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Lesson 3: Ending the Cycle of Addiction

Recovery from compulsive and addictive behaviors starts with recognizing the need to change our behaviors. How do we establish and sustain a life of sobriety? We will need accountability and community through our Pure Desire group, as well as the tools in this workbook. Based on our past trauma, some of us may need additional personal counseling. Through our addiction we learned to stuff down and numb our pain, but sobriety facilitates our ability to access painful emotions and negative self-perceptions. Working through the pain is an essential step to lifelong health and freedom. We must uncover the core issues that perpetuate our shame.

As we pursue a life of sobriety, we must recognize and identify the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that pull us back into the Cycle of Addiction. We must practically address our triggers. Many of us who struggle with love, sex, and relationships are often blindsided by how easily we are triggered.

Trigger: I received a letter in the mail from my ex-husband’s attorney. They would like to schedule a court appointment to discuss changes to the child support agreement.

Avoiding the trigger: I immediately put the letter aside and spent the next four hours vigorously cleaning the house. All I could think was, “My ex-husband used to complain that the house was never clean enough. I’ll show him!” Since the kids will be with their dad for the weekend, I made plans with a few girlfriends to go out to dinner and dancing on Friday night.

Acting out: I was feeling especially excited for a girls’ night out and wore a super sexy dress. Looking at my reflection in the mirror, I kept thinking, “If my exhusband saw me tonight, he would have so many regrets.” Throughout the night, I danced with many men—absorbing their affectionate words and touch. I felt wanted and loved. These feelings didn’t last long; they were replaced with feelings of guilt, shame, and regret when I woke up in bed with a guy I met last night.


For many of us, this is what it looks like: the trigger causes us discomfort, so we attempt to avoid the trigger and numb our uncomfortable feelings. When our attempts fail, we find ourselves acting out, hoping that it will relieve our uncomfortable feelings, but we find ourselves further ensnared in the Cycle of Addiction.

As we continue to understand how our triggers lead to unhealthy behaviors, we also need to recognize the power we have in stepping off the addictive cycle by putting new healthy behaviors in place. When we are triggered, instead of avoiding the trigger, we confront the trigger head on. This action takes us off the addictive cycle and moves us toward health.

We often feel trapped by our triggers. In the moment, we feel helpless to combat our triggers, unable to think clearly when faced with uncomfortable feelings. This is why it’s so important that we understand our unique triggers and how they contribute to our acting out behaviors.

All of us need to experience God’s grace in our lives if we are ever going to change our behaviors. Grace is an essential part of lifelong healing. It heals us from the inside out by minimizing the effect of our triggers and helping us break out of the Cycle of Addiction.

Many of us who struggle with sexually compulsive behaviors have often felt like the woman caught in adultery and brought before Jesus. In John 8:1-11, we discover how the Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus by bringing the woman before him, testing whether he will uphold the Law of Moses.

Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, 2but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. 3As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.

The Pharisees were not concerned with this woman’s welfare. They were only using her as bait; but Jesus was not falling for it.

“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?” 6They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him,…

…but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. 7They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” 8Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust. 9When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. 10Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” 11

“No, Lord,” she said. And Jesus said,

“Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”

Jesus challenged the Pharisees with his reply: “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” In these simple words, Jesus communicates that the law came to show us our need for grace.

As each man dropped his stone of accusation, the only man without sin in His life who could have condemned her asked, “Where are your accusers?” Looking around, there was no one left to condemn her. Jesus’ next words were life-changing: “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.” He spoke correction to her without a hint of condemnation. In that moment, Christ gave her the gift of no condemnation so that she could go and sin no more.

As we step away from our compulsive and addictive behaviors, and continue to move toward health, we experience an overflow of God’s grace.

When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned.82 15But there is a great difference between Adam’s sin and God’s gracious gift. For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of forgiveness to many through this other man,

Jesus Christ.

