Kayla had celebrated eight years of recovery from drugs and alcohol and six years from sex addiction when she became a new mom. She’d felt on top of the world, like she had everything handled and could finally embrace the rewards of adulthood: marriage, motherhood and success. But four months after her son was born, things began to unravel. The stress of too little sleep and a crying infant was more than she’d bargained for. The urge to drink felt all-consuming, as if she’d never stopped. If Kayla wasn’t breastfeeding, she knew she would give in. So she did what recovering people do; she went to a meeting. It was there that she met a newcomer, still on shaky ground, who seemed to look up to her. He wanted to know how she’d managed eight years, and his view of her—someone with wisdom and willpower—made her feel good about herself again. She took him out for coffee—just the two of them. It wasn’t long before Kayla and the newcomer were texting and chatting and meeting up for time alone. She even let him meet the baby. She kept this man a secret from her husband, even though she knew: secrets keep you sick. She was relapsing. The romantic intrigue, the exploitive power dynamic (Kayla was playing sponsor to this newcomer who was in a very vulnerable place), the sex—all of it meant that Kayla was right back where she’d been before she’d gotten sober. The baby had been such a welcome blessing; she and her husband had tried for two years to get pregnant. And having him was an incredible experience; she loved her son more than she had ever imagined it was possible to love. She knew the stress of a new baby was an experience she would need to learn to cope with, that motherhood would come with complications. But she had allowed it to be her excuse.
Common Triggers for Sex Addiction Relapse
When we think of triggers for relapse, we often think of people, places and things that cause tension, stress or bad memories. Being fired from a job, getting a divorce or losing a loved one often trigger relapse. People trigger relapse too—a high-conflict family member, or person we used to sexually act out with. Places where we acted out are common triggers, and situations that create fear, doubt and anxiety are too. Addicts, after all, use addictive behaviors to escape pain. In the process of recovery, addicts learn to either avoid or to cope with these common triggers. But many addicts don’t realize that positive life events can be triggering as well.
Positive Events That Trigger Relapse
According to Linda Hatch, Ph.D., therapist and sex addiction expert, there are three happy events that clinicians find to be frequently triggering for recovering sex addicts. They are:
- New relationship — Sex addiction is an intimacy disorder. If a recovering addict has not used his or her time in recovery to address this issue fully, a new relationship is likely to come with disordered intimacy, even if it lacks the old acting out behaviors. No relationship can be healthy or survive without genuine emotional intimacy, which requires honesty and the willingness to be vulnerable. A fear of being vulnerable in this way may become triggering to sex addicts, even though the relationship feels exciting and worthwhile.
- New success — Addicts may be triggered by new successes such as a raise, promotion or accolades for achievement. Sex addicts are often insecure. The added pressure that comes with success may feel overwhelming for them. Excitement mixed with stress is a cocktail for cravings, and the pressure to measure up can push addicts back into old acting out behaviors.
- The birth of a child — The birth of a child is the happiest time in many peoples’ lives. But it comes with a great deal of stress — stress that cannot be escaped, not for at least 18 years and hardly anyone gets out from under it even then. Even though a child brings tremendous amounts of love and happiness, an addict can become overwhelmed. The new kind of stress brought on by this happy event is a recipe for relapse.
Continued Recovery Allows Addicts to Cope With Stress
Humans, like all animals, desire pleasure and seek to be free of pain. But the need to be free of pain trumps the desire for pleasure. It is part of the stress response system, and is key to our survival. Somewhere along the way, addicts begin using behaviors to escape pain that do not ensure their survival, but create barriers to it. And as we’ve seen, even positive life events can leave addicts seeking old ways to cope. Through continued recovery, addicts learn better ways to cope with the stress in their lives, whether it comes from hard times or happy ones. Being aware of the kinds of events that may trigger relapse is important, and having the tools to manage that stress is a must.