Targeting Sobriety in Addiction Recovery: How to Make a Three Circle Plan


When a sex and love addict comes to the realization that they need help to stay sober, it can be a mystery of what to do next.  By the time you’ve humbled yourself enough to admit you’re powerless, usually you’ve already tried to stop your behavior several times.  This can take the form of forcing yourself not to act out, through white-knuckling, attempting aversion techniques, or even sometimes using self-harm as a deterrent.

But if you’ve been in this cycle of trying to stop on your own, you often find that you can’t help but go back to your addiction. The foundation of addiction is isolation, secrecy, and shame.  You likely deal with feelings of shame by acting out, which cycles back in on itself to create more shame as you wonder why you can’t just stop.

What needs to change?

The first step in true healing for any addict is to get support from other people, such as in a 12 Step or support group.  These groups encourage creating a sobriety plan as part of your recovery. 

I often recommend the three-circle plan as a helpful sobriety tool to identify the behaviors you want to avoid and healthy self-care behaviors to increase.  Not only does this plan provide that, but it also allows you to identify risk factors or warning signs of acting out.


The Three-Circle Plan

The image of a three-circle plan is three concentric circles.  The inner circle is the list of behaviors from which you’re trying to maintain sobriety.  The middle circle is your boundaries list, or a list of the risk factors, warning signs, or triggers that might send you into your inner circle.  The outer circle involves healthy self-care behaviors that you can increase to help you avoid addictive behaviors. 

Inner Circle Behaviors

Your inner circle behaviors, or abstinence list, is the list of activities from which you want to achieve sobriety in your recovery.  These are the behavior checks you’d share at your 12 Step meetings or with your sponsor as a regular way to hold yourself accountable.  For example, if you primarily act out using pornography, you will put “pornography” in this circle.  If you have had several affairs, prohibiting “contact with acting out partners” may be more appropriate. 

If you’re aware of your cycle of addiction, you know that there are some behaviors that inevitably lead to acting out for you.  While these might eventually end up in the middle circle, it may be wise to put them in your inner circle in early recovery and revisit them once you’ve achieved some more solid sobriety. 

There will be some behaviors you are hesitant to put into this inner circle because it means you will have to give them up.  Notice the discomfort you have around those as a form of denial.  Use your support system to help keep you in check on what needs to go in this circle.

Outer Circle Behaviors

I believe it is important to make your list of healthy self-care behaviors early in recovery, so we will turn to the outer circle now.  Outer circle behaviors, or healthy self-care, are required to help you establish and maintain sobriety.  Self-care helps you cope with withdrawal from the addiction and replace acting out with activities that are more healthy and nourishing.  You can become much more sensitive to triggers when you aren’t practicing healthy self-care.

Make a list of activities you can to do take care of yourself.  This can include such activities as therapy, going to your support groups, meeting with your sponsor, and doing 12 Step work.  Focus on a few specific categories: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, relational, and professional self-care.  Recall hobbies or activities that you enjoyed or always wanted to try, but you haven’t been able to because of time spent on acting out.  Think about things you used to love doing as a child and incorporate some of these into your present-day life. 

Choosing to practice healthy self-care will literally help to re-wire your brain to reduce cravings and replace desire to act out with other enjoyable activities.

Middle Circle Behaviors

I save this section for last because the middle circle can be the most complex. Determining what belongs in your middle circle requires observing behaviors to see how your unique cycle of addiction works.  Middle circle behaviors, or your “boundaries list,” are behaviors that are warning signs that you’re slipping back into your addiction.  These can be triggers that happen unexpectedly or behaviors you’re walking into that are risky for you.  Behaviors in your preoccupation/fantasy and ritual areas of cycle of addiction are often middle circle behaviors. 

Ask yourself the question: what sets me up to act out sexually?  Make a list of emotions you experience that can make you more susceptible to cravings.  In AA traditions, the acronym “HALT” is used as a reminder to check for triggers if you’re feeling Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired.  I often add “bored” to this list as well.  Identify risky behaviors you might need to put some boundaries around, such as using your computer late at night or driving past the strip club you used to frequent.

What triggers do you experience in your daily life?  Common triggers include fights with a spouse, feelings of loneliness, or shame getting stirred up at work. When you find yourself experiencing triggers or engaging in the risky behaviors, it doesn’t carry the same severity of abstinence as the inner circle behaviors.  However, it does require you to take a look at what you’re doing and run in the other direction toward your outer circle behaviors, seeking greater support along the way.