We live in a sin-filled world because of Adam’s sin; but when we say “yes” to Christ, we are made righteous—not by our performance, but by Christ’s obedience. No matter how hard we try to do what is right, we will never be good enough on our own. We need the life-changing blood of Jesus to cover our sin and bring us into relationship with our heavenly Father. When we take hold of God’s restorative grace, our lives will forever change. This is the only way we will experience lifelong healing and transformation.


Simply put, the word “arouse” means to evoke or awaken a feeling, emotion, or response. It is a physical reaction to a specific stimulus. Between the ages of five and eight, our arousal template is formed.85 There are many factors that contribute to our arousal template: family of origin, childhood environment, early abuse and trauma, early sexual experiences, church influences, and the media—television, magazines, movies, and the Internet. All of these elements work together to create our sexual arousal.

Arousal is our brain reacting to something in our environment that triggers us to a heightened state of awareness.86 When we feel triggered, it creates an emotional response: a limbic response (chapter 2, lesson 2). What we find arousing is a combination of both nature and nurture: what we are born with, our upbringing, and experiences. In many ways, our core beliefs—what we believe about ourselves and others—drive our compulsive and addictive behaviors, and are foundational to our arousal template..

Since our arousal template is formed so early in life, almost anything can become a trigger for arousal: sights, sounds, smells, locations, objects, and feelings. It is important to remember that our arousal template is not fixed.87 While our previous sexual behaviors may have reinforced our arousal template, we may notice shifts in what we find arousing as we continue to pursue lifelong healing.

Understanding our arousal template will help us identify our triggers. When we recognize our triggers, we become more self-aware, and are more likely to intervene when our triggers are leading us toward unhealthy behaviors.

Use the following table to identify your unique arousal template. Don’t leave anything out— be thorough and specific. Throughout the week, if you become aroused, stop and think about what happened just before the arousal. Add it to your list if it’s not already listed.


Locations (hotels, malls,
parties, beaches, bars,
gym, home computer,
being home alone
Sensory Input (cologne,
drugs, music, alcohol,
certain smells)
Physical Characteristics
(tall, short, blonde,
Perceived Personality
(unavailable, vulnerable,
dominant, professional,

Feelings (danger, risk,
fear, pain, loneliness,
rejection, shame)
Culture (older men,
Hispanic, French)
False Beliefs (sex=love,


If we want to break free from our sexually compulsive and addictive behaviors, we have to be proactive. We have to be aware of the things that trigger and arouse us, before we become limbically charged and ritually motivated. These next steps in the Arousal Template: Part Two will help us expand our awareness and develop realistic recovery strategies.

Please note: There may be legal ramifications for any information about inappropriate sexual contact or behavior that involves minor children that is shared within your Pure Desire group. Please review the Memo of Understanding.

Step One

A. List ALL romantic and sexual behavior that are arousing for you.
Examples: compulsive masturbation, pornography, dirty talk, hookups, cybersex, seduction, exhibitionism, flirtation, romance novels, office romance, affairs, high-risk sexual behavior.

B. Add some specific details for the behaviors listed in part A.
Examples: type of pornography sites you visit, types of men and women you view, specific sexual acts you find exciting (e.g. romantic, couples having intercourse, more than two people involved, rape, violence, ages, sexual orientation).
What do the individuals you view have in common? Do you pursue them or do you like to be pursued? Do you see yourself dominating the individual or being dominated? Do you like to exhibit images of yourself?


List all early painful sexual and relational experiences in your life. Pay particular attention to traumatic, abusive, and neglectful experiences.
Examples: rigid or disengaged family experiences; inappropriate exposure to sexually explicit information in your home; parent or parents having affairs or multiple marriages; boundary violations; spanked while naked; punished for normal childhood sexual exploration; no respect for your privacy when dressing or in the bathroom; your body’s development being ridiculed; exhibitionism by parent or parents.


Identify childhood feelings and emotions or themes related to abuse or neglect. Pay close attention to sexual or romantic themes.
Examples: being violated or having sexual boundaries intruded upon; getting something only when you were good (performance); seeing sexual images prematurely (voyeurism); being flirted with (seduced); being subjected to abuse by a powerful parent (exploitive); experiencing abuse from a stranger (anonymous); being spanked while naked (pain);
having no privacy (intrusive).
Remember: trauma or pain in the form of an intense one-time experience or numerous small experiences can become a hyper-accelerator for sexual arousal. This is why individuals who have experienced abuse and/or neglect exhibit altered brain function.


