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Sexual Sobriety: The Boundary Plan


As mentioned in last week’s blog, sexual sobriety does NOT entail long-term sexual abstinence. Often, a 30 to 90 day “cooling off” period of complete abstinence from all sexual behavior, including masturbation, is recommended when an addict enters treatment—mainly to help the addict gain perspective on his or her problematic behaviors—but in no way, shape, or form is ongoing abstinence the goal.

In fact, the heavy lifting of sex addiction recovery is not this short period away from sexual behavior; it is instead the gradual (re)introduction of healthy sexuality into the addict’s life.

But if sexual sobriety doesn’t require total sexual abstinence in the way that chemical sobriety requires total abstinence from alcohol and addictive drugs, what does it require?

Generally speaking, to achieve sexual sobriety sex addicts must define—working in conjunction with a knowledgeable sex addiction therapist, a 12-step recovery sponsor, or some other sexual recovery accountability partner—the sexual behaviors that do not compromise or destroy the addict’s values (fidelity, not hurting others, etc.), life circumstances (keeping a job, not getting arrested, etc.), and relationships.

The addict then commits in a written sexual sobriety contract to only engage in sexual behavior that is permitted within the bounds of that predetermined pact. As long as the addict’s sexual behavior remains within his or her concretely defined boundaries, the individual is sexually sober. It is important that these plans be put in writing, and that they clearly define the addict’s bottom line behaviors to be eliminated.

Consider the words of Paul, a 26-year-old Emergency Medical Technician addicted to online pornography:

In my head I knew that looking at porn at work and after my wife went to bed had to change, that the secrecy and the compulsivity were producing problems. But somehow I always ended up convincing myself that I could just look at a little of this and a little of that—and before long I was right back where I started. I would somehow justify why some sexual behavior was OK for me, even though I had previously said it was not. I used to go online “just to check email,” and then I’d think, “It’s OK if I go into a nonsexual chat room to see who’s there.” Before I knew it, I’d be in a sexual chat room, and then I would find myself opening up a porn or prostitution webpage. It wasn’t until I wrote down what I needed to change (contracted) and committed to this with my therapist (created accountability) that I begin to achieve ongoing sexual sobriety.

Making a Sobriety Plan

Sexual sobriety plans are always founded upon the primary personal goals of the person seeking treatment. These goals are then utilized to create a three-part written commitment (boundary plan).

Part One: The Inner Boundary – The Inner Boundary is a bottom line definition of sexual sobriety, inclusive of concrete and specific sexual behaviors (not thoughts or fantasies) that the addict wishes to stop. Placed within this boundary are the most damaging and troublesome sexual acts. If the addict engages in any of these behaviors, he or she has had a slip and will need to restart his or her sobriety clock (while also doing a thorough examination of what lead to the slip). Bottom line behaviors vary from person to person depending on life circumstances (single, married, straight, gay, etc.) Typical Inner Boundary behaviors include:

• Paying for sex

• Calling an ex for sex

• Going online for porn

• Getting sensual massages

• Masturbating to porn

Part Two: The Middle Boundary – The Middle Boundary addresses warning signs and slippery situations that can lead a sex addict back to his or her Inner Boundary behaviors. This boundary lists people, places, and experiences that can trigger the individual to act out sexually.

Again, these items are unique to each individual. Included on this list are things indirectly related to sexual acting out that may nevertheless trigger the desire to act out. Basically, anything that might cause an addict to want to dissociate and therefore reengage in Inner Boundary behaviors belongs in the Middle Boundary. Some typical Middle Boundary items include:

• Overworking

• Going online when alone

• Arguing with a spouse, significant other, boss, etc.

• Skipping therapy or a support group

• Lying

• Poor self-care (lack of sleep, eating poorly, not exercising, etc.)

• Excessive worry over finances

• Traveling alone

• Unstructured time alone

Part Three: The Outer Boundary – The Outer Boundary offers a vision for life improvements and positive things to come. It lists healthy activities, along with activities that lead the individual toward his or her life goals, hopes, and dreams. The items on this list may be immediate and concrete, such as “working on my house” and “spending more time with my kids,” or long-term and less tangible, such as “beginning to understand my career goals” and “having a better relationship with my spouse.”

