Lapsing isn’t Relapsing: Don’t Give Up Your Recovery!

Man and woman struggling with relapse

Sometimes things aren’t always what they appear to be. Have you seen the picture of a young lady that can just as easily be seen as a grumpy old hag? All it takes is refocusing your mind and understanding.

Sexual recovery can likewise hide away a deceptive quality—the lapse. Some might say there is no difference between a lapse in recovery behavior and a relapse into addiction. However, these occurrences are not the same thing and mustn’t be treated as such.

So what is the difference? A lapse in behavior is a common experience for those unchaining themselves from a sex or porn addiction. Frustratingly for many, recovery is punctuated by a number of lapses—returns to a behavior that is unwanted—such as one-off viewings of porn. [1]

The key factor that defines this behavior as a lapse rather than a relapse is the recovering person’s recognition of the mistaken or unwanted behavior, and their re-commitment to change. The re-commitment also includes a plan to avoid the same lapse again.

Lapses, What Are They?

Whilst lapses are far from ideal they are markedly different from a relapse where the person who was in recovery, forgoes recovery for an extended time. [2] The time is less important however than the attitude that accompanies it.

In a relapse an addict may say something like, “What is the point in trying any more?” This comment exposes the heart of the matter that recovery is no longer in process.

It is vital that this distinction doesn’t become an excuse that allows times of acting out behaviors. If the term lapse is used deceptively in this way, to yourself or with others then it is clear that recovery is not underway. The deception is a form of denial that there is a problem and a need for change.

A number of those seeking recovery can start by wrestling through a period of denial and deception—this is normally emotionally laden because they haven’t confronted the very common ambivalence that can come with true recovery: that there is often a part of the addict that really doesn’t want to give up the addiction even when they see it isn’t in their interest to continue.

Illuminating Recovery

To illuminate the principle of recovery and help you decipher a lapse verses a relapse, I like to use the following illustration: Imagine you have a big pile of rocks that represent all of the aspects involved in recovery; lifestyle, habits, old materials, pain, coping strategies and more.

Woman looking awayRecovery could be thought of as the process of taking each of these rocks, one at a time, carefully considering their part in the addiction and painstakingly carrying them into a new pile. The weight of these rocks requires that you carry one at a time. The plan is to construct a new and meaningful structure with the new rocks—a ‘rebuilding’ if you will, of what has crumbled.

A lapse would be similar to losing concentration, and in the middle of a hard day’s labor carrying one or two rocks back in the wrong direction! You realize and think “Uh, how infuriating!”

Then you commit to taking that very same rock back in the right direction. Here the previous work you have done to move your pile isn’t lost, but hindered and stunted.

You can then continue moving the rocks again. A relapse though, is not caring about the rocks, neglecting what you have built, and actively engaging in taking rocks back in the wrong direction.

Many people assume that a lapse means that they have given up, failed, or can’t make the changes they want to. Despair is an overwhelming feeling and can make a lapse spiral into a relapse. [3]

Don’t believe it! Yes a lapse has consequences, physically, emotionally, relationally, but these alone cannot stop your recovery unless you let them.

When Lapses Occur

When you know you have lapsed, it is crucial to spend time considering why and how you lost concentration, or momentarily gave up moving rocks. Was one of the rocks too heavy? Was one of the rocks too emotionally taxing?

Did you remember a really appealing rock that you just wanted to hold onto? Take as long as you need to carefully ponder what feelings and thoughts occurred that created the atmosphere for the lapse to occur. Once you have identified what occurred, write down concrete plans that you can implement to help you avoid the same lapse again.

It is strongly advised to do this work in a community of likeminded people in recovery. Deciphering our complex motives, and learning to handle our emotions can be a challenge.

A community of fellow ‘recoverers’, especially where some are further ahead than ourselves is vital. These fellows will help you recognize the aspects of a lapse, plan for it, keep you on the recovery path, and ease the shame you may feel.

Man looking awayA concrete plan may include dealing with a newly observed stressor in your life that leaves you open to wanting some soothing that porn seems to bring. [4] Or it may include distancing yourself from relationships that are confusing and painful that creates self-doubt that can be medicated by porn.

If you need further support to discern what is impeding your recovery, find a trained counselor who can facilitate further discovery with you.

Paul LoosemoreAbout the author: Paul Loosemore, MA PLPC, author of “21 Movements Towards Life” – The step-by-step guide to recovering from sexual addiction or pornography. Paul works as a mental health counselor, and consults with those who wish to recover from Sexual Addiction—both individuals and couples. He is the founder of where you can find his guide, or contact him.


[1]: Dindinger, R. (2014) Pornography Addiction Breaking the Chains.
[2]: Ibid.
[3]: Daley, D. and Douaihy, A. (2015) Relapse Prevention Counseling: Clinical Strategies to Guide Addiction Recovery and Reduce Relapse
[4]: Ibid.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on May 15, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on May 6, 2017.
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About Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

Jacquelyn Ekern founded Addiction Hope in January, 2013, after experiencing years of inquiries for addiction help by visitors to our well regarded sister site, Eating Disorder Hope. Many of the eating disorder sufferers that contact Eating Disorder Hope also had a co-occurring issue of addiction to alcohol, drugs, and process addictions.