Adapted from the Awaken Course (Strength module lesson 4)
Sex is one of the most powerful forces on the planet. God created it this way. By His design, sex makes two people into one flesh, creates new life, communicates self-giving love, brings exhilarating pleasure, burns into one’s brain the image of another, and causes physical and emotional calm.
But like all things powerful, in the wrong hands, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, in the wrong way, sex can cause incredible harm. One example of this harm is addiction. Sexual addiction cycle. You may or may not resonate with feeling “addicted” to sexual thoughts and behaviors, but for our purposes, we understand simply that all sin is addictive—when we practice it, we lose strength to it physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.
The apostle Paul puts it this way:
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey…?(Romans 6:16a ESV)
In this lesson, we will outline a model of what is known as the addiction cycle, describing each of its six stages in detail. As you read, reflect upon your own experience. Some of this will fit with your experience immediately. Some of it may not. Ask Jesus to reveal to you what each stage of the cycle may look like for you.
At the end of this post, I’ll help you begin mapping your own cycle, identifying what happens for you in each stage. By doing this, you will become more able to recognize when you are in the cycle and then take appropriate measures to get out of the cycle, no matter what stage you find yourself in.
The Cycle of Addiction
The Sexual Addiction Cycle below is adapted from Dr. Patrick Carnes’ work in his seminal book Out of the Shadows. In our model, it is made up of 6 different stages:
- Challenging Life Event
- Sexual Act
Moving through the stages of the cycle may happen in a few minutes or over the course of many months (as when someone plans to meet their affair partner on an upcoming business trip). Over time, with help and practice, you can become more adept at knowing your cycle and where you are in it at any given time. As you grow in this self-awareness, you will also learn skills to slow the cycle down so you can make better choices. I will discuss each stage separately, but keep in mind that stages can overlap with others, as you will see.
Look at the diagram below, beginning at the top and moving clockwise. The Sexual Addiction Cycle.
CHALLENGING LIFE EVENT ➡
Notice first that the dots represent the regular flow from one stage to the next in the addiction process, but they do not represent a predetermined response. In other words, over the years, you have trained yourself to move from one stage to the next in this process, but the cycle can be interrupted. You can learn to point your mind in other directions outside of the cycle.
Let’s take a closer look at each stage:
1. Challenging Life Event – The challenging life event is any event that disrupts your sense of peace or equilibrium, even subtly, throughout your day. Importantly, notice that the Challenging Life Event is outside the actual Addiction Cycle, and can either lead into it, or not. Every day, everyone experiences disruptive events. Depending on your personality, experience, history, past wounds, past trauma, and other circumstances, an event that may feel very disruptive or difficult for you may go unnoticed by others around you, and vice versa. Challenging Life Events are not inherently sinful or even negative, but for those who have developed a pattern of habitual unwanted sexual behavior, this event can become the cycle’s Trigger.
2. Trigger – The Trigger is any kind of emotional pain or discomfort that resonates with an unhealed wound. As its name suggests, this is what starts or “triggers” the cycle to start. Begin paying attention to what you are feeling when temptation hits and that will help you discover what your triggers are.
Men and women who struggle with habitual sexual sin have not learned to deal with emotions in healthy, holy ways. For some, identifying what they’re feeling comes more easily in hindsight, and therefore growth looks like being able to recognize feelings in the moment. For some, recognizing what they’re feeling at any point will be a significant step of progress. And still for others, even acknowledging they feel pain at all will be a breakthrough.
The help of others who are more practiced at processing emotions will be vital here. Lean into your allies, group, a mentor or spiritual coach, and perhaps your spouse. (However, we do not recommend spouses be accountability partners.)
Many use the acronym HALTS as a starting point. When temptation began stirring, were you feeling Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, and/or Stressed? In our Awaken program, we spend considerable time discussing the role of fear and shame. These, too, are very common and significant triggers. Take a look at what happened in the hours or days preceding the sexual temptation. Consider what was coming up afterward. Pay attention to what you feel as you consider the events of your day. Even if you can’t name what you feel, notice any change in your emotions.
3. Preoccupation – The Preoccupation stage has two components, but overall it is characterized by a shift in focus: your thoughts disengage from your regular life and become fixated on acting out. The first component of the Preoccupation stage is fixation: obsessively thinking about sexually stimulating thoughts. This may take the form of planning how you’re going to act out, ruminating on past times of acting out, even battling back and forth mentally about whether you’re going to act out or not (“I will, I won’t, I will, I won’t . . .”).
The second component of this stage is a slew of rationalizations that combat any reservations or resistance that arise to continuing in the cycle. Here are some common examples of rationalizations:
- I’m not going to act out, I’m just fantasizing a little bit.
- I can handle this temptation.
- This will be the last time.
