Sex/Porn Recovery: Dealing with Slips and Relapse

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Scott Brassart

Unfortunately, slips and relapses are common in those who are recovering from sex, porn, and substance/sex addiction. This does not mean that it is OK to slip or relapse. Not by a long shot. Slips and relapses are setbacks to recovery and relationship healing. The good news about slips and relapses is that we can learn from them, tracing them to their root causes and implementing safeguards to prevent a recurrence.

  • Slip: An unintended, brief return to active addiction. With a slip, the addict quickly comes clean with their therapist, sponsor, partner, and other important people in their life. Then, in conjunction with their sponsor, therapist, etc., the addict performs an ‘autopsy’ to see where things started to go wrong, where they could have (should have) intervened, etc.
  • Relapse: A secretive, longer-term return to active addiction. With a relapse, the addict keeps their slip secret. The addict will tell lies and actively engage in other behaviors to cover their behavior. In short, the addict engages in denial to make their behavior seem OK in their own mind.

There are five primary elements in a slip or relapse:

  1. Events: Something happens in the addict’s life.
  2. Feelings: The addict has a feeling (or feelings) about the event.
  3. Thoughts/Beliefs: The addict applies meaning to the event and feelings.
  4. Denial/Justification: The addict rationalizes a return to addiction.
  5. Behaviors: The addict acts out in their addiction.

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These five elements must be examined when the addict returns from a slip or relapse and conducts an autopsy. As with an autopsy after someone dies, we work backward to determine the cause of what happened. Like a medical examiner, we start with obvious, outward, readily apparent details and then, literally, we dig deeper to find the root cause. We start with the obvious (I slipped/relapsed) and work backward (dig deeper) to find out why. To this end, we look at the five elements mentioned above, but working in reverse. To this end, we ask ourselves the following five questions:

  1. What behavior did I engage in when I acted out?
  2. How did I justify (in my own mind) my desire to act out?
  3. What are the thoughts that caused me to want to act out?
  4. What feelings caused me to think about acting out?
  5. What event(s) caused the emotional discomfort (the feelings)?

When those questions are answered, we reverse the order again to create a narrative of the slip or relapse. Generally, we end up with something like:

  1. My boss assigned an important project to my workplace rival rather than me.
  2. I felt unappreciated and undervalued.
  3. I thought, “Other people take advantage of me.”
  4. I told myself, “Since I don’t get thanks or recognition at work, I’ll get it by acting out.”
  5. I went online and cruised hookup apps, and then I looked at porn.

With this autopsy, the addict can now see the ‘tipping point’ for their slip or relapse. Usually, the easiest identifiable tipping point is the ‘feelings’ stage of the process. In the example above, this is when the addict feels unappreciated and undervalued. Needless to say, this is the best place to intervene and stop the acting out cycle – most likely by talking to another person (the boss, a fellow employee, a fellow recovering addict, etc.) who can reality-check the situation for the addict so their thinking doesn’t spin out of control. The ‘thinking’ stage of the process (Other people take advantage of me.) is another good place to intervene. By the time an addict slides forward into the denial stage, averting a potential slip or relapse is quite difficult, though not impossible.

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If you or someone you care about is struggling with pornography, help is available. Seeking Integrity offers inpatient treatment for sex and porn addicts, as well as low-cost online workgroups. At the same time, SexandRelationshipHealing.com offers a variety of free webinars and drop-in discussion groups, podcasts, and more.