Why It Matters that SLIPs Don’t become Relapses

I recently had a client ask me an honest question: “After I’ve had a SLIP in my recovery, why does it matter whether I acted out multiple times in the next few days then get back on the recovery road versus immediately getting back on the recovery road after the SLIP? Does it really matter, since I’ve messed up either way, anyway?”

Good question… and one spoken like a true addict.

Of course, he knew better. But our fallen human nature just wants what it wants sometimes.

For those who aren’t familiar with recovery terminology, a “SLIP” is an acronym for “sudden lapse in progress”. It’s an acknowledgement of a sinful error, but it’s also defined as getting back on the recovery path without accumulating further incidents. By contrast, a “relapse” is staying in the shame of the sinful behavior, leading to the old habits of hiding, denial, lying and sooner than later, more acting out.

So, his question is a good one. What are some reasons why it matters that a SLIP doesn’t lead to relapse?

Here are a few thoughts:

1) Brain Change: Every engagement of a behavior triggers the reward system of our brain. It strengthens a dependency upon the chemicals in our brains to which we can become tolerate and eventually addicted. Dopamine, Norepinephrine, serotonin, endogenous opiates, oxytocin, vasopressin and more are reinforced with each and every pornographic exposure. It’s simple biology: the more these chemicals are elevated in our brain, the more our brain craves a repeat performance. Every single time.

2) Heart Attitude: In the “SLIP and back to recovery” instance, there’s an attitude of humility to quickly recognize our error and have a sincere desire to BE in recovery. In the “SLIP to relapse and eventually back to recovery” instance, there’s more of a desire to stay for a while to re-engage all the addictive behaviors have to offer. In this latter case, our loved ones will rightly have concerns if we are really invested in a different way of life. This leads to another difference…

3) Disclosure vs. Discovery: “Discovery” is not sharing ourselves until after our loved one asks or confronts us (and even then, some still opt for denial rather than telling the truth). By contrast, “disclosure” is proactively sharing ourselves prior to being asked by our loved ones. Disclosure is how trust is built; discovery is how trust is eroded. Those in recovery have come to understand the importance of sharing things proactively as a very practical tool for rebuilding the trust account over time. This is especially true for a spouse, who needs to see tangible differences in our behavior to evidence the unseen internal work of recovery. Expecting our spouse to “just believe us” in recovery is foolish at best. Practicing ongoing disclosure, whether it be of our emotions or our SLIPs, deposits coins in the trust bank that can be accessed when it’s time to spend it on choosing to trust that we are growing in recovery.

4) Confidence in Recovery: Making a break in acting out behaviors after the initial SLIP rather than repeating it a few more times (as was the case before recovery) gives us the confidence that we can make willful choices consistent with our Christian values rather than simply having to obey our impulsive lust (Romans 6:9-14).

5) Proof that We Actually Can: Finally, changing course as quickly after a SLIP as possible serves as a practical means for rejecting a common Satanic lie: “It’s no big deal to do it again. You’ve already blown it! What difference does it really make? You can get back on the bandwagon tomorrow.” This lie appeals to our weak human flesh. Really now, who hasn’t heard the same, quiet, internal resistance when eating a big fat desert: “You blew your eating plan with that one! Well, you might as well just eat what you want for the rest of the weekend and start fresh again on Monday.” And while I’m certainly not trying to equate the consequences of eating and pornography, the similarity remains: with a long enough time frame (a week/month/year out), every bite matters to the compulsive over-eater. So it is with every lustful look.

Of course, the flip side is the good news: every time we turn back in the midst of temptation, we prove to ourselves that we can, which serves to reinforce that we can the next time, and the next time, and the next.