stages of sex addiction seeking integrity

Stages of Sex Addiction

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“I want to stop, but… it’s like I can’t help myself.”

Compulsive sexual behavior disorder (CSBD), often referred to as sex addiction, can feel overwhelming. For many, it feels like the addiction is taking over their lives. They can feel depressed and trapped, like there’s no way to stop the urges. Sexual fantasy and behaviors turn into habits, habits become ingrained, and those managing addiction find themselves stuck in a never-ending loop.

At Seeking Integrity, we understand this brutal cycle. That’s why our Master’s and PhD-level clinicians specialize in sex addiction, and why we make it our mission to help people break free. 

Research suggests that sexual addiction is a worldwide issue, and nearly 5% of the population may be struggling with it today. The path to recovery begins with education. Today, we’re going to talk about how sex addiction works, and how you can help your loved ones heal and find connection with you again.

The Sex Addiction Cycle

“Sex addicts typically require more of the same behavior to reach the same escapist high. This converts the cycle from a repetitive loop into a downward spiral leading to relationship, health, legal, and all sorts of other consequences.” – Dr. Robert Weiss

Like any behavioral disorder, sex addiction is a complex process. There’s no simple cause, no one reason it happens. Instead, it follows a multi-faceted cycle, with distinct stages that lead to and interact with one another.

The following model, frequently used to describe the sex addiction cycle, can help us better understand the catalysts that set the addiction in motion. Remember – a model will always simplify what it is helping to describe. Its purpose is to provide insight into the situation, not completely define it.

Triggers

In the context of sexual addiction, a “trigger” is at the beginning of any compulsion. Broadly speaking, a trigger is anything that brings about a desire to escape through sexual thoughts, feelings, and actions. 

Triggers can be external: things like specific sounds, imagery, or smells. External triggers are often environmental, such as places where acting out behaviors have occurred before. However, they can also be interpersonal – being around those involved in previous sexual activities or fantasies can be potent triggers.

Triggers also can be internal: thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Most commonly, these are found in intense negative emotions, such as loneliness, depression, or anger. Shame, guilt, and despair can also act as powerful triggers for sexual compulsion. 

Importantly, a trigger does not necessarily have to be negative – even positive life events can be triggers! Many people will celebrate a promotion at work or something similar with sexual acting out. Unfortunately, for those living with sex addiction, this can quickly spiral out of control.

Recognizing potential triggers is the first step toward understanding the addiction cycle, better equipping yourself to help your loved one on their path to recovery.

Fantasy and Preoccupation

After a trigger occurs, sex addicts tend to escape into sexual fantasy. In this stage, they will engage in vivid, detailed sexual fantasy. This causes powerful feelings of arousal and releases endorphins, most notably dopamine and adrenaline. 

As the positive feelings grow, individuals with sexual compulsive disorders can find themselves fantasizing more and more deeply. This is the preoccupation phase. In this phase, sexual thoughts become emotionally distracting, intrusive, and overwhelming. Over time, sexual fantasies can become an obsession, with fantasies becoming a go-to coping mechanism, occupying more and more of their time and coloring their interactions with other people.

Ritualization

The next stage of the addiction cycle is ritualization. With ritualization, the individual slowly begins mixing reality with fantasy. They may download explicit porn, watching it to boost their fantasies. They might drive to a local bar to look for potential partners. They might download dating apps or wear specific outfits. 

Critically, these behaviors move them closer and closer to acting out their fantasy. This increases feelings of arousal even further, and is referred to by some as “the trance” or “the bubble”. When your partner escapes into the bubble, they can become desensitized to any danger. 

Here, sex addicts get the high that they are seeking – not in the act of sex itself. Large amounts of dopamine and adrenaline are released as they fall into the bubble, providing feelings of escapist ecstasy. In many cases, they will try to keep this stage going for as long as possible, pursuing their high for hours or days before moving on to action.

Acting Out

When most people think of sex addiction, acting it out is what they have in mind. However, it’s important to remember that this is only one part of a complex process. Moreover, acting out and the orgasm that it typically entails bring the high of sex addiction to a screeching halt. The high of sex addiction begins far earlier, culminating in the ritualization stage.

Avoidance

After acting out, the individual may begin to experience intensely negative emotions. After orgasm, the emotional escape experienced in the fantasy, ritual, and acting out stages of the cycle are either immediately or eventually replaced with feelings of shame and regret. Importantly, not all those who live with sex addiction engage in this phase.

The avoidance phase is where a sex addict attempts to hide from these feelings. They might suddenly work long and intense hours, binge on video games and other entertainment, or rely on alcohol and drugs to stay numb. 

Often, various forms of denial are used during this phase. Someone will tell themselves, “I was just lonely,” or, “It’s not a big deal. All I did was watch porn for a bit. That doesn’t really count as cheating.” At the end of the day, this is their way of avoiding the next and most unpleasant stage of the cycle.

Despair

In this stage, the avoidance mechanisms have broken down. Typically, profound shame, guilt, and hopelessness will set in. Moreover, whatever feelings the addict was trying to escape from in the first place (loneliness, rejection, etc.) are likely to resurface. Sometimes, the individual will recognize that they are in an addictive cycle, and they may decide to reach out for help. 

Other emotions common in this stage of the cycle include anxiety, depression, regret, guilt, and shame. 

Unfortunately, this stage of the cycle looks a lot like the trigger stage of the cycle, which sets the addictive process in motion yet again. The  emotions morph into  triggers, renewing the desire for emotional escape. In this way, the cycle of addiction can spin indefinitely. 

Getting Help for Sex Addiction

It feels unfair. You’re the one who’s hurt, not them. It feels unjust to discuss your loved one’s “trauma” from these actions, unfair to talk about their own “guilt and shame.” Yet it’s important to recognize that they are living with addiction. In many cases, your loved one wants to get better, but doesn’t know where to begin. 

The good news for sex addicts and those who care for them is that help is available, and there is always a path to recovery. When looking for sex addiction treatment, it’s important you choose to be with the experts who truly understand both the addiction and you or your loved one’s needs. 

At Seeking Integrity, we have a dedicated couples therapist for each individual in the relationship, not just the person experiencing the addiction. We’re here by your side every step of the way. We are proud to serve clients from all across the globe, offering our world-class expertise and care. If you would like to connect about treatment options today, please reach out to us at 1-747-234-4325, or through our contact page.  

Integrity. Expertise. Recovery.