Rick Reynolds, LCSW
by Rick Reynolds, LCSW
Founder & President, Affair Recovery

Relapse: Why Can't You Stop?

About ten years ago I had a client who I deemed “the king of relapse”. Week after week he’d faithfully come to his session, and week after week he would tell me how he’d screwed up. About eight weeks into the process I finally asked, “Do you really believe this behavior’s not optional?” “Absolutely,” he replied. “Then I’m confused. I’ve always believed behaviors are a far better indicator of a person’s belief system than words, and looking at your behaviors, I’d have to say that your actions don’t match what you say you believe. Looking at your behaviors, it seems you’ve got to believe there are times when the behavior is acceptable. What do your actions really say about your belief system?” “Well,” he said, “it seems my behaviors say that I believe it’s okay as long as I’m really miserable and need an escape. I believe it’s okay if I avoid getting caught (doing the behavior) and that it’s okay if I’ve worked really hard to avoid the behavior but just can’t withstand the pressure.”

“Do you really want to stop?” I asked.

It wasn’t until he truthfully answered that question that Joe began to change. It’s one thing to wish you wouldn’t act a certain way, it’s another to draw a line in the sand and decide it’s “not optional”. Joe began by identifying the behaviors that he felt were inconsistent with how he wanted to be. Then, he identified the behaviors he believed were healthy and consistent with his beliefs and nature. Finally, he made a list of behaviors he just wasn’t sure were good or bad, but wasn’t willing to give up. That exercise eliminated many of his excuses and set a course of action.

Life has a way of creating difficult situations. At any given moment something can trigger intense pain, harsh disappointments, or rogue desires and in that moment we’re compelled to respond. In those moments I know how I want to act, but there are plenty of times I’ve failed to act that way. There have been many things I’ve wanted to change, but did I really make the old behavior “not optional”, or was I just hoping good intentions would make the change occur? Change may be what I want, but as the saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.

Infidelity has a way of bringing out the worst in the best of us and the best in the worst of us. To heal and ultimately move forward, we’ve got to accept who we really are and be intentional about how we want to live. It’s true for both the betrayed and unfaithful mate. If we don’t take the time to consider and answer those questions in the cool of the moment, there’s a strong likelihood that we’ll be like a chip of wood on stormy waters tossed to and fro by the emotional upheaval created by life’s circumstances. I tell couples the best time to work on your marriage or be proactive in recovery is to do recovery work when things are good and positive momentum is in place.  To snap into action when circumstances are out of control makes the entire process that much harder. You have to try and calm the chaos and then put into practice new principles of peaceful behavior, and it’s twice as hard to gain new ground. 

Sex Addicts Anonymous has an interesting exercise called the “Three Circles”.

How do you want to respond to life’s difficulties? Do you want to be true to your committed way of life, or do you want to act in ways that are counter to your nature? These are decisions you need to make in a state of calm, not in a moment of passion. If you love your life, then it’s pragmatically smart to avoid behaviors that will damage your relationship and recovery. If you’re hurting or frustrated and life’s not going the way you like, it won’t be long until the allure of acting in ways counter to your nature may soon outweigh your desire to respond in love. The only problem is, acting contrary to your nature not only hurts others, it also hurts you.

Infidelity creates a pain like no other and each time that pain is triggered, you are faced with a two-choice dilemma. Do you let the pain drag you to behaviors that you really don’t want, or do you choose a path that brings life for yourself and for others?

To make that decision you must first determine how you don’t want to be. The “Three Circles” exercise from Sex Addicts Anonymous provides a great tool to decide how you want to respond and how you don’t want to respond. As the old saying goes, “People never plan to fail, they just fail to plan.” Don’t let life’s tragedies lead you to behaviors and actions that you never intended.

Let me encourage you to take a moment and consider: What are your standards?

The “Inner Circle”:

These are response patterns you know are counter to who you are and how you want to be. They are bottom-line behaviors that you want to make “not optional”. These might include acting out sexually, drinking, excessive shopping, physical violence, or verbal abuse. Determine what behaviors in your life you want to make “not optional”.

The “Outer Circle”:

These are behaviors that you believe are healthy and life-giving. This is the way you’d like to be remembered. Making a conscious effort to maximize these behaviors can bring life to others and to self.

The “Middle Circle”:

These are questionable ways of responding to the pain of life, and you’re not sure if they’re good or bad. They may seem appropriate and justified in the pain of the moment, but you’re just not sure.

At Affair Recovery we say, “My mate’s never my problem, my mate just reveals the problem in me.” If you want to discover your own defects of character, all that’s needed is letting your mate deeply wound you and you’ll experience all the ways your soul has yet to be conformed to love. In those moments we’re all tempted to act in ways contrary to love.

If you haven’t predetermined how you want to respond, you’ll remain a victim of your emotions, and there’s a good chance that your responses may well take you places you don’t want to go.

Now, please don’t hear me saying that your feelings or your intuitions are invalid. Feelings are a real and meaningful part of our existence, even the really strong ones. But, intense emotions also create a demand for action, and that response, if we fail to plan, may lead us astray and cause us to hurt ourselves or others.

It’s important to be true to ourselves and think through who we really are and how we really want to be. I’d encourage you to take a moment and fill out the three circles. You’ll find it can help you stay the course. You may also want to consider getting infidelity specific help for your own recovery to prevent relapse and find healing for you and your spouse. To work through recovery together, consider joining an EMS Online course for couples. There is a different workbook for each spouse so not only will you receive the help you need individually, you’ll gain a better understanding of what your mate is experiencing as well.

 

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Relapse: Why can't you stop?

Rick, another downright helpful article. When I saw the title, my stomach turned and I didn't know if I could handle reading it, as it's been hard enough to get through all the betrayals that I found out about and am working hard to get through. But, once again, you got to the root/heart of the situation and made lots of sense, gave food for thought, and provided practical ways to combat relapse before it happens. Thank you!!!!!

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