Implementing and Adding to the Three Circles

In general, your goal to maintain sobriety involves moving outward: avoiding the inner circle and directing your attention and focus on the outer circle behaviors.  Notice that the outer circle is so much larger than the other two: this space allows you to put plenty of options in that circle to encourage you to live there as much as possible.

The natural slope of the addiction is to move inward instead of outward.  As you notice yourself engaging in more middle circle behaviors or experiencing more triggers, the natural tendency is to move toward inner circle behaviors as a form of coping or escaping.  However, recognition of this tendency means you now have the opportunity to lean in the other direction, focusing more on the outer circle behaviors as a healthier way to cope.

Continually add to and update this list. As you learn and grow through your recovery, keep adding self-care behaviors or coping strategies that are helpful for you.  You can never have too many outer circle behaviors.  Also, use your slips and relapse as an opportunity to learn more about your risk factors and needed boundaries.  Identify what inner circle behaviors you might need to add and new middle circle behaviors or triggers. 

Additional Resources

For more information about how the three-circle plan is used in Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA), check out their pamphlet online.


Are you struggling to maintain your sobriety from sex and love addiction? Have you tried to white-knuckle it and force yourself to stop on your own with little to no success? Are you realizing your powerlessness over your addiction? At Restored Hope, I offer specialized counseling services to help you achieve freedom from sex and love addiction. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to learn more and schedule your first appointment.

Step Two: Journey Through the Twelve Steps


This year, we have a monthly series discussing ways to engage and work each of the Twelve Steps.  Stemming from the Alcoholics Anonymous tradition, the Twelve Steps have made their way into the treatment of many addictive behaviors.  Our specific focus will be on sex and love addiction, particularly in Christian women.  If you’re interested in finding an in-person, online, or phone meeting for sex and love addiction, check out Sex Addicts Anonymous or Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous.  Before you read this post, check out our introduction to the Twelve Steps to learn about support and resources.

Step Two: We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. 

Admitting our powerlessness over our addictive behaviors is incredibly important on the road to healing.  But this admission is not a magic fix.  The question soon follows: who, or what, will help us overcome?

You’ve likely had the thought that you could stop your addictive behavior if you just tried harder.  There are a multitude of different strategies we use to try to stop.  This overconfidence and self-reliance ultimately backfire, and it becomes easier than ever to become entrenched in the addictive behavior once more.

A common reminder to addicts from AA is that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.  Achieving sanity involves accepting your need for help and seeking a new path to healing.  Observe the strategies of the others in your 12 Step group – how have they learned to overcome?  You’ll find a solid foundation in a Higher Power that can free them from the weight of this addictive behavior.  For our purposes, we’ll refer to this Higher Power as God.

What if I don’t believe in God?  Or what if I don’t trust Him?

Step Two can be fraught with unease or uncertainty based on your experiences with faith.  You may have had strict religious parents who taught you about a punishing God.  You may have minimal experience with spirituality, but assume it’s not for you based on depictions in media or news.  You may have attended a church and received wounds or pain from church leadership or other Christians, and felt alienated from God as a result.

Add to this the stigma of sexual addiction, and you might find yourself experiencing intense shame in churches.  Maybe religion has been a way for you to beat yourself up for the addiction or make up for the wrongs you’ve done in your addictive behavior.

When this is the case, my encouragement to you is to be open to trying out faith.  As we know from the Stocksdale paradox, finding meaning and purpose for a future without addiction will be the biggest motivator to get you through the pain of withdrawal.  Meaning and purpose are often found in spirituality or relationship with God.  Your openness to explore and curiosity about what spirituality or relationship with God might look like for you are steps toward this mission and purpose for the future.

Working Step Two

Examine your relationship with trust.

Trust isn’t easy, especially if you’ve had your trust betrayed in the past.  I’ve experienced this before when I believed that I had to do everything on my own if I wanted it to be done right.  Another common way you might experience distrust involves hiding information or deceiving those around us.  Deception is a significant part of addiction because it can feel incredibly vulnerable to trust someone with our deepest, darkest secrets.

When you’re asked to trust someone else, what does it feel like?  Do you have difficulty trusting others?  What happens when you need help – do you ask for it, or do you try to make it on your own?  Were you able to trust your parents or caregivers growing up?  Exploring this relationship with trust has direct implications for your relationship with God.  Often if we struggle to trust others or ask for help, we see ourselves responding the same way with God.

