By Adam M. Moore, PhD, LMFT
As a therapist, I work primarily with people struggling with sex addiction–things like compulsive pornography use, or out-of-control sexual behaviors. Sometimes I’ll get a therapy client who comes in after a month of therapy and says something like, “You know, I’ve been trying to stop looking at porn for years and I’ve tried everything. I relapse every week or two, no matter what I do. What am I doing wrong?”
Let me share with you the most common reasons people continue to relapse back into their compulsive sexual behaviors or pornography use, even when they feel they’re doing their very best to stop.
Isolation is probably the most important reason people relapse. Sexual addiction is commonly about coping with loneliness, isolation, and feelings of abandonment or rejection. Then, ironically, the shame of acting out and feeling out of control tends to keep people from connecting with others. People who struggle with compulsive sexual behaviors become so afraid of rejection that they don’t want anyone to get too close to them. They often try to fix it on their own, telling no one. Just trying to buckle down and stop–hoping to manage their fears of rejection by keeping others at arm’s length. This just pushes them further into the trap of isolation and gives them more reasons to cope with their drug of choice–sex.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
It seems overly simple, but reaching out for emotional support and connection is some of the best medicine for relapse prevention. If you’ve ever met a healthily recovering addict of any type, you’ve probably noticed that they can’t stop talking about their recovery–they’ll tell anyone. If you’re the one struggling with compulsive sexual behaviors, I’m not suggesting that recovery involves grabbing a megaphone and shouting about it from the street corner. I am suggesting that to keep from continually relapsing, you need to share your story.
I recommend starting by telling 3 or 4 of your closest family members or friends. Something like this:
Hey, I know you care about me, so I feel safe telling you this. I struggle with acting out sexually and I’m trying to get healthy. I’m used to just keeping everything to myself and not sharing what’s going on with me. I know I need to stay connected to get better. Would you be willing to check in with me and let me check with you daily so I don’t feel alone in my recovery?
After that, it’s a matter of staying connected every day to those people. What will you be talking about? You may be surprised to find out that you’ll hardly ever talk about your sexual behaviors. You’ll be talking mostly about the two items that come next in the list.
2. Lack of emotional awareness
Addiction has been said to be an ineffective way of managing difficult emotions. When you feel sad, lonely, angry, or resentful, it’s much easier to “numb out” with sexual behaviors than it is to actually deal with those emotions head on. Here’s the problem: if you have a long history of numbing your emotions through sexual behaviors, there’s a good chance you don’t have a lot of emotional awareness. You may struggle to name emotions. You may usually feel “fine” even when your body says otherwise.
The reason lack of emotional awareness leads to relapse is that the addiction is your body’s way of avoiding the painful emotions. If you’re used to avoiding feelings altogether, eventually the pain of the ignored emotions will become serious enough that you’ll snap. Your body will be begging for relief from the pain–I promise that one of the first things your brain will land on is a proven way of getting instant relief–your sexual behaviors. It will be like getting broadsided by a speeding car while you’re just going along, thinking everything is “fine.”
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
Like anything in life, you’ll need to practice. I recommend you practice identifying and naming emotions. Grab a list of emotions off the internet. I like the emotion wheel on this page. Spend a few minutes every day with your support people and name an emotion you’re feeling. See if you can connect it to something that’s either happened or going to happen in your life.
For example, a conversation might start with you saying this:
Today, I’m feeling afraid. I’m not totally sure why, but I know I have a presentation I’m doing at work tomorrow and I’m probably nervous about it. I’ve put a lot of effort into it and I’m worried that it’s not going to be good enough. I’m not used to feeling like this. I can already feel myself wanting to act out sexually to cope with the pain. I think I need some help dealing with my fear.
It might not be that smooth and polished in the beginning. But keep practicing. Being aware of your emotions is mission-critical in your recovery. Healthily managing your emotions can do a lot for keeping you safe from relapse.
Here’s why. Eventually you come to realize that your emotions are early warning signs of relapse. Painful or uncomfortable emotions let you know that you’re in danger. The longer you ignore the emotions, the more likely you are to turn back to sex to self-soothe. Sharing the emotions does two things:
1. It allows you a chance to make different choices than you normally make. You might choose to connect instead of self-isolate. You might choose to engage in healthy self-care instead of avoiding your pain. You might choose to write down your emotions and make sense of them instead of letting them fester.
2. Like I mentioned earlier, it opens you up to get help. You’re no longer fighting on your own. You’re getting support. And connected, supported people do better in recovery than people in isolation.
