In a previous blog I examined the ways in which sexual sobriety is typically defined, noting that total abstinence, the most common conception of sobriety with alcoholism and drug addiction, does not work for many of the process (behavioral) addictions, including sex addiction and eating disorders. (For instance, if a sex addict is married, his or her spouse might not be too happy about total abstinence.) Instead, sex addicts must determine which of their sexual activities are and are not compulsive (out of control) and which of them do and do not compromise or destroy their relationships, values, and life circumstances. Sex addicts then commit in a written sexual sobriety contract to only engage in non-compulsive, non-problematic sexual activities as permitted within the bounds of that pact. As long as an addict’s sexual behavior remains within these concretely defined limits, he or she is sexually sober.
Written sexual sobriety contracts are typically comprised of three parts. Part one, the inner boundary, lists sexual behaviors (not thoughts or fantasies) that are out of control and causing major life problems. If a client re-engages in any of these activities, he or she has had a slip (a loss of sexual sobriety). Part two, the middle boundary, lists the warning signs and slippery situations that can lead a sex addict into the inner boundary. Engaging in any of these activities, thoughts, or fantasies is dangerous because it can lead to a loss of sobriety, but it is not in and of itself a loss of sobriety. A well-defined middle boundary is the heart of relapse prevention – becoming aware of triggers before the sexual acting out has begun. Part three, the outer boundary, lists healthy pleasures that the recovering addict can turn to as a replacement for sexual acting out – recreation, time with family and friends, meditation, exercise, 12-step meetings, insightful therapies, etc. The goal here is for the addict to enjoy life in a meaningful way without the intensity-based highs and lows of addictive sex.
Consider the (abbreviated for purposes of this blog) boundary plan of Josh, a married 28-year-old sex and porn addict. When developing this plan, Josh’s stated goals were: to not have sex outside of his marriage; to stop looking at porn; to be honest with his wife; to improve his sex life at home; and to work toward having a family (children).
Josh’s Inner Boundary
- No pornography of any kind (including softcore stuff like the Victoria’s Secret catalog)
- No sexualized chat-rooms, dating sites, or hookup apps
- No masturbation
- No sex with anyone other than my wife
- No flirting or sexting with anyone (other than my wife)
Josh’s Middle Boundary
- Lying, keeping secrets, or breaking commitments of any kind
- Going online when my wife is not home or after she’s gone to bed
- Isolating, or feeling overwhelmed, alone, ashamed, less than, etc.
- Intense sexual objectification of women who aren’t my wife
- Skipping therapy and/or my 12-step meetings and/or blowing off my 12-step sponsor
Josh’s Outer Boundary
- Weekly therapy sessions, both individual and group, and regular 12-step involvement
- Being romantic with my wife
- Planning for the future (including kids, a better job, a better home, etc.) with my wife
- Being honest with my wife about everything, including my hopes and dreams
- Finding and cultivating a new and enjoyable (non-addictive) hobby
When constructed, boundaries plans often look airtight. Unfortunately, they can sometimes be manipulated and/or worked around. As such, it is a good idea to keep the following four tips in mind, as they can be quite helpful in terms of maintaining integrity around sexual sobriety.
- Be clear. Boundary plans are created to define sexual sobriety and to make a plan for a healthier, happier life. They are written and signed as contracts as a way to hold addicts accountable to their commitments, particularly in the face of challenging circumstances. When a sex addict lacks clearly written boundaries, he or she is vulnerable to deciding “in the moment” that certain activities are OK for now even if they’ve been wildly problematic in the past. Simply put, impulsive sexual decisions made without clear guidelines are what dragged the sex addict down in the first place, so it’s best to not leave any wiggle room in sobriety.
- Be flexible. It is important to understand that boundary plans are not completely inflexible. In fact, recovering sex addicts often spend a month or two (or a year or two) with a particular set of boundaries and then realize they need adjustment. (Recent developments in digital technology have caused many long-recovering sex addicts to revise their boundary plans.) That said, changing a boundary plan is never something a recovering sex addict should do on his or her own. Making changes should always involve input from the addict’s therapist and/or 12-step sexual recovery sponsor. Changes to boundary plans should never be made just because some “special situation” presents itself and the addict decides, in the moment, to make a change. Such behavior is not called “changing the plan,” it’s called “acting out.”
- Be honest. Creating effective boundary plans requires brutal honesty on the part of not just the sex addict, but his or her advisors. Let’s face it, any person looking to justify the continuation of a particular behavior, even though he or she knows that it no longer serves a healthy purpose, can nearly always find someone to sign off on it (or at least to agree that it’s not a big deal). It is important to remember here that the purpose of creating a boundary plan is not to justify and rationalize problematic behaviors (or even watered-down versions of those activities), the purpose is to end sexual acting out and the incomprehensible demoralization it brings.
- Consider others. Sex addicts who develop their boundary plans while single often find that they need to revise their plans if/when they enter into a serious relationship. Sex addicts already in long-term relationships need to consider how their new boundaries will affect their spouse or significant other. Explaining to that person the reasons for these sudden limitations will usually soften the impact.
Creating and maintaining effective sexual boundary plans can be a lot of work. But doing so is well worth the effort, leading to a healthier, happier, and more productive life. Energy formerly spent on compulsive sexual behavior can now go into family involvement and work. Creativity previously used to facilitate acting out can now be funneled into hobbies, self-care, and healthier relationships. If an addict is married or otherwise in a committed relationship, sexual recovery can bring a deeper understanding of both the addict’s and his or her partner’s emotional needs and wants, encouraging both people to take more risks toward vulnerability and intimacy. And for individuals not in a committed partnership, there is the chance to build self-esteem through healthy choices regarding commitment, dating, romantic partnering, healthy sexuality, and more. Needless to say, sexual recovery pays big dividends over time, as long as the addict is willing to do the work of recovery.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he founded The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles in 1995. He is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships.