Relapse: Preventing a Slip from Becoming a Slide

In your attempts to maintain purity from pornography you’ve probably asked yourself, “Is every slip a relapse? Does every bad choice mean I’m ‘starting over’? I feel trapped. How can I not expect myself to be perfect for the rest of my life without making excuses for myself?”

You can see why relapse is such a difficult subject. A discussion of relapse easily gets caught up in an all-or-nothing mindset.

On one hand, we can expect to relapse many times in the journey of recovery. There are ups and downs in every difficult journey. On the other hand, we don’t want to expect to fail. We want to face every moment with the expectation that we’ll rely on God to make healthy, God-honoring choices.

With that said, here are the six principles that support my thoughts on relapse:

  1. We will face relapse.
  2. Relapse is the recurrence of a behavior we have committed to change.
  3. More dangerous than relapse is dishonesty and hiding.
  4. Dishonesty and hiding are the difference between a relapse slip (short) and relapse slide (long).
  5. Relapse begins to end when honesty begins.
  6. We are more likely to be honest about something we’ve openly discussed. That’s why having an Ally who receives your Covenant Eyes report is vital for both initial purity and circumventing relapse.

Relapse can be described in four phases. The presence of an early phase does not make the latter phases inevitable. Our goal is use principle five (above) to circumvent at the earliest possible phase (below). The sooner we’re honest, the better.

Phase One: Complacency

“I just want a break from being good.”

It is usually our attitude that goes sour before our thoughts or our actions. Initially, we just accept that the process of pursuing purity is hard and bear through. That is actually good. Change is hard. Perseverance is needed.

So, what’s the problem?

If we’re honest with a friend, there’s not a problem. The point of identifying complacency as the initial phase of relapse is to cultivate conversation, not condemnation. Early honesty with people in your support network is the best response to this fatigue. Don’t try to press through in private. Simply saying, “Hey, my attitude isn’t great right now. I’m committed to purity, but I feel ‘off.’ Will you pray for me?” is great way to counter phase one relapse.

Phase Two: Confusion

In phase two, a bad attitude becomes jumbled thinking. It has been said, “Worldliness is what makes sin look normal and righteousness look strange.”

The further we get into temptation, the more this dynamic affects our thinking.

We begin to view “healthy choices” as a “burden.” We begin to view “unhealthy choices” as “moments of freedom.” We begin to view “supportive friends” as “people who expect too much.” When this disorientation begins to emerge, be honest ASAP. This is when we say to a friend, “I’m wrestling with more than a bad attitude. I’m beginning to view good choices as a burden and supportive friends as obstacles.”

Don’t let confusion reign. The logic of temptation only makes sense in the privacy of our own head. When we speak what we’re thinking out loud to someone we trust, the logic of temptation falls apart. This is the last link in the chain of relapse, when you can confide in a friend without experiencing the guilt of having to confess for sin.

Phase Three: Compromise

Phase three is often fueled by self-pity, denial, or defiance. We begin to think, “I deserve my sin,” as if pornography gave more relief than it created a burden. Short-term, that may be true. But if you didn’t know it was false long-term, you would have never signed up for Covenant Eyes.

Sin is always trading dimes (smaller coin of more value) for nickels (larger coin of less value). It seems like a good deal, but it isn’t.

Frequent warning signs of the compromise phase of a relapse are:

  • More frequent preoccupation with fantasy thinking
  • Growing sense of irritability about the “restrictions” of purity
  • Beginning to explore ways to get around your accountability software
  • Compromising with your eyes in public or with television
  • Thinking about when you engaged with pornography as “the good ole days”

Phase Four: Catastrophe

Destructive choices destroy. There is no way around that. When we fail to acknowledge compromise, catastrophe will get our attention. Some version of whatever crisis brought you to initially confide in a friend and install Covenant Eyes will re-emerge. It is not a matter of “if,” but “when.”

While our goal is to interrupt a potential relapse before it reaches the catastrophe phase, don’t allow shame or pride to prevent you from reversing the impact of your choices. Even if we’ve begun to experience some type of crisis, the sooner we respond with repentance to God and confiding in a friend, the better.

Read I Corinthians 10:13. We often get frustrated with the phrase, “God will not let you be tempted beyond your ability.” It doesn’t just mean the type or intensity of temptation, but also means at any point in the temptation cycle. Too often we conceptualize a fictional “point of no return” in our battle with temptation. If a “point of no return” exists, it is the point at which we decide not to be honest with God, ourselves, and others.

The grace of God means there is always hope in honesty about our sin. What you should realize from this reflection is that the temptation to hide our sin during relapse is actually what perpetuates and magnifies the impact of our sin. If you are willing, God will always give you strength to be honest.