I am getting asked more about cybersex and online pornography addiction from therapists. It seems to be a growing problem in their practices. I thought I would address some of the fundamentals regarding how the addiction is sustained by the addict, or what I call the “start-stop relapse cycle.”
Eric is a 46-year-old computer programmer who described how hard it was for him to go “cold turkey” from cybersex during work. “I always go to the same chat room for cybersex. I feel comfortable there, and I typically find a good partner quickly. I always think about cybersex when I feel stressed from work and overwhelmed on the job. I always promise to only do it for a half an hour or hour, but time just slips by. Besides, my drive is stronger than my wife’s, so it won’t hurt, actually it will help our relationship, so I don’t go looking for someone in real life. Afterwards, I realize that I should not do this to my wife and also to my work. My boss will find out one day if I don’t stop doing this in my office. Each time I log off after cybersex, I promise myself that I will never do it again. I hate myself for all the wasted time I spent online and quickly try to catch up on the lost work. I go a few weeks, then the pressure seems to build up inside. I play mind games with myself, telling myself just a little won’t hurt. No one will know what I am doing. Sometimes I actually believe that I am in control. I wear myself down, and the whole process starts all over again and I feel defeated that I will never get rid of these feelings. The temptation is constantly there and relapse is just a click away.”
Relapse is a common struggle for anyone in recovery, but the problem often seems compounded by the need to use the computer while in recovery from cybersexual addiction. The relapse process is especially difficult for the cybersex addict due to the stop-start relapse cycle. The cycle is an internal dialogue that serves to maintain the compulsive behavior.
• Rationalization – Users will rationalize that cybersex serves as a “treat” from a long, hard day of work often making self-statements such as, “Just a few minutes won’t hurt,” “I can control my net use,” or “I am right here at the computer, what the heck?” The user will try to justify the need to look at a few pictures or chat for a few minutes, but they soon discover that time slips by and the behavior is not so easily contained.
• Regret – After the cybersexual experience, the users experience a period of deep regret. Once they climax, the addict feels guilt or shame for the behavior such as, “I feel guilty for how this is hurting my wife” or “I can’t believe I wasted all this time,” or “I am a horrible person for what I just did.”
• Abstinence – The addict views the behavior as a personal failure of willpower and promises never to do it again, and a short period of abstinence follows. During this time, the addict temporarily engages in healthy patterns of behavior, resumes interests in old hobbies, spends more time with his family, exercises, and gets enough rest.
• Relapse – The addict in recovery feels tempted to return to the computer during stressful or emotionally charged moments. They begin to crave and miss cybersex. They tell themselves that cybersex is the best way to relax and feel good about themselves. Or they begin not to care about the consequences. They remember how good cybersex felt both sexually and emotionally, and they forget how bad they felt afterwards. The rationalization period starts again and the cycle repeats itself.
How does an addict kick the cybersex habit when he or she needs to be on the computer for work? How can the addict stop abusing when relapse is just a mouse click away? Similar to programs that address overeating and food addiction, the addict will need to learn how to make healthy, positive choices about his or her Internet use because complete abstinence isn’t always possible in today’s technological world. There are two basic principles to follow:
Principle One: Learn to moderate legitimate use of the Internet.
Principle Two: Abstain from all contact with sexual material online.
As in food addiction, certain types of food trigger binge behavior. Let’s say chocolate or potato chips will trigger binge behavior but celery sticks will not, so avoidance of those “trigger” foods is a necessary part of recovery. Recovery from food addiction is about relearning how to eat in order to make more informed and healthier food selections, with success being measured through objective goals such as changes in caloric intake and weight loss.
To address cybersexual abuse and addictive behavior, the same basic steps are applied. First, it is important to determine the Internet activities, situations, and emotions that are most likely to trigger net binges. A particular chat room, a certain time of day, or the mood you are in just before you go online may all serve as “triggers” that will lead to inappropriate conduct and abuse. Recovery means relearning how to use the Internet in order to make better choices about time spent online, with success being measured through objective, measurable time management goals and abstinence requirements that are achieved and maintained. Goals should include a reduction in the number of hours you spend online in total, the ability to maintain abstinence from adult online content, and an increase in other offline activities.
Second, the addict must abstain from sexual material online. In this case, it means removing all the bookmarks and favorites leading to these sites, adding filters that prohibit sexual material from getting through the browser, or possibly changing the entire Internet Service Provider (ISP) system to one that is family friendly. These family friendly ISPs stop sexual content from the server end, so there is less chance of relapse. This has been found to be the most effective way to dealing with the addiction.
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