Sex Addiction and Chronic Relapse

Posted on December 9th, 2014

Sex Addiction and Chronic RelapseMartin had been working the steps for a full three years, though he hadn’t been “clean” that long. The longest he’d gone without slipping or sexually acting-out was four months. He considered that length of time a miracle. Folks in the program had recommended the use of a net nanny—software that blocks porn—but he’d uninstalled it more than once on his home computer and continued to use his smartphone. The temptation was too intense; he was surrounded by sex and couldn’t seem to say no.

Martin’s marriage had crashed and burned and he’d even lost his job after he’d been caught watching pornography at work on three occasions. The shame he felt seemed insurmountable, and the only thing that tended to relieve it was the very thing that created it—porn and cybersex. In the language of addiction recovery, Martin had a problem with chronic relapse.

It would be easy to assume that Martin was a man who simply made “bad choices,” a selfish, inconsiderate man with low morals and poor character; except for the fact that his brain functioned no differently than that of other addicts—people addicted to alcohol or cocaine. The reward center in Martin’s brain surged with dopamine when he went on the hunt for that perfect porn image or when he sought out a woman to chat with for cybersex, and the rush of adrenaline and endorphins kept him coming back. There was also a crash, a low-dopamine period after his acting-out episodes in which the shame had a place to grow. Relapse for a sex addict is not about morality; it’s about addiction—a problem, researchers believe, of brain chemistry.

Relapse and Social Stigma in Sex Addiction

Relapse is usually meant to refer to alcohol or drug addicts who have experienced a period of sobriety, but have lapsed back into substance use. It can also refer to the 3 percent to 6 percent of Americans estimated to suffer from sex addiction—those who’ve initially recovered, but have begun acting out on their sexual compulsions once again. We tend to understand that drug addicts and alcoholics relapse because the strength of their addictions make it nearly impossible for them to fight their cravings, but we extend less charity to people who experience sexual addiction. Instead, a harsh societal stigma exists against sex addicts when they cannot “get their behavior under control.” But they are no different than other addicts; they battle the urges that arise as much chemically (in the brain), as they do psychologically and emotionally.

The Gift of Relapse

Many people believe that if an addict relapses, she has not taken her recovery seriously enough, and is bound to fail. While this may be true for some, it is simply true that relapse is often a natural part of the recovery process and it has lessons to teach—first among them: humility. If an addict takes the opportunity of relapse to get honest, to be accountable and admit that he has acted out again, he can move forward strengthened by the truth, and his shame will be lessened. Relapse also provides an addict the opportunity to evaluate her triggers, to truly examine her patterns and what people, places or things cause her to want to act out.

True sobriety is not measured by how quickly or easily you came into recovery, or even by the number of days or years you’ve had clean. It takes as long as it takes. You will stumble along the way. True sobriety is about not crumbling when you stumble, not giving up forever. Get back on the horse; get back in the game. Pay attention to the lessons.

From shame & pain to resilience & joy.

There's a better life beyond sex addiction & intimacy disorders. Specialized, gender-separate treatment in a ranch-style setting.

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The Ranch, Nunnelly, TN


Addiction & Intimacy Disorder Treatment for Women

  • Intimacy, relationship, trauma & addiction issues
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