The list should reflect a healthy combination of work, recovery, and play. If going to a support group three times per week, exercising every day, and seeing a therapist once per week is on the list, then spending time with friends, going to the movies, and engaging in hobbies should also be on the list. These healthy pleasures are the activities used by the recovering person to replace the intensity of sexual acting out. Some typical Outer Boundary activities—again, these vary from person to person—include:

• Spend more time with my kids

• Join a writing group

• Daily exercise

• Get a medical check-up

• Daily journaling and meditation

• Work no more than eight hours a day

Tips on Boundary Plans

1) The reason for a boundary plan is to hold the addict accountable to his or her commitments, particularly in the face of challenging circumstances. Unless the individual has clearly written boundaries in his or her recovery plan, he or she is vulnerable to deciding “in the moment” what choices are best—and unfortunately most such impulsive decisions do not lead toward sexual sobriety.

2) Boundary plans are flexible. Recovering people often spend a month or two with a particular set of boundaries and decide they need adjustment. However, changing a boundary plan is not something the addict should do on his or her own; making changes involves engaging the help of someone who fully understands the addict’s problems and their context. Changes to a boundary plan should never be made just because some special situation presents itself and the individual decides, in the moment, that it is time to make a change. That is not called “changing your plan,” it’s called “acting out.”

3) If a sex addict is looking to justify the continuation of a particular behavior, even though he or she knows deep down it is not right and no longer serves a healthy purpose, he or she can nearly always find someone to sign off on that, to agree that it was “never a big deal anyway.” It is important to remember that the purpose of creating a boundary plan is not to justify or rationalize previous behaviors (or a version thereof); the purpose is to end sexual acting out.

4) Sex addicts in a relationship need to consider how their new boundaries will affect their spouse or significant other. For instance, a period of total abstinence for a sex addict may affect that person’s partner quite significantly.

Recovering from sexual addiction can and usually does foster, over time, a rediscovery of self. Energy formerly spent on compulsive sexual behavior may now go into family involvement and work. Creativity previously used to facilitate acting out can now be funneled into hobbies, self-care, and healthier relationships. If the individual is married or otherwise in a committed relationship, healing can bring a deeper understanding of both the addict’s and his or her partner’s emotional needs and wants, encouraging both people to take more risks toward vulnerability and intimacy.

For individuals not in a committed partnership, there is the chance to discover true self-esteem by making healthy choices regarding commitment, dating, romantic partnering, healthy sexuality, and more. Needless to say, sexual recovery pays big dividends over time—if the addict is willing to do the work.


Robert Weiss PhD, LCSW

Robert Weiss PhD, LCSW is Chief Clinical Officer of Seeking Integrity Treatment Centers. He is an expert in the treatment of adult intimacy disorders and related addictions, most notably sex/porn/relationship addictions along with co-occurring drug/sex addiction. A clinical sexologist and practicing psychotherapist, Dr. Rob frequently serves as a subject matter expert for major media outlets including CNN, HLN, MSNBC, OWN, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and NPR, among others.Dr. Rob is the author of Prodependence: Moving Beyond Codependency, Out of the Doghouse, Sex Addiction 101, and Cruise Control, among other books. He blogs regularly for Psychology Today and Psych Central. His podcast, Sex, Love, & Addiction, is rated as a Top 10 Addiction Podcast for 2019. He also hosts a weekly live no-cost Webinar with Q&A on SexandRelationshipHealing.com. A skilled clinical educator, Dr. Rob routinely provides training to therapists, hospitals, psychiatric organizations, and even the US military. Over the years, he has created and overseen nearly a dozen high-end addiction and mental health treatment facilities across the globe. For more information or to reach Dr. Rob, visit SeekingIntegrity.com. You can also follow him on Twitter (@RobWeissMSW), LinkedIn (Robert Weiss LCSW), and Facebook (Rob Weiss MSW).


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APA Reference
Weiss PhD, R. (2012). Sexual Sobriety: The Boundary Plan. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/sex/2012/08/sexual-sobriety-the-boundary-plan/

 

Last updated: 6 Sep 2012
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