Expanding Your Thinking About Boundaries

Posted on September 30, 2015


A large part of my practice is treating sexual addiction.  No matter what the addiction, an important part of recovery is learning to live with and embrace boundaries.  When active in their addiction, addicts hate boundaries.  Boundaries are your jailer.  They keep you from doing what you most want to do.  A significant milestone in recover is when boundaries become instead your protector and your friend.

When we are developing a sobriety plan for addicts, we focus on three lines of defense.  The first is the abstinence list.  This is the list of behaviors engaging in which would constitute relapse.  These are the acting out behaviors you are trying to get under control.  Obviously, if you could have just made a list of things you were not going to do anymore and stuck to it, you would have already done that and this would not be an addiction.  So you need some additional defense around you.

The next line of defense is the boundaries list.  The items on this list serve three functions.  First, they help keep you out of your abstinence list.  Second, they act as an alarm system for you.  If you are starting to bump up against your boundaries, that should alert you that there is something going on with you that requires your attention.  You need to get some additional support.  Third, if your partner knows that these boundaries are in place, it can help with your partner’s healing.

The third line of defense is the healthy life plan.  This looks at the way you take care of and nurture yourself so that you are not bumping up against your boundaries.  The healthy life plan is also a process for helping your brain recover the ability to experience pleasure from normal healthy pleasurable experiences.  If you have been active in your addiction, you have been bombarding your brain with superstimuli which have reduced your ability to experience pleasure from normal experiences.  The good news is that there is neuroplasticity to our brains such that once you stop the superstimuli, your brain can start to recover.

In this post, I primarily want to talk about boundaries.  For sex addicts, it is typical to have items on your boundaries list such as internet filters to prevent access to pornography, no contact with past affair partners, accountability partners, support groups, and therapy.  It could also include not having meals alone with a member of the opposite sex who is not your partner or not going to areas of town where you have acted out with prostitutes.  The idea here is that this is your line of protection.  It is much easier to resist temptation when your hand is not in the cookie jar.

For our purposes here, I would like to expand our definition of boundaries to include those behaviors that indicate that the addict is driving the bus.  If you are a married addict, there are three parties to the marriage.  There are you, your partner, and your addict.  Your addict is that part of you that pursues the arousal, numbing out, or fantasy of your acting out.  Your addict hates boundaries and tends toward secrecy.  So here are some indications that your addict is trying to take the wheel from you (and consequently, some things that might belong on your boundaries list).

Isolation.  Addiction is, among other things, an intimacy disorder.  When you were active in your addiction, your tendency probably was to isolate from your partner and avoid any real intimacy.  If you are in recovery and you find yourself starting to isolate.  That should be setting off alarms for you.  Recovery was never about just achieving sobriety from acting out, but about intimacy, relationship, and community.  Even if you have not been tempted to act out again, if you find yourself starting to isolate, your addict is trying to take control again.  The door is being opened for the possibility of relapse.  To do recovery well, you need to know your triggers.  If isolation is part of your pattern, you will want to reach out for support when you find yourself starting to isolate.

Withholding information, hiding, secrecy.  Your addict lies.  You cannot trust him or her to tell you or anyone else the truth.  Usually when I am working with a sex addict, we make lying an abstinence list item.  Often the lying is more traumatizing to your partner than even your sexual acting out was.  If you lie about even something insignificant, your partner is going to be traumatized all over again.  But addicts are also good at rationalization.  As such, withholding information, hiding, or secrecy belong on the boundaries list.  If you start to find yourself hiding things from your partner (even if it has nothing to do with your sexual acting out), your addict is trying to get control again.  Again, the answer is to be able to recognize this and reach out for support.

Self-focused hedonism.  I am not asserting that it is wrong to be pleasure seeking.  Seeking pleasure and avoiding pain is a normal part of the human experience (even for the whole animal kingdom), and in many ways is adaptive.  Our life expectancy would be substantially less if we did not seek to avoid pain.  What we are talking about here is a game of “whack a mole” where you knock down the addiction in one area of your life only to have it pop up somewhere else.  If you find yourself having good sobriety from your sexual acting out but finding other ways to indulge a self-focused pursuit of pleasure, you are still in your addiction.  That should be a sign to you that you need to pay attention and increase your support.

Addictive thinking (rationalization, minimization, uniqueness, blaming, crazy making, etc.).  Like being a dry drunk, one can also be a sober sex addict.  One of the markers of good recovery is moving from addictive thinking to recovery thinking.  Addictive thinking involves rationalization (making excuses for your behavior), minimization (understating the impact of your behavior), uniqueness (“you would do it to if you had my situation, job, partner, etc.”), blaming (“it is your fault I did it.  If you didn’t do x, I wouldn’t do y.”), crazy making (denying your partner’s reality).  All of these are part of addictive thinking.  Recovery thinking involves disclosure, transparency, accountability, increasing support as needed, empathy, attunement, and atonement.

This list can go on and on and might include unilateral decision making, preoccupation, compulsive self-sufficiency, giving to get, and outsourcing your emotional regulation.  We could go into each of those, but this would be a longer post than you would be likely to read.

I have made several references to increasing your support.  Recovering from addiction requires a support system.  The greater the strength of the compulsion, the more support one needs.  Some aspects that may be part of recovery are a twelve step group, individual therapy, therapy group, intensive outpatient program, or inpatient program.  Addiction will destroy your life so you need to do what you need to do to conquer it.

Twelve step groups can be effective and require the least money and commitment from you.  There are also many of them to be found.  If you are struggling to get good sobriety going, you might try “90 in 90” (i.e. attending 90 group meetings in 90 days).  Individual therapy can be a powerful agent for change.  Resolving some of the issues and trauma that have driven the addiction can help move from just establishing sobriety to getting real healing.  Therapy groups have the combined benefits of the group process with the therapist’s guidance.  These groups tend to be small and require consistent attendance.  Consequently, there develops a level of intimacy among the participants that helps in shame reduction.  Remember that recovery was never just about sobriety, but about community and relationship.

If you need a higher level of care, the next step up is an intensive outpatient program.  These typically involve going to a location for two weeks where you spend full days in therapy and group working through the issues that drive the addiction.  Usually, you will be staying at a nearby hotel.  There may also be separate support for your partner.  Finally, there is inpatient where you go for a month or six weeks and stay at the facility receiving therapy.

The important thing is to obtain a level of care that will bring about real recovery.  The last couple of options listed here are pricey, but if addiction is ruining your life, the cost would ultimately be greater if you don’t deal with it.  If you want  some help figuring out the level of care you need, you can find a certified sexual addiction therapist in your area from the Iitap website (www.iitap.com ).

Posted in: Sexual Addiction