As discussed in my previous posting to this site and in my recently published book, Always Turned On: Sex Addiction in the Digital Age, coauthored with Dr. Jennifer Schneider, the definition of cybersex sobriety and the content of cybersex boundary plans both vary according to the needs and life circumstances of the addict in question. That said, whatever the definition of sobriety and whatever the boundaries in a particular addict’s plan, the purpose is to hold the addict accountable to his or her commitments – particularly when faced with challenging life circumstances, emotional pain and other powerful triggers.
When first crafted, cybersex boundary plans typically look airtight. However, they usually are not. And even when they are, many cybersex addicts find ways to manipulate and work around their plans. Knowing this, it is wise to keep the following tips in mind when constructing and implementing a cybersex boundary plan.
- Tip Number One: Don’t Skip the Topic of Masturbation
One potentially problematic gray area for many recovering cybersex addicts is masturbation. Into what boundary does this fall? For cybersex addicts who compulsively masturbate to porn or other digital sexual stimulation, the decision is clear – masturbation is an integral part of the addiction and an inner boundary (prohibited) activity. For other cybersex addicts, the decision may be less obvious. Does masturbation consistently fuel the “high” of cybersex addiction, or is it separate? Depending on the answer, masturbation might be a middle boundary (slippery but still sober) or even an outer boundary (healthy) activity. Outer boundary? Healthy? Yes, for some. In short, non-compulsive masturbation that is not tied to cybersex or fantasies about cybersex may actually aid the healing process, encouraging appropriate sexual intimacy and contributing to an overall sense of wellbeing. In such cases, the activity may fall into the outer boundary rather than the middle or inner.Given the confusion about masturbation and where to place it within one’s cybersex sobriety plan, it is imperative that recovering addicts discuss the issue with their therapist and/or their 12-sponsor, erring on the side of caution when the answer is not obvious.
- Tip Number Two: Be Clear
Cybersex boundary plans are intended to define sobriety and to provide a plan for a healthier, happier life. These plans are written and signed as contracts as a way to hold cybersex addicts accountable to their commitments. When cybersex addicts lack clearly written boundaries, they are vulnerable to deciding in the heat of the moment that certain activities are OK, just for now, even if they’ve been wildly problematic in the past. Remember, impulsive sexual decisions made without clear guidelines are what dragged the addict down in the first place. As such, it’s best to not leave wiggle room of any sort.
- Tip Number Three: Be Flexible
Cybersex boundary plans are not etched in stone. In fact, recovering cybersex addicts often spend a few months (or even a few years) with a particular set of boundaries and then realize that their plan needs adjustment. In fact, recent developments in digital technology have forced many long-sober cybersex addicts to revise their boundary plans – particularly with regard to social media websites/apps, dating websites/apps, and hookup apps. That said, changing a cybersex boundary plan is never something an addict should do on his or her own. Any changes that are made should first involve significant input from the addict’s therapist and/or 12-step sponsor. In other words, changes to boundary plans are not made just because some unusual circumstance pops up and the addict decides to make a change. That type of behavior is not called changing the plan, it’s called acting out.
- Tip Number Four: Be Honest
Creating an effective cybersex boundary plan requires brutal honesty on the part of not just the addict, but his or her advisors. Let’s face it, if a cybersex addict is hoping to justify the continuation of a particular problem behavior, even though he or she knows that it is not healthy, he or she can nearly always find someone to sign off on that (or at least to agree that it’s not a big deal). As such, it is important for both cybersex addicts and their advisors to remember that the purpose of creating a cybersex boundary plan is not to rationalize or justify troublesome behaviors (or even watered down versions thereof), the purpose is to end the incomprehensible demoralization wrought by sexual acting out.
- Tip Number Five: Consider Others
Cybersex addicts who develop their boundary plans while they are single sometimes find that they need to revise their plans if and/or when they enter into an intimate relationship. Similarly, cybersex addicts in long-term relationships should always consider how their new boundaries might affect their significant other. Explaining to the spouse or partner the reasons for these limitations will usually soften their impact. Moreover, cybersex addicts in relationships should never make changes to their boundary plan without first getting input from their partner.
- Tip Number Six: Expect Withdrawal
It is common knowledge that alcoholics and drug addicts, when they suddenly go cold turkey, sometimes experience withdrawal – delirium tremens, chills, fevers, insomnia, night sweats, headaches, nausea, diarrhea, tachycardia (elevated heart rate), hypertension, depression, agitation, anxiety, hallucinations, irritability and the like. But what about cybersex addiction? Do cybersex addicts also get the DTs and hallucinate? Typically they don’t. This does not, however, mean that a sudden stoppage of addictive sexual fantasy and activity does not produce withdrawal. In fact, it nearly always does to some degree, usually in one or more of the following forms: irritability, agitation, depression, a strong desire to switch to another addiction, or a powerful craving for emotional/physical connection. Any and all of these responses are perfectly normal and to be expected. After all, cybersex addicts have lost their primary coping mechanism, and they naturally will feel a desire to grieve and/or replace it.
- Tip Number Seven: Expect an Emotional Roller Coaster
In the early days, weeks and months of cybersex sobriety, even the smallest annoyance can feel like a major issue. Cybersex addicts, suddenly deprived of their go-to coping mechanism, have a tendency to overreact and blow up. They get angry with themselves and others, they cry, they’re afraid, they’re lonely, etc. As such, cybersex addicts in early recovery are not always fun to be around. This is a perfectly normal form of cybersex withdrawal.
- Tip Number Eight: Embrace the Pink Cloud, But Know That It’s Temporary
Some cybersex addicts temporarily experience the opposite of withdrawal – usually referred to as either “the honeymoon” or “the pink cloud.” These lucky individuals find that when they embark on the path of healing, they suddenly lose all desire to act out sexually. They are fascinated by the insight they are developing, and thrilled to have finally found a solution to their deepest problem. This phase of early recovery is great while it lasts. However, cybersex addicts who experience the pink cloud should be aware that their desire to sexually act out will return, and it may be stronger than ever when it does. If this eventuality is not anticipated and prepared for, it is easy to either relapse or to think that something has gone wrong in the healing process. In reality, there is no need for relapse, and nothing is amiss with recovery. Instead, this is a normal part of the process and the addict is now simply experiencing a delayed form of withdrawal.
Even with the above tips in mind, creating and maintaining effective cybersex boundary plans can be a lot of work. That said, doing so is well worth the effort – leading to a healthier, happier and more productive life. Energy formerly spent on compulsive cybersexual behavior can 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 cybersex addict is married or in an otherwise committed long-term relationship, sexual recovery can bring a deeper understanding of not only the addict’s but his or her partner’s wants and needs, encouraging both individuals to take more risks toward vulnerability and intimacy. If the addict is not in a committed partnership, he or she has the chance to build self-esteem by making healthy choices when it comes to dating, romantic partnering, healthy sexuality, lasting commitment and more. Needless to say, healing from cybersex addiction pays big dividends over time, so long as the addict willing to be honest and to do the work of recovery.