Chronic Sex Addiction Relapse: Letting Go Once and For All

Sometimes I feel as bewildered and frustrated as my sex addiction clients when they periodically slip up and engage in their addictive behavior, even as they seem to be making progress in their recovery.  (See also the excellent article by Dr. Patrick Carnes entitled “The Perfect Storm: Assessing for Sex Addiction”)

What is it that makes some recovering sex addicts continue to relapse frequently?  Why are some sex addicts seemingly unable to cut the cord?  I believe that beyond the question of “hitting bottom”, the process of letting go of an addiction is similar to the loss of a relationship and that some addicts get stuck at various stages of the grieving that loss.

Addiction as a relationship

The idea of an addiction as a relationship has been around for a long time.  Sex addiction, like addiction generally, has been defined as a primary relationship with a mood altering experience.  That experience may be a chemical such as a drug or alcohol or it may be an activity such as gambling or sex.  Whatever the chemical or activity, there is some evidence that the brain mechanisms involved in the addiction are all similar.

But beyond brain chemistry, brain alteration and changes in mood (excitement, euphoria, soothing), addictive activity is also something that develops like a relationship.  And the activity as well as everything leading up to it and surrounding it becomes like a friend or even a loved one.

This affection for our addictive activity is not entirely illogical.  For most addicts, their “drug” is something that they have relied on to regulate their emotions, escape stress, and even maintain their ability to function.  A porn addict I know once said “Miss January (his name for his addiction) is always there for me.”  It has served the addict well in some sense.  Yet it also has destructive potential and usually goes against the addict’s own value system.  Hence it is a relationship that needs to end.

In sex addiction treatment a commonly used exercise is that of having the client write a good bye letter, a “Dear John” letter, to his or her addiction.  In this letter the addict “breaks up” with his addiction, often acknowledging that the addiction was important, fun and will be missed.  This exercise underlines for the addict the fact that he or she is letting go of something important.  Whether it is giving up porn, prostitutes, compulsive hook-ups, or fetishes it is going to amount to a real loss.

Grieving the loss

All grief is about the struggle or process involved in coming to acceptance of a loss.  Loss is stressful.  In fact one definition of stress is “a loss or the threat of a loss”.  And so the loss of an addiction is stressful, challenging and potentially even traumatic.

Most sex addicts have a history of childhood relational trauma.  The drug, the “relationship” with a fantasy became a way to endure stress and to substitute something for what was missing in reality.  In dysfunctional families intimacy is fraught with danger and self doubt.  The addictive fantasy involved in much sexual acting out is one of being able to be gratified in a way that feels safe.

Getting stuck in the grief process and relapse

It is possible to get stuck at any point in the process of letting go.  Even once past the denial phase and even after acknowledging the need to let go of the behavior, there may be predictable stages of anger, bargaining, and depression.  A good example is the addict who knows that porn blocking software would hugely improve his chances of getting free of porn addiction but who either rebels against getting it installed, finds excuses, or finds ways around the filters.  I have seen clients use their GPS or their children’s devices when other outlets are blocked.  This addict is stuck in anger and possibly old rebellion against authority.  He or she is saying “you can’t make me.”

Bargaining can go on for a long time too.  The addict makes a deal with their treatment program that says basically “If I get XYZ then I will be able to let go of my addiction”.  This can mean that the addict is going to support group meetings, going to therapy, and reading all the right books but is not willing to experience change.  He is waiting for it to feel right to stop being an addict.  Or he is waiting for a “sign” or for a new relationship to save him etc.  The unpleasant reality is that in giving up the addiction there is nothing that will immediately take its place.  No way to avoid experiencing some sense of loss.

Some addicts go along way down the road to recovery but still can’t give up their addictive behavior completely.  They find that the loss of the addiction brings on depression.  They endlessly analyze why they have relapsed this time.  They feel they cannot tolerate stress or loneliness.  But there is no way to eliminate all of life’s stresses and challenges.  Eventually they begin to realize that they can experience unpleasant feelings without reaching for a drug.    This is the point in a sex addict’s recovery when he or she has turned a corner and is finally done with acting out.  They know it and you can see it.  They will come to acceptance and begin to be solid in their sobriety.

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

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

Why Some Sex Addicts Keep Relapsing in Recovery

Let’s assume you are already clear on the fact that you are a sex addict.  You have consulted with experts and ruled out other causes of hypersexual behavior such as medication reactions (as with some Parkinson’s drugs) and other psychological, physical or neurological disorders. Are there any wrong reasons to get help?  Yes and no.  The initial motivation for getting into sex addiction treatment is often as a means to some other end rather than as a way to become healthier. Yet in the process of recovery the motivation moves from outside of you to inside of you; from extrinsic to intrinsic.  This is when you become truly engaged in recovery.  And this process of embracing recovery even in the absence of any outside pressures to do so is what makes it possible to enjoy solid, long term sexual sobriety.

What drives people into recovery vs. what keeps them there

There are a number of  situations that lead people to reach out for help and then stall out. 

  • Getting in trouble

This could be anything from getting arrested for indecent exposure to losing your job after being discovered using pornography at work to getting in trouble for sexual harassment.  You may get into treatment because you are required to as a result of getting in trouble. But if that remains your only reason to change you will not get too far.  You may stay committed to your addictive behavior and simply “white knuckle” your sobriety in order to meet society’s requirements.  Chances are you will correct your legal or employment situation but you will  still lack the recovery skills to stay away from sexual acting out. It is extremely hard to “embrace” recovery while you are feeling forced into it.

  • Pressure from a partner

This is by far the most common reason propelling people to seek help initially.  It’s not a bad reason, but if all you want is to get your wife back or placate your husband you will not only have a poor prognosis in recovery, you will also probably find that your partner continues to be mistrustful.  And with good reason. Partners can regain trust in a sex addict but only if they see the addict as genuinely involved in their own individual growth.  Furthermore, if you only want to get things “back the way they were” (before you were found out) then the chances are you will continue unhealthy patterns in your relationship that provided the excuse for your addictive sexual behavior.

  • Social pressures

You may find that your sexual behavior is inconsistent with the belief system of your church or community.  You want the good opinion of people you need to impress. You seek to appear to yourself and others as though you care about changing. Wanting to behave in accordance with principles is a good things except when it involves placing the locus of control outside of yourself.  You are seeing your worth as determined by what others think and not what actually works for you in your life.  This is a position of low self esteem and if it does not change in the course of treatment you may remain stuck.

  • Self image

You may be  stuck in your addiction even though you are active in treatment and support groups.  Your addiction doesn’t square with how you want to think of yourself, and yet you don’t want to give it up.  In this case you are only partially engaged in the recovery process.  You can say “I’m trying really hard but I just can’t get sexually sober.”  This allows you to let yourself off the hook while you continue to have frequent relapses.  You can go to meetings that offer you fellowship and sympathy but you don’t have to change. The way out of this involves building in serious contingency plans for “upping” your program like going into a residential program and going back into therapy in the event that you are stalled out.

The right reasons

The journey of recovery involves establishing abstinence from the behavior, working through the issues that caused the problems, building a sense of commitment, connectedness and strength, and finding a new way of living based on honesty and integrity. If recovery doesn’t start to become valuable to you for its own sake then you are likely going to stall out half way through.  You have found a way to keep one foot in denial.  Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource