The Three Circles is a simple tool we use to define our sobriety for ourselves—to define what a healthy sexuality for ourselves can mean.

We think through all our behaviors and organize them according to whether they are addictive (inner circle), healthy (outer circle) or somewhere in between (middle circle). It’s not always easy to tell if something should be in the inner circle or not. Typically, inner circle behaviors are those that:

  1. You can’t stop when you want to
  2. You keep secret
  3. Would have negative consequences in your life if revealed
  4. You use to numb yourself from difficult feelings
  5. Lack any real intimacy or respect

Why don’t you try it for yourself? List specific behaviors and categorize them as follows:

Inner circle Compulsive sexual behaviors from which we choose to abstain completely.

Middle circle – Behaviors which are much less destructive and weaker in intensity. They cause us much less of a problem but tend to lead us back to the inner circle. You can also put behaviors about which you are unsure in this category.

Outer circle Things we do which enhance our lives and our recovery, that keep us engaged with others and with reality rather than isolated and in a fantasy world.

Remember, your circles will change as you learn more about your behaviors during your recovery.

An example

Inner circle

Anonymous sex

Pornography (internet, magazines, DVDs, videos)

Written erotica

Infidelity (including kissing & touching)

Middle circle

Using the internet

Drinking alcohol

Masturbation by self

Outer circle

Sexual intimacy with spouse

Meeting friends

Attending recovery meetings

Spending time with partner

Playing football

Our primary purpose is to stay sexually sober, to abstain from sexually compulsive behavior, and to carry the message to the sex addict who still suffers. Recovery begins with abstinence from one of more specific sexual compulsions. Having said that, the question arises: How do we define “abstinence” or “sexual sobriety?”

The idea of abstinence is based upon analogy with Overeaters Anonymous. Just as the compulsive overeater does not have to totally give up food, but needs to learn a new approach to food which is non-destructive and non-compulsive, so the sex addict needs to learn a new approach to sex which is non-compulsive and non-destructive.

The idea of sexual sobriety is rooted in the heritage of Alcoholics Anonymous which continually reinforces the idea to the addict that it is the “first drink” which gets them “drunk.” That first drink begins the “phenomenon of craving” which inevitably activates further self-destruction. Similarly our “Inner Circle” when dealing with sex addiction consists of that behavior which we deem equivalent to the first “drink.”

Unlike the alcoholic who, however, must simply “put the plug in the jug,” and practice total abstinence from alcohol, most of us have no desire to plug up our sexuality and become totally celibate. It is not sex in and of itself that causes us problems. It is the various ways we misuse certain kinds of sex that causes us to get drunk.

Each of us needs to carefully consider which sexual behaviors we are powerless over; which sexual acts lead to feelings of demoralization. These are the addictive behaviors from which we will want to abstain. There are sexual behaviors which are acceptable or even experienced with a sense of gratitude and enjoyment. Therefore, our program acknowledges each individual’s dignity to choose his or her own concept of healthy sexuality.

Sexual addiction is cunning and baffling. For too long, most of us found it familiar, almost comfortable, to remain in the cycle of acting out, feeling demoralized, swearing off, and then acting out again. We know from painful experience that it is easy to fool ourselves [through addictive thinking] if that is what we really want to do. How then do we know if we have drawn a functional Middle Circle or if we are simply deluding ourselves? After all, our “best thinking” got us here in the first place.

Our experience is that if we are rigorously honest with ourselves about our Middle Circle behavior, we will choose not to deceive ourselves into practicing Inner Circle behavior. In order to stay honest about this, it is necessary to share our program with others. We cannot keep our behaviors hidden.

Ultimately, our definition of sobriety is our own, but if we define our program of recovery in isolation, our self-made programs may deceive us, becoming too loose or too restrictive. We write down our recovery program using the three Circles as a way to gain clarity. We share our program so that we can gain a balanced recovery and we do this by directly showing out three Circles to our sponsor and the people in our group. Without this clarity we can continue to act out, because we are confused about what sobriety is for us.

[It is the] prerogative and privilege [of each of us] to experience his or her own mistakes and joyful successes. From these we discover what we can and cannot do sexually, and progress along the road to a sane and non-addictive sex life. We believe such a sex life can, “by the grace of God,” be enjoyed by all of us, married or single, straight or gay. Obtaining and maintaining abstinence from Inner Circle compulsions is the bedrock foundation of all the personal growth which will surely follow.

Based on SA Pamphlet “Three Circles”


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©2019 Route1520, an initiative of Undone Redone, Inc.

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