Relapses and Slips in Porn and Sex Addiction

It is accepted among those of us who work with porn and sex addiction that there will be relapses or “slips” at some point in the first year or so of recovery.  Internet pornography in particular is notoriously hard to quit.

Sex addiction is  clever and devious.  It wants to find a way to come out and play.  So even when the addict is totally abstinent from his or her “bottom line” behaviors (behaviors that the addict has identified as the ones that need to be out of bounds) the addict may engage in other watered down kinds of behavior to get a “hit.”  For example, the addict who wants to quit internet pornography may find himself watching movies that have a significant amount of sexual content or looking at YouTube or Facebook videos that are suggestive or outright sexual.

But in early recovery addicts are likely to repeat even their bottom line sexually addictive behavior at some point.  So when is this something to be concerned about? When should it be called a slip and when should it be seen as an out-and-out relapse?

When is it just a slip?

What is counted as a slip is doing the addictive behavior (e.g. going to a strip club, watching porn, engaging in cybersex, having a sexual hook-up with a stranger, or getting together with an old affair partner).  It is not doing the things that lead up to the bottom line behavior but it is actually doing something that is what you have decided not to do any more.  (Slips will usually count as sexual acting out and will mean changing your sobriety date.)  What I believe makes it a “slip” rather than a relapse is:

  • You perform the sexually addictive behavior without planning to.  You did not enter the situation consciously intending to do the behavior.  It “just happened” and you may feel a certain shock at finding yourself in the situation.
  • You do the behavior only once.  You realize immediately what you have done and you get out of the situation before you do it again.  You turn off the computer, you hang up the phone, you get rid of the person’s contact information etc.
  • You talk about it with someone like a sponsor, counselor or recovery partner and you describe it in your regular 12-step meeting right away.  You do not attempt to hide it or minimize it.
  • You figure out what you need to learn from the slip. This means that you use the slip to gain a better understanding of the circumstances that can lead up to you slipping.  Do you have to plan your day or evening more carefully? Should you be more aware of slippery situations like business trips?  You will need to anticipate known stressors or other things that constitute your “relapse scenario” as it is called.
  • You may change your recovery plan in response to the slip.  You might decide to put additional behaviors, people or activities, such as browsing singles ads, into your list of bottom line behaviors so that you see them as relevant to your staying abstinent.   You may also consider whether other addictions such as alcohol or drug use have played a role in your slip and consider addressing them more strenuously.  And you may want to consult with a doctor if appropriate when you believe you may have psychological issues or need medication to stay emotionally stable enough.

Avoiding Relapse

If you respond to the incident of sexual acting out in the way described above you will have gone a long way to avoiding a full on relapse in which you continue the acting out behavior.  Often people have a slip and decide that it is a relapse.  They therefore feel “What the heck! I’ve already blown it; I might as well go all the way.”  This is using the slip as an excuse to keep acting out.  But the fact is a slip does not mean that you have blown your program.  It is an opportunity to make your program better and to learn about yourself.  If you use it.

Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource