The Therapeutic Use of Abstinence in Relationship and Sexual Addiction Recovery
Try telling a sex addict to stop pursuing and having sex for a month or more and you may quickly find yourself pushed aside for a more enabling (and less directive) therapist, sponsor or friend. Inform a profoundly love addicted (attachment disordered or trauma survivor) woman – the one who lives to seduce – that she can’t wear provocative clothing or makeup for at least 2-3 weeks and you will quickly learn about her level of dedication to recovery and change.
Such is the initial challenge of cognitive-behavioral treatment with sex and love addicts. In truth, a period of abstinence from sexual and romantic behavior, combined with contracted and prescribed boundaries around romance/seduction/dress, can be highly useful clinical tools toward expanding a sex and love addict’s sobriety skill set. This is especially true when working with individuals who’ve spent their whole lives seeing themselves and others as objects.
Why Abstain from Sex and Romance?
Active sex and relationship addicts base their adult self-worth on whether or not they are desirable and typically think, “I have value if I can get x, y or z to desire me sexually.” As such, they objectify themselves and others completely, often viewing their lives and relationships through a lens of conquest, seduction and intensity. This can sadly make the most mundane activities, like finding oneself in an elevator with an attractive stranger or walking past a good-looking person in the grocery aisle, a sexually charged opportunity to pursue people as objects.
But it is not really sex that the sex and love addict truly seeks through these behaviors. What they seek is self-esteem, self-regulation and connection. As a result, without a concrete behavioral intervention, clients with these issues – no matter how intelligent or motivated – are not able to see their active contribution to their own adult emotional challenges.
Sexual abstinence can be defined as refraining from genital stimulation with self or others. In the early stages of sex addiction recovery, a therapist may recommend to a client that they avoid all forms of sexual stimulation, including masturbation with or without pornography, for 30 to 90 days.
And while it is true that some sex and relationship addicts may already cycle between periods of intense sexual activity and periods of avoiding sex, the concept of therapeutic abstinence is different than that. A prescribed period of sexual and romantic abstinence in early treatment is not a shame-driven, emotional reaction to past behavior but rather a strategic first step toward the kind of sexual and relational healing that drives addicts to seek help in the first place. For the romance and love addict, related forms of abstinence may have to do with taking periods of not dating or not being seductive.
What Can Be Gained?
To someone in early sex and relationship recovery, abstinence may feel more like a punishment than a therapeutic intervention, but a brief period of being non-romantic, non-seductive and non-sexual serves a number of important purposes:
1) To help feel what it is like to be a person and not an object.
2) To help learn to tolerate and not act upon the impulse to pursue.
3) To actually get to know oneself and others as complex human beings with physical, emotional and spiritual needs and to form authentic friendships without secret sexual hopes or intentions.
4) An experience of self and life free from a primary focus on sex, love or romance, often for the first time in their adult lives.
5) An opportunity to replace misdirected coping skills, such as compulsive masturbation, with other self-soothing methods and coping skills.
6) To practice impulse control; for example, choosing not to fantasize about or approach the attractive guy or girl or wear seductive clothes; to avoid chatting up that charming stranger or using the inappropriate joke; or not making it a goal to get that phone number or business card.
7) A way for committed couples to (re)introduce sensuality and connection, without genital sex or orgasm being a goal. This oft-used sex therapy technique can help some spouses feel safer and improve long-term intimacy.
As surprising as it may be to the person who doesn’t struggle with these issues, many of the experiences described above are entirely new to people who struggle with sex, romance and relationship addictions, those accustomed to sexual fantasies, rituals and activities monopolizing their lives.
What Abstinence Is Not
Abstinence is not a long-term intervention. In the same way that people with eating disorders must integrate healthy eating habits into their lives, the goal of sex addiction treatment isn’t long-term sexual abstinence, but rather learning to engage in safe, intimate expressions that mirror their personal values and beliefs. Taking a period of sexual and romantic abstinence for the sex and love addict offers an opportunity to interrupt patterns of compulsive sexual and seductive romantic behavior, while learning about the self, but is not meant as a long-term denial of basic human needs.
Much like drug detox is the first step in recovery from substance abuse, sexual abstinence is not a cure for love and sex addiction but rather a useful step on the road to longer-term sobriety. In fact, the heavy lifting in sex and love addition recovery is not the short-term elimination of sexual behavior, but rather learning, over time, to (re)introduce sex in a healthy manner. Active addicts often live in extremes of all-or-nothing, bad and good, right and wrong, while the really hard part can be teaching them how to live with the day-to-day life that lies in the middle.