- I won’t take this too far.
- I deserve this.
- I can’t help myself, after all, I’m addicted.
- It’s not my fault.
- This won’t really hurt anybody.
- God can’t really expect me to say no to this.
- Lots of people do this.
- It’s too late to reach out for help right now (or too early, embarrassing, ineffective, effective, unnecessary, risky, boring, expensive, etc.)
Rationalizations are such a regular and powerfully destructive component of our habitual sin that we could make rationalizations its own stage.
Overall, during the preoccupation stage, you dissociate from yourself, your friends and loved ones, God, and the world around you. In essence, you disengage from reality because it is too painful or difficult. Your heart rate may have already begun to increase and you may have even begun to experience some sexual pleasure. All of this, and you may not have even admitted to yourself that you are moving toward the old familiar sexual behaviors. Likewise, those around you may have little idea that anything is wrong.
4. Ritual – Like the Preoccupation stage, others may not suspect anything is off-kilter during the Ritual stage. At first, you yourself may be completely unaware that you are still in the cycle; thinking that perhaps the Preoccupation stage was a battle with temptation that you won. Like the Preoccupation stage, the Ritual stage consists of two components—the Hunt and Recruitment.
The Hunt: This is your search for increasing temptation and titillation. The hunt begins in seemingly innocent ways, moves to somewhat tempting situations and questionable behavior, and then arrives at overtly tempting situations and risky behavior. For example:
- Staying late at work ➔ taking a drive ➔ driving through a certain part of town ➔ searching for a specific store, club, type of person, etc.
- Watching a show ➔ scrolling through shows ➔ scrolling through more risqué shows ➔ looking for pornography.
- Stopping at the grocery store ➔ perusing the magazine aisle ➔ looking through swimsuit magazines, etc.
- Reading a news article online ➔ surfing news stories ➔ surfing other items ➔ searching for sexually explicit images, etc.
The examples could be endless, but notice that in each case the hunt seems to begin innocuously and becomes increasingly risky until it is obvious you are engaging in sin. The pattern actually serves two purposes for the addiction: First, it allows you to feel some sense of control even though you are actually out of control and becoming overpowered. Second, the hunt lowers your inhibitions, giving you a way to drop your defenses and resistance, so eventually, you feel you “can’t help yourself.” In all, the hunt lowers the painful awareness that you are once again choosing that which you swore you’d never do again.
Recruitment: Recruitment is the culmination of the hunt. It’s the purchase or the proposition. It’s the purchase of pornography, landing on the adult sites, propositioning of the sex partner, and securing her or his involvement. The recruitment situates you to engage in the next stage of the cycle, the sexual activity.
Proverbs 7:6-27 is a good example of someone “on the hunt.” The naïve youth described at first appears to be doing nothing wrong, but it becomes increasingly clear he is trying to act out sexually as he puts himself in ever more tempting situations. The verse “suddenly” in verse 22 is meant to be sarcastic. The youth may feel it happened suddenly, but in truth, he’s been on the hunt all day long and into the night.
5. Sexual Activity – The ritual leads into the fifth stage of the cycle, the sexual act, which is any kind of sexually compulsive behavior: whether looking at pornography, sex (whether sexual intercourse or something else) with anyone other than your spouse, fantasizing and masturbating, etc.
It’s worthwhile to note here that although the sexual act may involve another person, the addiction is not an addiction to a person. As Patrick Carnes puts it in Out of the Shadows, the addiction is to “an event or process, usually ending in orgasm.” Sexual addiction may be fueled by deep desires for love, affirmation, connection, comfort, or intimacy (among others), but the sexually addicted person is running from real relationships rather than running to them.
Even when another person is involved with whom the person has a long-term relationship, they keep a distance: they remain emotionally detached, refuse to marry, call a relationship off only to start it up again later. They believe the “real” relationships are all long-distance, they’re with someone other than one’s spouse, etc. They exchange real relationships with God and other people for false intimacy. They do so because real relationships come with responsibility and vulnerability, but a relationship with an event or process does not—or at least it does not seem to. It is a false relationship, or as Harry Schaumburg refers to it, it is a “false intimacy.” Romans 1:23 describes it this way: “and they exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible mankind, of birds, four-footed animals, and crawling creatures.” (NASB)
Usually, the sexual act ends in orgasm, with the coveted release of a cocktail of neurochemicals in the brain and body, providing a sense of pleasure, release, peace, and vitality, all at once. This is the culmination of the drug of sexual addiction.
6. Despair – The despair stage follows soon after the sexual act, usually within a few minutes or a few days. After orgasm, the ‘drug’ has had its full effect, and its fleeting and hollow worth is exposed once more. The despair stage is when reality sets back in, when that which has been posing as true intimacy, real life, or eternal pleasure disappears and you are left with the truth of what you have done. Again.