A. Identify emerging overall themes and core beliefs.
B. List possible coping skills: disassociation, control, perfectionism, being passive, narcissism, silence, anger/rage.
C. How have these coping skills become embedded themes or patterns in your life?
D. How have these patterns expressed themselves romantically and/or sexually in your life?
E. What triggers you to react romantically and/or sexually?


 Identify your arousal patterns, triggers, and recovery strategies.
 Place your responses to steps one through four in the following chart. You will fill in step five after completing The Three Circles exercise. A completed Arousal Template is in the appendix.



In our pursuit of lasting health, we need to construct a road map for healing. The arousal template identifies the specific behaviors we need to avoid and creates guardrails around, as well as helping us understand what healthy behaviors keep us on the right path. We often presume the sequence of transformation:

changed feelings = changed thinking = changed behavior
However, when it comes to developing a mindset for healing from addictive behaviors, the practical truth is the reverse:

changed behavior = changed thinking = changed feelings

When it comes to changing behavior, we tend to focus more on the behaviors we don’t want to do, rather than focusing on the behaviors that will keep us healthy. Using The Three Circles is a great way for us to evaluate the full extent of our behaviors: recognizing the behaviors that keep us stuck in our addiction, the behaviors that serve as boundaries or guardrails to protect us, and the behaviors that continue to move us toward health.


The center circle includes the behaviors that reinforce our addictive patterns. These are actions, not ideas or intent. The center circle indicates behaviors that constitute a relapse or violation of our sobriety. For many of us who struggle with sex, love, and relationship addictions, this could include:
• Anonymous hookups
• Online sex
• Pornography use
• Masturbation
• Binge eating
• Uncontrolled anger or rage
• Dating during the first year of recovery
• Sex with boyfriends
• Getting drunk or using drugs
• Cutting
• Self-inflicted pain
• Sexting or sending nude pictures
Remember: these are bottom-line behaviors—they do not support our goals and purpose. If we engage in these behaviors we are not living in health.

The middle circle includes the behaviors that lead to relapse—the behaviors that we know will take us back to our center circle. Our middle circle behaviors are the warning signs, triggers, or concerning issues that indicate we are headed for trouble. We cannot underestimate our middle circle behaviors. They are more than a temptation. This could include:

• Spending too much time on social media
• Boredom
• Flirting
• Lack of self-care
• Fantasy
• Staying too busy—not saying “no”
• Isolating
• Ignoring feelings
• Distracted from priorities
• Too much TV
• Using food to cope
• Not making time for God
• Being home alone in the evening
• Watching movies with sex scenes
or romance
• Sleeping with my phone by my bed
• Not making or staying within my budget
• Shopping online
• Delays in paying the bills
• Drinking alcohol
• Lying, blaming, rationalizing, justifying,
and minimizing the desire to act out
• Going to parties where alcohol and
drugs are used

The outer circle includes the behaviors that keep us sexually and relationally healthy. To stay on the path toward lifelong healing, our outer circle behaviors are the most important. This is where life happens. Outer circle behaviors are about self-care and should be specific. This could include:
• Taking time for family
• Spending time with spouse
• Learning to set boundaries
• Healthy eating
• Spending intentional time with the kids
• Learning to deal with anger
• Exercising regularly
• Keeping commitments to group/church
• Developing relationship with positive
role models
• Spending time with God
• Spending time with friends
• Being present
• Getting seven or eight hours of sleep
each night
• Being honest with spouse—no secrets

The Arousal Template and The Three Circles tools will help reinforce and support our recovery. Together, we are creating the steps we need on our path to healing and freedom.

Looking Ahead

Complete the FASTER Scale, Group Check-in, Self-Care lesson, Thoughts/Feelings
Awareness Log, and Change & Growth Analysis in your Unraveled: Weekly Tools before
the next group meeting.