In simplest terms, Bethesda Workshops defines sexual sobriety as no sex with self or with anyone other than a spouse. A fuller definition of sobriety includes freedom from fantasy (including viewing pornography even without masturbation), freedom from sending out sexual energy (including flirting and sexual humor), and freedom from inappropriate emotional relationships. Sobriety is deeper than mere physical activity.
We believe that sobriety is the foundation for the rest of recovery. Nothing good happens without sobriety, but it’s only the beginning of the process of transformation.
Abstinence is the practice of sexual and emotional sobriety. For the single person, abstinence means refraining from all the behaviors and thoughts previously described. For the married person, abstinence means refraining from everything mentioned, including a mutually agreed on sexual time-out within the coupleship.
Bethesda Workshops recommends an intentional period of marital sexual abstinence early in the process of recovery. Complete sexual abstinence accomplishes a drying out period for the addict and uncovers deeper layers of issues for both partners. Abstinence removes sex as the barometer of the relationship and as a reward, punishment, proof, control or manipulation. Facing these relational issues around sex is just as critical for a partner’s recovery as sexual sobriety is for an addict’s.
This marital abstinence period should be a conscious, mutual decision based on full disclosure and a commitment to individual recovery. (As a healthy boundary, a partner may refuse to be sexual with an active addict or during a period of grieving and rebuilding trust. That’s a different issue.) We recommend marital abstinence for a minimum of 90 days, though many couples extend that time.
It’s vital that couples use the abstinence period for intentional work as individuals and as a couple. Simply refraining from sex falls far short of the benefits abstinence can achieve. The clinician must guide the couple in creating safety within the relationship and in building non-sexual intimacy. Many couples need help structuring this period and navigating through all the issues it surfaces.
Couples also benefit from a specific plan for reintegrating sexual activity into the relationship. Even if a couple chooses to resume intercourse immediately after abstinence, it’s wise to also go through a slow, guided process of learning to be emotionally and spiritually present during sex.
While sexual abstinence is hard for many couples, if done properly with accompanying mental, emotional, relational and spiritual work, most couples find it a significant piece of their healing process. Indeed, frequently couples report that their sexual re-engagement is like nothing they’ve ever experienced in their relationship. Sex becomes an act of emotional and spiritual intimacy – which is exactly God’s intention for the one-flesh union of marriage.