When your sexually addicted partner enters sexual recovery, you are likely to be filled with questions. One of those questions will almost certainly deal with sexual sobriety. What is it? How is it defined? Does sexual sobriety mean total abstinence, as we see with drug addiction and alcoholism? And if sexual sobriety does require abstinence, how will that affect you and your relationship with your partner?
Fortunately for you and your relationship (and for your addicted partner), sexual sobriety is not defined by long-term abstinence. Celibacy is not viewed as a long-term solution to sexual addiction. Recognizing this, sex addiction therapists define sexual sobriety much as we define sobriety with eating disorders—another area in which long-term abstinence is neither desirable nor feasible. Rather than permanently abstaining from all sexual activity, recovering sex addicts think about sobriety as learning to be sexual in non-compulsive, non-problematic, life-affirming ways.
At this point, you may be wondering, “What exactly does that mean for my partner, for me, and for my relationship?” The good news (and maybe also the bad news, if you happen to like rigid rules) is that there’s no cut-and-dried answer to this question. Every sex addict enters recovery with a unique life history, a distinct set of compulsive sexual behaviors that are causing problems, and a singular set of goals for the future. Based on these deeply individual factors, your partner will be asked to create his or her own definition of sobriety.
Most likely, your partner, working in conjunction with a sex addiction therapist or a 12-step sexual recovery sponsor, will create a “sexual boundary plan” that defines sobriety and guides his or her behavior in recovery. Typically, these plans are a three-tiered system listing problem behaviors (the inner boundary), slippery behaviors (the middle boundary), and healthy behaviors (the outer boundary).
- The Inner Boundary lists specific sexual behaviors that create negative consequences for your partner, for you, and for your relationship. If your partner engages in any of these behaviors, he or she is not sexually sober. This is your partner’s bottom-line definition of sexual sobriety.
- The Middle Boundary lists slippery situations and warning signs that might lead your partner back into his or her inner boundary. This list includes people, places, emotions, events, experiences, thoughts, and fantasies that endanger your partner’s sobriety.
- The Outer Boundary lists healthy behaviors that lead your partner toward health, happiness, and accomplishing his or her larger life goals. More importantly, this is a list of healthy activities your partner can turn to when he or she feels triggered to act out sexually.
Once again, every sex addict is different, with a unique life history, singular goals, and specific sexual behaviors that create problems. This means that every sexual boundary plan is different. Behaviors that are deeply troubling for your partner might be perfectly fine for another recovering addict, and vice versa. Thus, there is no set definition of sexual sobriety and no set formula for recovery. Conformity is not the goal. Living a healthy and fulfilling life is what matters.