3. Unresolved resentment
Related to emotions, resentment is probably the number one sexual sobriety killer out there. Resentment is basically an intense anger about feeling that you’re being treated unfairly. At the end of the day, unresolved resentment becomes the strongest permission-giver addicts use to excuse a relapse. In their heads, it sounds something like this:
I’m tired of being treated like this. I don’t deserve this. I’m sick of people not meeting my needs and not caring about me. Who cares if I relapse? It’s not like it really matters. No one really cares about me anyway.
Does that sound familiar? It happens over and over again for people who can’t stop relapsing. Acting out sexually becomes a strange way to trying to “balance the scales” when life feels unfair.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
There are a couple of things you can do that can really help you deal with resentment.
You’ll hear in 12-step meetings something like, “Expectations are premeditated resentments.” Almost all resentments are born from expectations. You expect to be treated a certain way. You expect people to care about things that are important to you. You expect people to remember your birthday. Anything can become a resentment.
The moment the expectation becomes something that has to happen in order for you to have a good day, you’re in trouble. Please understand, I’m not saying that you should expect nothing good from your life. What I am saying is that you may want to learn to be cautious about how intensely you cling to your expectations.
Becoming flexible with how you deal with expectations and how you find ways to meet your needs is a crucial skill that can mean the difference between sobriety and relapse. Flexibility is built on trust–trust that there is more than one way to get any given need taken care of, and trust that when things don’t go exactly as planned, things can still turn out OK. As you can imagine, this kind of flexibility takes some serious work to develop.
There are two specific things you can do to deal with resentments, once they pop up::
Create new assumptions
Feeling resentment usually implies that you believe one of two things:
People don’t care about my needs or my experience.
People are intentionally trying to hurt me.
It sounds so simple, but you’d be amazed at how quickly you can turn things around in your head if you assume something different. What if you chose to make completely different assumptions about people’s behaviors from here on out? What if you chose to assume things like:
People do care about my needs, but they’re also trying to balance that with self-care and it’s hard to balance those two. People are doing the best they can with the resources they have.
People aren’t trying to hurt me, even though they do hurt me sometimes. Most of the time, people who hurt me do so by mistake. And in most cases, if I share my feelings of hurt in a healthy way, we can work out a solution that works for both of us.
Notice that your new assumptions are a bit more complex than the assumptions that create resentment. You believe that people are three dimensional and that they are trying to balance out many things in life. You assume that your need is one in a sea of needs that people in your life have to balance and address.
The real challenge with creating new assumptions is that you look for evidence to back your assumptions up. We all do. And the reality is that we tend to find what we’re looking for. We can usually find evidence of anything we want to believe. So as soon as you decide on an assumption, you will immediately find evidence that you’re right–regardless of what assumption you choose.
Choosing new assumptions before looking for evidence will help you become more flexible.
4. Not adjusting bottom lines
A bottom line is simply a behavior you decide you’re not going to do anymore. For a sex addict, “I will not view pornography again” is a bottom line. Of course, stating a bottom line and actually following through are two very different things.
A relapse involves crossing your bottom line and usually involves going back into hiding–not sharing with anyone what is going on. Anyone who has been sober for a long time will tell you that they have to constantly move and adapt their bottom lines as they notice weak spots in their recovery. When you never address or change any of your bottom lines, you can be certain that you’ll relapse many times without any idea why you’re not getting better.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
You can learn a more about bottom lines in recovery in this online class called Managing Triggers, Slips, and Relapses in Recovery.
In the meantime, as you improve in your recovery and space your relapses further and further apart, you’ll notice that you get to start creating bottom lines that are further away from the “cliff” of relapse. These types of bottom lines make all the difference in the world in relapse prevention.
Here’s an example of how to do it right:
Your last relapse into porn started out with you watching a few funny videos online to take a short break at work. Eventually, you clicked on a suggested video from the sidebar of the website. Then another. And another. This eventually led you into more and more explicit content. Two hours later, you realized you missed a work meeting. Watching the initial videos was mostly about avoiding stress about the upcoming meeting you eventually missed. Clicking harmless links led to you giving yourself permission to click more, including videos you wouldn’t have clicked if you weren’t in the habit already.
New bottom line: Work to notice painful emotions about work-related things. Reach out and share your feelings rather than numbing them by looking up distracting content online. Ask for help from others to deal with your painful emotions.
New bottom line: If you need to take a break at work, do it in healthier ways–call someone you care about, take a walk, go on a short drive. Your new bottom line is no media browsing (even “safe” media) while at work.
If you notice yourself crossing your new bottom lines, then it’s time to dig into the other issues of isolation, emotional awareness, and resentment to see where things aren’t totally on track.
You can tell that addressing all of the items above is going to be hard work. Anything worth doing is worth doing right. If you find yourself stuck in a pattern of relapse, chances are that retooling the things from this article can make a huge difference in your recovery.