Explore the image you have of God.

What comes to mind when you think of God?  Before I was a Christian, I always imagined a mix between Santa and Zeus – a big man with a thick white beard and white robes sitting on a cloud and looking down on the world.  A.W. Tozer, a noted theologian, says in his book The Knowledge of the Holy* that what comes to mind when we think of God is the most important thing about us. 

How did you imagine God as a child?  What did your family members think or teach about God?  How did that image change or stay the same when you grew into an adult?  What views does your spouse or friends have about God?  Draw a picture of what you imagined God to be like in the past and present.

Identify the roadblocks.

This exploration may lead to a clear idea of what’s standing in the way of trusting God.  Whether it’s based on past failures of trust with loved ones or wrapped up in an image of a distant, accusatory figure, we can see the impacts of early beliefs about God on our present-day spiritual life.

Be patient with yourself as you seek to break down those roadblocks.  Especially if you’ve had destructive views of God in the past, it likely won’t be an easy task to begin to trust Him.  At first, it may be that the only connection you can have with God comes from observing others in the group who have relationship with Him.  Let this be enough for now and seek to be open to experiencing a similar relationship with God as you work this step.

Begin a daily spiritual practice.

Imagine that you’re searching for a dress or suit to buy for an upcoming formal event.  You might look online at a few options, doing some research into styles, colors, and fabrics you like.  When it comes to choosing a size, you might compare the suggested measurements to your own in order to guess how it might fit.  But even if you do the greatest depth of research possible, you won’t truly know how the dress or suit fits until you’re able to try it on.

Similarly, we can approach understanding faith like an intellectual exercise: we read the Bible, debate with others, and try to reason our way into understanding God.  But we can never truly understand the experience of being a Christian until we “try on” the practices of the faith.

Begin attending a church service or Mass.  Seek a daily prayer and meditation time where you read the Bible and journal or pray what’s on your mind.  Practice communion.  Connect with Christian believers through a Bible study or home church.  Get a feel for what the spiritual life could look like for you.

Write a prayer affirming your trust.

When you’ve completed these exercises, you’ll become aware of some areas where it is easy to trust God, and other areas where it is significantly more difficult.  As you begin to think God’s trustworthiness, I encourage you to write a prayer to God both naming the insecurities that you may feel about trusting Him, while also affirming your choice to trust him.  There are several Psalms that provide great examples of this pattern: Psalm 22 and Psalm 31 are a few favorites.

Identify affirmations of truth about your trust in God.

You may notice how often we as humans are directed by our thoughts and emotions, even if those thoughts are distorted or skewed by addicted thought patterns.  Once you’ve made the commitment to seek trusting God, your thoughts can derail this commitment if you aren’t conscious of their impact.

Take time to select a few Bible verses or other affirmations that help remind you that you are able to trust God.  I particularly like Philippians 2:13, “For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.”  Also good are Isaiah 26:4 “Trust in the Lord always, for the Lord God is the eternal Rock” and Jeremiah 17:7, ““But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence.”  Memorizing one of these short Scripture verses can help you to remind yourself of truth when it feels difficult to trust.


Do you have a hard time surrendering to a God that feels shaming and vengeful?  Are you struggling to trust others such that you can’t even imagine trusting God?  Are you feeling hopeless about recovery when you think you have to do it on your own?  At Restored Hope, I understand the battle that comes with a desire for spiritual comfort, coupled with doubt that comes from the addiction itself.  I’d love to meet with you at my Ann Arbor therapy office to talk through what holds you back from trusting God.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me to talk more and set up your first appointment.



*This is an Amazon affiliate link.  Click here to read more about Restored Hope’s Amazon local  associates policy.

Step One: Journey Through the Twelve Steps


This year, we’ll be starting a monthly series discussing ways to engage and work each of the Twelve Steps.  Stemming from the Alcoholics Anonymous tradition, the Twelve Steps have made their way into the treatment of many addictive behaviors.  Our specific focus will be on sex and love addiction, particularly in women.  If you’re interested in finding an in-person, online, or phone meeting for sex and love addiction, check out Sex Addicts Anonymous or Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous.  Before you read this post, check out our introduction to the Twelve Steps to learn about support and resources.

Step One: We admitted we were powerless over ________________ (alcohol, sexual behaviors, addictive relationships) – that our lives had become unmanageable. 

The First step involves two major concepts: powerlessness and unmanageability.  Powerless is defined by not being able to stop your behavior, or realizing you are held captive by your addiction.  You might be absorbed in another person through a love addiction or feel ruled by sexual obsession in sex addiction.  Only the hit of the sexual relationship brings a lift to your mood, which reveals a dependency on that dopamine rush.  Ultimately, powerlessness means that the efforts you make to stop or control the behaviors are not working.

Unmanageability takes this addictive process a step further.  Your life begins to spin out of control. The damage extends further than you could’ve imagined or anticipated.  Your core values in life are threatened as the addiction tells you it’s the only thing giving you meaning.  You feel crazy and out of control, beginning to see the lasting consequences of your behavior.

In the introduction to this series, we talked about the Stocksdale paradox: the importance of holding out hope for the future while not losing sight of how bad the addiction is in this moment.  Working Step One involves breaking through denial to show you just how the addiction is destroying your life, while also giving you a vision of what’s yet to come.

Know there is hope for the future.

Write a list of affirmations and review them daily.

Messages of shame and pain will abound as you start to work through your first step.  To combat the potential for emotional devastation, remind yourself of truth about who you are and your abilities to cope.  Affirmations help you to reprogram your brain away from the negative and shaming words you use to describe yourself that you’ve been using since childhood.  Write an affirmation down in a place where you can see it often to get you through. 

Approach this process with gentleness.

One thing I love about the book Gentle Path Through the Twelve Steps* is that encourages these levels of gentleness with yourself.  Know that this is a process, that it takes time, and use the support that you have through your Twelve Step group and your sponsor to encourage you and help you along the way.

Imagine what your life might look like if you were completely free.

When you’re feeling the weight of your addiction, imagine your life without sexual or relational obsessions.  What would you spend your time doing?  What are things you would pursue that you can’t now because of the time spent on your addictive behaviors?  What are the relationships you could build into?  Become aware of how changing addictive behavior might cause you to look inward, being available to what might happen next within yourself.

Make top lines and bottom lines.

“Top lines” and “bottom lines” are a common way to establish sobriety early in the progrm.  Bottom lines are addictive behaviors from which you want to abstain, while top lines are healthy behaviors you want to be pursuing.  Include any addictive behavior in the bottom lines, taking care not to exclude behaviors so you can find a loophole later.  As they say in Twelve Step, there is no such thing as half-surrender.  Begin the process of abstaining from the addictive behavior defined in your bottom lines, taking it one day at a time.

See the reality of how bad your addiction is.

Take an inventory of addictive behaviors you’ve struggled with, past or present.

Write a list of all the disordered sexual behaviors you find problematic in your life.  If you’ve struggled with any addictive behaviors previously or currently, add those to the list.  As a litmus test, look at any behaviors that you’re trying to hide or cover over.  Are you minimizing, obsessing, fantasizing, or lying in any way?  Where do you feel you lose yourself?  This can be substance based (drug, alcohol, caffeine) or process based (food, sex, gambling).  Pay attention to behaviors where you spend a significant amount of time or money or those that function as an escape or identity, like TV, shopping, or work.

List all the ways you’ve tried to control or stop the behaviors that haven’t worked.

Understanding your powerlessness to stop your addictive behaviors is one of the first and most important steps to breaking through denial.  Listing these cold hard facts about past combats the lie of denial that tells you that you could only stop if you just tried harder.

List the consequences you’ve experienced as a result of your addictive behaviors.

Unmanageability often shows its true colors as you begin to see the consequences of your acting out.  Identify multiple different areas of consequences: emotional, spiritual, family, financial, legal (risk or actual), physical, mental.  Acknowledge the reality of how addiction has destroyed your life.

Look at the influence of addiction and abuse in your family.

Make a family tree or an outline of all your family members for patterns of addiction, codependency, or avoidant behavior.  Pay attention to your own history of abuse that you experienced both inside and outside your family.  Identify physical, emotional, sexual, and spiritual categories of abuse, as well as the length of time and intensity of the abuse.  Notice if there are any family members that you know experienced abuse.

Note that abandonment also can play a role in addictive behavior, and is often more insidious than abuse, as it is less noticeable.  There are no visible bruises that signify neglect, and yet feeling unloved and isolated can drive many into addictive behaviors.  Notice areas of abandonment in physical, emotional, sexual, and spiritual realms as well.

Make a sexual history timeline.

Separate your life into time periods of 5 or 10 years at a time and identify different messages and experiences you had around sex and sexuality during those time frames.  Trace your experience of addictive history as it relates to these experiences.

Maintain humility.

It can be easy to feel proud or smug as you go through your First Step and begin to experience the benefits of sobriety.  This is a setup for relapse.  Instead, maintain awareness of your powerlessness and unmanageability throughout the entire process, and surrender to those concepts.

Share your first step at a 12 Step meeting.

Once you’ve compiled this information (often with the help of a sponsor or other Twelve Step group members), completing the first step involves sharing it openly and honestly.  Typically you begin by sharing with your sponsor before sharing with the larger group, and with their help you can edit the information to share what feels safe within the meeting space.


Is your compulsive behavior leading you to feel trapped in an addiction?  Have you tried again and again to stop, just find you fall back into your behaviors at the earliest opportunity?  Are you looking for a way out?  I believe that you can experience freedom from addiction, particularly if you struggle with sex and love addiction.  I offer counseling in my Ann Arbor therapy office – give me a call at 734.656.8191 or send me an email to talk with me today.




*This is an Amazon affiliate link.  Click here to read more about Restored Hope’s Amazon local  associates policy.

Why Honesty Is So Important In Addiction Recovery


Did you ever lie about anything when you were a kid?  Maybe you broke your mother’s favorite vase.  Maybe you snuck out of the house in the wee hours of the night.  Or maybe you just took an extra cookie out of the cookie jar.

Check out how this kid responds to being found out.  Did this ever happen to you?

Why do you think this little boy lied about eating the sprinkles?  It’s obvious to everyone else around him that he’s lying – the evidence is right there on his face and between his teeth.  I imagine he probably felt ashamed about what he had done.  He didn’t want to be found out, and he figured that since his mother didn’t see him eating the sprinkles, she probably wouldn’t know he had done it.  I wonder if, by the end, he’d been lying about the sprinkles for so long that he actually believed he hadn’t done anything wrong.

Notice the boy’s response when his mom does confront him about the sprinkles on his face.  He continues to deny that he ate them, and he slowly backs away from her.  Have you ever done this?  When you’ve been caught in a lie, do you hide?  I wonder if he was afraid of punishment.  Maybe he wanted to be a “good boy.”   Or maybe he worried about what his mom would think of him, if she would still love him.

When you’ve been caught in a lie, do you hide?

This pattern of deception, denial, and eventually getting found out characterizes the stories of most sex addicts.  Addicts likely feel shame about their behaviors, so they hide from their spouses or loved ones as long as possible.  This pattern of deception continues to the point that the addict begins to believe his or her justifications for the lies, and may begin to forget or discount the consequences of his or her behavior.  Particularly for women, hiding is common because sex addiction is perceived as a male-dominated issue and can carry intense messages of shame for women.

Eventually, addicts get found out.  Whether the shame of living in addiction eventually becomes too much, or the addict is discovered, the spouse or their friends will eventually discover how the addict’s behavior affects them.  But even after being found out, addicts often continue to hide, either through denial (which makes their spouse feel crazy) or only telling parts of their story.

Particularly for women, hiding is common because sex addiction is perceived as a male-dominated issue and can carry intense messages of shame for women.

I recently read a memoir written by a female sex addict in which she talked about the pivotal moment of her recovery coming when she chose to be honest about a relapse.  In the past, it would’ve been easy for her to hide instead of coming clean about what she had done.  However, when she did share in the midst of her 12 Step meeting, she was met with kindness and grace from the fellow members of the group.

Honesty is the first principle tied to the 12 Step program for a reason.  There is no recovery when there is continuing deception.  We need to learn to be honest.  If we deceive ourselves and others through denial, justification, and entitlement, we will never experience healing.  We need to admit that we are powerless over our addictions in order to grow.  Chances are, someone in your accountability group or 12 Step program has probably already suspected that you might be lying or hiding information.  Just like the boy in the video, we give cues and often later realize that others knew more than we thought.

There is no recovery when there is continuing deception. 

And yet, honesty is often one of the most vulnerable places we can find ourselves in.  When we choose to be honest, particularly about behaviors or desires tied to addiction, we often are admitting flaws or areas of intense, overwhelming shame.  Shame thrives in isolation.  As we continue to hide and run away from others because of fear that they will see us as flawed and broken, we confirm the message to ourselves that we are unlovable. 

