work in therapy is to get the anger coming back up and then working to integrate it so its not just anger and out of control – but useful energy for power, control and healthy boundaries.  Some people don’t need help accessing the anger as they’re already plenty angry but they usually need help and direction to integrate this energy so that it’s valuable and positive in their lives.

In summary, a sexual addiction sometimes develops because of over-control by caregivers during childhood.  This over-control disrupts a child’s ability to develop its own healthy control, power and boundaries.  When a sexual addiction is a manifestation of a control issue it can be very helpful to first understand the deeper control issue and how it developed.  Then secondly the work should be focused there at this deeper issue of power and control as a way to get at the roots of the sexual addiction and to reclaim one’s healthy power and control. 

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