I once spoke with a man who had a serious setback in his sexual addiction recovery about the events of his relapse. As we talked about the details, he said something that caught my attention. He said, “it’s amazing how far you can go in just a few minutes.”
Now, on the surface, I understood what he was trying to say. He recognized that in the few minutes acting out sexually, he crossed lines he never intended to cross. However, after working with men in recovery from sexual addiction for years, I knew that his relapse didn’t begin and end in a few minutes.
The shame and denial that follows a relapse can be compared to an aggressive public relations campaign following a disaster. The horror of seeing the consequences from acting out is more than most individuals can tolerate. So, the whole event gets reduced to a minimum and then the addict doesn’t have to feel like he was really out of control or, worse that he failed. But, like actual damage control campaigns corporations engineer to save their image, attempts to reduce a significant relapse to a simple “whoops” only kills credibility.
To say that a relapse simply lasted a few minutes is technically true when you count the actual minutes it took to cross the final boundary. However, I’ve never seen a relapse that began and ended in a few minutes. Most relapses begin days and weeks before the more serious lines are crossed.
A relapse is a long journey that begins by ignoring warning signals in the following areas: Physical, emotional, relational, sexual, and spiritual. These warning signals are often subtle and easily rationalized, or worse, ignored. However, they serve an important purpose for the recovering individual. The feedback from these warning signals provide direction for the constant course corrections needed in long-term recovery.
For example, Paul hated the stress of his commission-only job as a car salesman. Even though he was a natural at sales, the constant worry about how much his check would be every month was taking its toll on him. He didn’t want his wife to worry about their financial security, so he would confidently report on a daily basis that work was going great. It was tough for him to keep up the façade. In fact, he actually would work longer hours in an attempt to scrape together more income. He became more moody at home as he began to crack under the pressure. Eventually, he began having more conflict with his wife who didn’t understand why he was being so negative. The isolation and disconnection opened him up to more opportunities to view pornography and escape into a world of mind-numbing fantasy.
Let’s review how Paul’s relapse developed. First, he ignored the emotional signals from the stress at work. He felt overwhelmed, inadequate, afraid, and powerless. His relational dishonesty with his wife created more distance and didn’t allow her to be a support to him in his struggle. He ignored physical signals that he was wearing himself down by overworking.
These three sets of warning signals were providing Paul with an opportunity to make the necessary adjustments to avoid a relapse.
It would be easy for Paul to decide that his relapse was really about being stressed out in the very moment he turned to pornography as a stress reliever. He could tell himself that this was only a small moment of viewing pornography and that he wouldn’t do it again.
The problem, of course, is that because he isn’t aware of the journey he’s been on for months, he will end up back in the same spot again. Paul won’t turn around his direction unless he can acknowledge how many areas are out of balance for him and then take the necessary steps to correct them.
When these early indicators are taken seriously, it’s easy to make corrections and move toward a more congruent and balanced life. An active addiction cannot exist when there is physical, emotional, relational, sexual, and spiritual balance.
Think back to your last setback in your recovery. Which of these five areas were out of balance? Are any of these areas still out of balance? What steps can you take today to begin making the necessary corrections?
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist and is the founding director of LifeSTAR of St. George – a three-phase recovery program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction. He is also the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity.” You can follow Geoff on Twitter: @geoffsteurer or on Facebook: facebook.com/geoffsteurerMFT