As Brené Brown says in her TED talk about vulnerability, we must connect with others in order to move through shame.  And the only way we can connect with others is to be honest with them.  Honesty invites intimacy.  Imagine the life you could be living in freedom from your addiction.  In order to grow in this freedom, it is crucial to be honest with ourselves and with others in the process of recovery.

As we continue to hide and run away from others because of fear that they will see us as flawed and broken, we confirm the message to ourselves that we are unlovable. 

My challenge to you this week is to be honest with someone safe in your life, like a sponsor or accountability partner.  Maybe there’s an area of your addictive behavior that feels too shameful to admit.  Maybe there’s an area you’ve been in denial about for years, and you’re starting to believe that you might be more impacted by it than you realize.  Maybe there’s a dark side to your desire that frightens you.

Open up.  Share that weakness with a trusted confidante.  It will be vulnerable, and it likely will be painful.  But as you open up with others in your life, you’ll be able to experience genuine connection, intimacy, grace, forgiveness, and love.


Do you live in fear of someone finding out your long-held secret of sexual addiction?  Are you terrified of your spouse finding your secret stash?  Are you worried that freedom from the pull of addiction is impossible for you?  At Restored Hope, I believe that you can experience freedom from addiction and that you are not alone.  I offer counseling services at my Ann Arbor therapy office to treat sex and love addiction, particularly for women who are affected by it.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here today to hear more about how I can help. 

A Dangerous Spiral: The Cycle of Addiction in Sex and Love Addicts


Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a familiar pattern of behavior that you promised you would never do again?  Maybe it was a series of toxic relationships where you felt drained of life.  Maybe you found yourself having one drink too many again, with the raging hangover to prove it.  Perhaps you wonder how you managed to polish off another bag of cookies all by yourself.

For the sex and love addict, finding herself in the middle of behaviors she promised she would never return to again is a common occurrence.  There’s often a distinctive difference where her “addict” self takes over and their true, authentic self disappears.  It seems reminiscent of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where she feels clueless of how the change even happens.

We’ve talked about triggers toward addictive behavior in the past.  While triggers can often be the spark that lights the fire, the fire burns brighter and picks up speed as it starts to move through the cycle of addiction introduced by Patrick Carnes in his book, Out of the Shadows

Beginning the Cycle

The cycle starts when events trigger the addict to experience beliefs rooted in shame.  Thoughts like “I am not enough,” “I am too much,” or “There is something wrong with me” can trigger a shame spiral, which leads to painful emotions.  The addict can feel the tension of desire to escape from the pain, creating a void she wants to fill.  These shame statements can be made worse by feeling hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, which are often results of poor self-care.

Stage 1: Preoccupation and Fantasy

As she tries to cope with the shame and beliefs she’s experiencing, the sex and love addict begins to fantasize about her desired sexual behavior.  Sexual behaviors are typically the primary way she has learned to cope with distressing emotions.  Eventually, her obsessive thoughts about sex or relationships can feel intrusive and uncontrollable as they continue to pop into her head uninvited.  Fantasy about past sexual behavior or the potential of future behaviors can flood her brain with dopamine, a neurochemical in the brain that is a driving factor in sexual addiction.

What does preoccupation and fantasy look like for you?

Stage 2: Ritual 

Next, the addict begins to prepare to engage in her sexual behavior.  In this stage, the addict begins to disconnect from the world around her.  Time can pass in a rush, responsibilities can be ignored or forgotten, and she moves in autopilot, energy coursing through her body as a result of the flood of neurochemicals in her brain.  She may prepare to meet sexual partners by dressing up and putting on makeup, driving to a bar, or opening a hookup app on her phone.  If her addictive behavior is based online, even opening a computer can serve as a ritual. The emotional “high” from engaging in these rituals is typically more sexually charged than the sexual behavior itself.

What are your rituals?

Stage 3: Compulsive Sexual Behavior

Stages 1 and 2 set the addict on a crash course toward what is referred to as “acting out behavior,” or the compulsive sexual behavior in which the addict engages.  Once the cycle has started, this behavior can feel inevitable, especially if she isn't aware of the process of ritual and preoccupation.  While to the outsider this stage might look like the goal of the cycle of addiction, in reality it serves as the activity that brings the thrill or high to a halt.  In fact, many addicts look forward to and prolong the ritual stage for as long as possible so they don’t break the high of the behavior.

