If you are a recovering alcoholic or drug addict with solid support and a lot of motivated willingness to get well, you can make it through the rest of your life without taking another drink or abusing an addictive drug. Similarly, compulsive gamblers can live a full and happy lives without ever re-entering a casino, betting on the stock market, or playing fantasy football. But for those who struggle with addictions to otherwise highly life-affirming activities like eating and sex, recovery can at times be a daily battle. After all, compulsive eaters in recovery must still eat on a regular basis. And recovering sex addicts, even if they’ve previously had enough sex to populate China, usually still want (and deserve) to have a healthy sexual and intimate life in recovery.
However, as mentioned in a previous posting to this site, triggers toward addictive sex are relatively unavoidable. Recovering sex addicts inevitably run into attractive people, see sexual acts depicted in movies and on TV, spot their friend’s Victoria’s Secret catalog on the coffee table, etc. To be honest, triggers toward sexual addiction are almost infinite in both number and variety, and there is not much that recovering sex addicts can do about that beyond learning to recognize when they are feeling triggered and, equally importantly, how to respond in healthy rather than addictive ways.
Knowing this, most sex addicts are encouraged to put together a Sexual Sobriety Toolbox that they can reach into when tempted to act out. In fact, using one or more of these tools is typically the only way to short-circuit the cycle of sexual addiction. A few of the healthy coping mechanisms that most sex addicts find effective include:
- Sexual Boundary Plans: Boundary plans are created so that sex addicts understand which behaviors are problematic for them, and which are not. Problem behaviors are listed in the inner boundary. Boundary plans also identify “slippery” areas to watch out for. That is the middle boundary. Finally, and just as importantly, boundary plans provide a list of healthy “outer boundary” activities that addicts can engage in when tempted to act out. I typically recommend that recovering sex addicts carry a printed or digital version of their plan with them at all times so they can turn to it for clarity and direction in times of need. Most of the time, even a quick glance at the plan is enough to temporarily halt the addictive process.
- The Three-Second Rule: Sex addicts cannot control the thoughts they have or the fact that they feel triggered. They can, however, control what they do with those thoughts and feelings. For instance, after spotting an attractive man or woman, a sex addict can acknowledge that he or she is human and that it is normal to feel an attraction. However, as a sex addict, he or she should turn away from the triggering individual within three seconds. Then the addict (without turning back for another look) should try to see that other person as someone’s wife/daughter/sister or father/son/brother, wishing that individual and his or her family all the best. More generally, sexualized thoughts and fantasies can be banished in similar fashion. For instance, after recognizing an addictive sexual thought, sex addicts can give themselves three seconds to turn away from it and focus on something else. Usually this works best if they simply ask their Higher Power for the thought to be removed. “Turning it over” in this way even works for addicts who struggle with the concept of God or Higher Power – probably because the simple act of thinking about something else, anything at all, temporarily breaks the addictive cycle.
- Bookending: Most triggers arise unexpectedly. However, triggers can occasionally be seen well in advance. For instance, a recovering sex addict who knows that he or she must attend a social event where an old acting out partner will also be in attendance can see that potential problem a mile away. In response, he or she can “bookend” the experience. In other words, before the party the addict calls a supportive person in recovery and explains the situation, committing to sobriety and perhaps even discussing plans to avoid relapse. After the event, the addict calls the same person to discuss what transpired, the feelings that arose, and what he or she might need to do differently in the future. Other obvious triggers that sex addicts might want to bookend include unstructured time alone, unexpected time alone, business travel, stressful events, etc.
- HALT: This is an acronym for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired. Essentially, recovering addicts of all types recognize that any of these conditions creates vulnerability to relapse. As such, recovering sex addicts who find themselves thinking about a slip can HALT and do a quick check-in, asking themselves when they last ate, if they’re feeling anger (or anxiety), when is the last time they talked to a supportive person about what they are feeling, and if they’ve gotten enough sleep. Oftentimes a candy bar, a five minute phone conversation, or a catnap will alleviate or at least diminish the desire to sexually act out.
- 12-Step Sexual Recovery Support, Faith Based Support Groups, Group Therapy, Etc.: It’s hardly a secret that a key to maintaining long-term sexual sobriety is being able to talk openly and honestly about the addiction, without fear of judgment or reprisal. This can occur in individual therapy, sex addiction focused group therapy, 12-step sexual recovery meetings, and similarly supportive settings. Even if no such meeting is taking place at a given moment, an addict in crisis can turn to his or her group’s phone list for support. Frankly, having and using this handy list of phone numbers is essential when a recovering sex addict has an urge to act out, needs immediate support, or just wants a bit of guidance from someone who “speaks the language.”
Needless to say, the five suggestions listed above are hardly the full toolkit. Journaling, accountability partners, written recovery work, meditation, prayer, practicing gratitude, reading recovery-oriented books, developing healthy hobbies, and all sorts of other healthful actions work equally well. That said, the most powerful tool in the sexual recovery toolbox nearly always involves talking to another recovering sex addict. As such, the sex addicts who do best in recovery are the ones who willingly throw themselves into the sexual sobriety community – making friends, making and taking recovery-related phone calls, fully engaging in their support group meetings, and willingly being of service to other recovering sex addicts.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health. In this capacity, he has established and overseen addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities including Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu and Los Angeles, The Ranch in rural Tennessee, and The Right Step in Texas. An internationally acknowledged clinician and author, he has served as a subject expert on the intersection of human intimacy and digital technology for multiple media outlets including The Oprah Winfrey Network, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, and CNN, among many others. He is the author of several highly regarded books, including Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Love, and Porn Addiction. For more information please visit website at robertweissmsw.com.