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

Relapse: Why Can't You Stop?

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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.

What Are You Willing to Give Up?

relapse why you cant stop

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.

Without Intentionality... We're Doomed

To heal and ultimately move forward, we've got to accept who we truly 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.

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.

I'd also like to encourage you to obtain 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. Make no mistake about it, this is your lifeline my friend. This is your life preserver you've been so desperately looking for. I hope and pray you'll reach out, be intentional and accept the help that's being offered to you.

If you're ready to start the journey of finding freedom and forgiveness, I hope you'll consider registering for EMS Weekend. This 3 day intensive is a safe place for you both to learn, grow and heal.
Our 3-day weekend intensive for couples to heal after infidelity now offering $1,000 discount for virtual months during the pandemic. Limited availability.

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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!!!!!

It was good, it has balance

It was good, it has balance and helpful.

How to react

Excellent article. All the information on this site is so valuable. Keeping your wits, integrity and kindness during this horrible nightmare of betrayal is the secret to coming through this without being destroyed or destroying the people around you. I am so grateful for Rick and affair recovery program.
Thank you

Trust your gut!

They. Won't. Stop. Trust your feelings and intuitions.

Trust your gut

It’s easy to say that, but when you have been lied to, manipulated, and gaslighted for 20 years by someone who compartmentalizes their behavior, you don’t know how to trust yourself, much less them. You can feel something is wrong when it isn’t, and vice versa, especially when the lies continue into alleged recovery. I’m trying to heal myself no matter what my partner chooses to do.

He’s done. He no longer wants to do the work.

My husband had a two year affair with a co-worker. 18 months later, he started another affair with another coworker at a new job. I found out before it became physical. This was 2 1/2 yrs ago. He began his recovery. He was doing everything he could to change. SA meetings, men’s group, individual and couples counseling and check ins. I did some counseling and we had a formal disclosure which was devastating as I learned there were 20 years of lies and secrets. He was remorseful and devoted to change. But he later became resentful towards me because I couldn’t trust him. He slowly stopped meetings and later stopped counseling Now he feels my pain no longer is his problem. He says it’s my choice to feel this way or not to. He now believes my triggers and pain are no longer his responsibility, however, in the beginning of his recovery he promised to to do whatever it takes to help us heal. Now, I just discovered new lies about credit cards. He threatens to leave whenever I try to talk to him about any issues.
What can I do? I thought he was doing so well and I had so much hope until he crossed his inner circle boundaries ..which was Lying. Now my level of trust has plummeted.

Generally undisciplined

Hi Simome,

Addicts are not usually isolated to one bad habit, but rather we possess a plethora of problematic behaviors. Overspending, overeating, overworking, abusing nicotene, and more. Recently I read a book written by a recovered sex addict that became a minister. He said that sex addicts are overall undisciplined in many areas of their life. For me, I blow money on stuff, items, food and trinkets, junk! In an effort to protect my reputation, I also have a bad habit of twisting the truth or leaving out parts of the whole picture.

Another Admirable (AA) Big Book says that many people are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. However, these individuals too can recover from their addiction and sustain sobriety if they live with rigorous honesty. For someone who has been lying and keeping secrets for 20+ years, starting to tell the truth all the time is awkward and unnatural. It will take time, intentionality, and accountability for this person to make progress in recovery.

For what you're going through, Simone, you're an absolute Saint for sticking around through this horrific storm. I never committed physical infidelity, but rather I snuck porn use. To my Bride, it may as well have been an affair. From the stories I read and testimonials I listen to, though, couples that stick together and work together through the process of recovery say that the fight is so WORTH IT. As Paul wrote to Timothy, "Fight the good Fight!"

Circle exercise

Hey Wayne.
Is the three circle exercise designed to think about general every day behaviours or specifically for “when I’m triggered, I don’t want to do this I’d rather do this”...?

Not again

My husband had what started as an emotional affair with a friend who was also married. I told him I didn’t trust her the first time I met her and he assured me they were just friends nothing more. I found suspicious messages and things but he constantly made me feel like the crazy one. Our marriage was not in a happy productive place. When the truth came to light he ended the affair and friendship....fast forward 2 years and a new wonderful connection and happy(or so I thought) marriage, and he starts having an affair with someone I considered a friend. She is a fellow Cub Scout leader and married mother of 3. I was blindsided, I confronted her and she said it was sexual frustration on her part that led to this. My husband said he had no excuse, he was happy, our sex life was great. He seems remorseful and attentive once again, but the emotional flooding I had felt was under control from the first affair is back and worse than ever. I love my husband and don’t even want to consider divorce, but we both travel for work a lot and I don’t know how to feel safe. He was seeing this woman right under my nose, I knew she came over and brought her sons to play with ours, all the while they were having sex in the tool shed. (I want to burn it down!!) she messaged me that we needed to get together when I was home and hang out. He was attempting to end things about the time I found out, she lives in our town and we have mutual friends. I want to tell them to watch their back but I don’t want our business out in the open. I also feel bad for her husband, a genuinely nice guy, she said he k owe everything. Is it bad that I want to hear that from him? I want to know that he knows, I feel like it would make me feel more secure that they won’t communicate again. How do we keep this from happening and keep the thoughts from invading my mind?

What type of affair was it?

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