How would you define this problem behavior in your life?

Stage 4: Despair

When the addict acts out, she then experiences both relief and shame.  The relief comes from masking the distressing emotions she felt that drove the behavior, but it is often quickly followed by shame surrounding the failure to resist acting out.  Sadly, that shame can reinforce the beliefs about herself that initially led the addict to become triggered in the first place.

She might try to numb out or disengage from those feelings through other addictive behaviors, such as alcohol, drugs, food, cleaning, religious activities, shopping, or focusing on children.  But the easiest way to deal with that guilt and shame that arises is to return to the sexual acting out to mask those feelings once again.  The underlying issues that started the addictive cycle in the first place (the shame and negative core beliefs that started the spiral downward) are left unaddressed.

What do you tend to do to make your despair or shame go away?

Jumping Off the Cycle

You cannot break this cycle by just telling yourself to stop.  It is crucially important to examine how your personal version of the cycle looks so that you’re able to recognize when you’re headed toward a downfall.  The cycle can only be addressed when you start at the root: the underlying core beliefs and triggers that led you there in the first place.

Start noticing the events, thoughts, and emotions you have prior to your fantasy or preoccupation starting.  What do you believe about yourself or about the world around you?  When you notice that shame arising, slow down and practice self-care.  Journal or call up a trusted friend who can help you sort through what you’re experiencing.  Look for alternative behaviors to meet the needs that are driving your desire to act out.  Examine those emotions or experiences in a healthy way with your therapist, and you’ll begin to notice the drive to escape is not as powerful as you once thought.


Are you getting tired of constantly finding yourself in the middle of compulsive sexual behaviors, even though you’ve promised yourself time and time again that you’d stop?  Do you feel alone and misunderstood because this is supposed to be a “man’s issue”?  At Restored Hope, I know that women can struggle with sex and love addiction just as easily as men can, and I believe your story deserves to be heard and respected.  At my Ann Arbor therapy office, I offer counseling to help you break free of the addictive patterns that are causing destruction in your life.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here today to hear more about how I can help.

Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong (According to Johann Hari)

What is the first thing that comes into your mind when you hear the word addict?

“Why can’t they just stop?  All addicts are a lost cause.  Rehab doesn’t help.  They don’t take responsibility for themselves.  Anything I do to help them just enables them to keep going back to their addiction.”

Let’s take that a step further – what about a sex and love addict?

“There must be something wrong with them.  They’re a danger to my children.  They’re dirty, perverted, immoral, disgusting, or (fill-in-the-blank with the derogatory term of your choice).”

When we look at these cruel stereotypes, the conclusion made by many is to avoid those who struggle with addiction, or heap shame on them for their behaviors.  Even worse, if you are an addict, you may believe these words to be true of yourself, which can add fuel to the fire of loneliness and shame that feeds the addictive cycle.

Here’s the problem with these beliefs: in many ways, they only cause the individual who struggles with addiction to withdraw and become more isolated from resources that can help.

In the Ted Talk below, Johann Hari speaks about research that turns our view of addiction upside down.  He connects the human need to connect as a motivating factor both in addiction and in recovery and treatment.  He states:

“Human beings have a natural and innate need to bond. When we’re happy and healthy, we bond and connect with each other. But if you can’t do that because you’re traumatized or isolated or beaten down by life, you will bond with something that will give you some sense of relief.”

Sex and love addiction works in much the same way.  Patrick Carnes, a pioneer in the field of sex and love addiction, categorizes addiction as an intimacy disorder.  In effect, sex and love addiction is both caused by and perpetuates experiences of isolation, loneliness, and poor experiences in relationships.  The addiction itself creates more isolation, and shaming words or beliefs about the addict can make freedom or recovery feel impossible.

“A core part of addiction…is not being able to bear to be present in your own life.”

Whether you struggle with addiction yourself, or you know someone else who does, take some time to watch the video below and hear more about how we might approach treating addiction differently.


“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety.  The opposite of addiction is connection.”


My goal at Restored Hope is to a give you a space where you can come at any stage in your struggles with sex and love addiction and find that you are not alone and there is help for you.  I offer individual therapy and group recovery work that can help you on your personal journey.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here today to talk and hear how I can help.