Clients often ask me how they can overcome addictive behavior to pornography. They want to know how they developed a drive to this behavior in the first place. Did something happen to them when they were younger? Were they born this way? Will it ever go away?
These can be difficult questions to answer, but are worth exploring. In my counseling center I often help clients understand what is called the ‘addiction cycle’. It might feel, to some clients, that they go on auto-pilot when seeking out or viewing pornography, masturbating or other performing other compulsive sexual acts. They can feel as if they are drawn into it without a choice.
The addictive cycle starts with a preoccupation. There is an intense mental focus and an obsessive search for pornography or other sexual stimulation. It is almost as if the addict is in a trance in this step. The second step is called ritualization. The addict goes through a special routine leading to sexual behavior. This step can include, for example, the act of getting on the computer to ‘check your email’, even though the addict knows that this will only lead to viewing pornography. The third step is called compulsive sexual behavior. This is where the sexual act is played out. This act feels as if it is uncontrollable by the addict. This can be something that they feel is easier to finish and complete than fight to overcome or get out of. The last step is called despair. There is an incredibly strong feeling of worthlessness and hopelessness that the addict feels. This is where they seem to snap out of it and come to realize what they have done. These uncomfortable and difficult emotions can often lead them back into the cycle, only to repeat it the same way they played it out the first time.
Dr. Patrick Carnes, a well-known sexual addictions specialist, described this addictive cycle as a process that addicts go through again and again. Each time through the cycle it becomes more powerful and intense. There is a seemingly never ending and insatiable nature about this cycle that takes a toll on addicts and their loved ones.
I often work with clients in my Utah therapy practice to recognize the addiction cycle. Through this recognition, clients are empowered to make more deliberate choices instead of going on auto pilot. It seems strange at first for my clients to go through their routine, as I call it, step by step in great detail. But if they are able to honestly lay it all out there, they will be able to recognize the steps before they become too powerful and before they get to the point of no return.
Dr. Triston Morgan, LMFT