This cycle describes what happens inside someone who has a sexual addiction. First a pain agent is triggered; it could be any kind of emotional discomfort (i.e.. pain, fear, shame, anger, etc.), it could be unresolved conflict (inner or outer), it could be stress, or it could be the need to connect with another.
If the person doesn’t take care of the pain agent in a healthy way, he may then move into the second stage of this cycle – disassociation. In this stage, you begin to disassociate or move away from your self and your feelings; a separation begins to take place between your mind and your emotional self.
If a person does nothing to help himself reconnect with himself at this stage, he may move into the third stage called the altered state. In this stage you become very disconnected from yourself and your emotions, so that sexual acting out makes sense (usually there is a lot of thinking about how good it will be and an absence of any awareness of any negative consequences). Reality becomes blocked out.
From this altered state stage, a person generally moves on to the pursuing behavior stage. In this stage, one begins to take action towards the acting out; perhaps by making a phone call to a sex line, or by getting in a car and taking off to find a prostitute, etc.
The next stage is the behavior itself – whatever it is for each particular person.
Then the final stage of the cycle is time, which simply represents the amount of time until the whole cycle begins again. This is different for each person; it could be several hours, a day or a week.
What is particularly important about this cycle is that it shows how in stage 1 the pain agents are what trigger the complete addictive cycle. What a person needs to do therefore is to work right at stage 1. One needs to learn how to deal with these pain agents in healthy ways, because if you do not you may begin to move deeper into the cycle. It is also possible to work in the 2nd stage by learning to recognize when you are disassociating from your self, and then learning how to reconnect with your self and your feelings.
If you can do this, you can stop the cycle from continuing. However, if a person has done nothing (or has not been able) to deal with one or more of the pain agents, or has not been able to reconnect with their feelings from the 2nd stage, he will most likely move into the 3rd stage – the altered state stage.
In the 3rd stage it’s usually too late to get out of the cycle; in other words, once you get into the altered state stage, you are most likely going to act out. This is why it’s so important to work in the 1st or 2nd stage. This is why it is so important to work with any difficult feelings coming up, or in dealing with stress in healthy ways, or in recognizing that one has a need to connect with another and taking action to get this need met. In addition, one can learn when he is disassociated or cut off from himself and learn healthy ways to deal with it.
A lot of people end up getting down on themselves for not being to get out of the altered state stage. This is the stage usually where your thinking about doing something sexually really gets going. The truth is that for many people, once you’ve gotten to this stage it’s very hard to derail the cycle – it will usually happen, particularly for early recovery people. It helps to know this (especially if you are early in recovery) so that you can be easier on yourself when you do act out and so you can learn to work on the stage 1 thing(s) that most commonly trigger the whole acting out cycle.
The main benefit of this cycle is that it clarifies how the pain agents begin the cycle, and that the most effective way to work on a sex addiction is at stage 1. When working at stage 1, you need to first learn what issues you have that are triggering the cycle, which will be one or more of the 4 pain agents (childhood trauma is included here as it can cause any of the 4). Then you need to begin to understand what these issues are all about, and then to begin both resolving them and learning how to deal with them when they come up.
Text. by Mark Robinett, MFT