The despair stage includes any or all of the following:
- Blame – Seeking a scapegoat, trying to shirk responsibility for your actions.
- Shame – A deep sense of being a “bad, unworthy person”—uniquely different, dirty, deficient, or defective.
- Beating yourself up – Negative self-talk (e.g. “I’m so stupid!” “What is wrong with me!?”), withholding good things, inflicting punishment in one form or another.
- Hopelessness – That sense that your life will never get better, and that there is nothing anyone can do about it.
- Promises/Vows – Commitments and re-commitments to do better or to protect yourself (e.g. “I’m never going to do this again,” or “I will take this to my grave.”).
- Bargaining – Trying to make a deal with God or others to avoid the pain of what you’ve just done (e.g. “Lord, if you keep me from being caught just this one last time, I promise I’ll quit.”).
- Justification – Providing rationalizations for your behaviors (e.g. “I’ve been under so much stress, I deserved that,” or “I couldn’t help myself.”).
It may sound like the despair stage marks a break from the rest of the cycle, but it is actually a mainstay of the entire thing. The shame and other painful emotions that arise here become the triggers that launch the entire process all over again, becoming like a dog chasing its tail. This is why the diagram above shows dots moving from despair back to the trigger. Now the out-of-control behavior becomes a challenging life event in its own right, and the cycle is set to repeat itself again and again and again.
Cycle within a Cycle
Deep down (perhaps even subconsciously, over time), any of the stages of the cycle come to produce emotional pain (shame, fear, helplessness, self-loathing, etc.). This is because deep down every man and woman knows what they are doing and where they are heading. As much as they would like to deny it to themself, they know. This pain serves as an additional Trigger, driving a person to press forward to relieve even the pain of what they are doing.
It is truly crazy-making—going to the poison to relieve the consequences of the poison—but it characterizes sexual addiction and other addictions as well. (We address this in the Heart Module, but it is worth mentioning here that returning to the “poison” repeatedly like this may also reveal a subconscious attempt to reinforce shame in one’s life.)
Equally as insidious is that conscious or unconscious associations are made that can then serve as a trigger for the cycle to begin again. Driving by a store where you were on the “hunt,” turning on a computer with internet access, finding yourself home without your spouse or children, etc., can all elicit temptation, serving as a new trigger for a new cycle to begin.
Is There a Way Out?
As you will discover, the further you go into the cycle, the more difficult it is to escape. Our best hope is to avoid entering the cycle at all. This will require your long-term commitment to retrain your body, heart, mind, and spirit to respond differently to life’s challenges and pain.
Again, retraining like this is usually a long process. If you do the work, keep showing up for what God has for you, and remain committed to speaking the truth, you will see progress. And every bit of progress makes the journey that much easier.
Along the way, you will be uncovering parts of your life that have long gone unexamined and untended. Things may look worse before they seem to get better. Stay the course. Trust those who have gone before you. And trust God. Keep showing up for what He has for you. He is faithful and He will continue the good work He began in you until God’s work in you is complete (Philippians 1:6).
Consider taking the following steps when you face temptation:
- Call a friend who knows your struggle.
- Repeat the name of Jesus again and again – Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus . .
- If you’re seated, get up and go for a walk.
- Take hold of a cross or crucifix as a way to let your body cry out and cling to Jesus.
- Begin praying for the person/people you’re tempted to lust after.
- Pray for other people you know who are struggling with sexual integrity.
- Go over helpful Scripture passages or memory verses.
Remember, too, that the goal here is not self-sufficiency. It is cultivating a deeper relationship with God, yourself, and others. You were made for relationships, and relationships don’t just run themselves. Keep bringing yourself back into the reality of real relationships with God, yourself, and others.
In closing, one more practical note: Is there a way out? Yes, emphatically yes! It is true that escape is easier earlier in the cycle than it is later, so practice identifying your common triggers and becoming aware of what the preoccupation and ritual stages usually look like. But know that Jesus is available to you always, no matter what stage of the cycle you are in. So do not think of this cycle as an inevitable force but rather a helpful way to explain what has been happening to you so you can be more equipped to deal with it in the short and long term.
Perhaps it would be helpful to consider this again: Sin is addictive, and Christ has conquered sin in His body. He is not limited or less powerful at any point of this cycle. As the Scripture declares, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). There is no stage of the cycle—no emotion, no trigger, no temptation, no routine, and no sin—where Christ cannot reach you. Cry out to Him wherever you are and no matter how you feel. As author Andrew Comiskey has said, “We must blaze a trail to the cross until it is a well-worn trail in our lives.”
Brothers and sisters, Jesus is available to you. He wants to break the power of sexual sin in your life more than you do. He is willing. Dare to open yourself to Him.