The Three Circles is a tool designed by the twelve-step organization Sex Addict’s Anonymous (SAA) that is used to define sexual sobriety, establish boundaries, and organize behaviors according to whether they are addictive, healthy, or somewhere in between. You may find that this tool proves helpful to you during your own recovery from sex addiction.
Draw three circles, one around the other. When you are finished you should have an inner circle, middle circle, and outer circle (it should look something like a bullseye). The descriptions below will help you to understand which behaviors should go in which circle, and why.
The Inner Circle
In the Inner Circle you will write all of your compulsive sexual behaviors related to your sex addiction. The behaviors that go in this circle are those that you are choosing to abstain from entirely. These are behaviors that you are powerless over, actions that lead to negative consequences, pain, and suffering. These behaviors of sex addiction make you a danger to yourself and to others.
You might find that your Inner Circle includes things such as: exhibitionism, voyeurism, anonymous sex, prostitution, phone sex, child sexual abuse, incest, or any other type of behavior that is clearly and definitively associated with your sex addiction and which carries negative consequences for yourself or others. If you find yourself wondering which of your behaviors should to in the Inner Circle, ask yourself the following questions: are you unable to stop the behavior when you want to; do you keep this behavior a secret; if this behavior were to be revealed would there be negative consequences; do you use the behavior to avoid emotions or responsibilities; and is your behavior lacking in intimacy and respect for either yourself or others? If the answer to any of those questions is yes, you’re likely dealing with an Inner Circle behavior of your sex addiction.
The Middle Circle
The behaviors that belong in the Middle Circle are those that are less destructive than those within the Inner Circle, those that do not quite fall into the category of unmanageable sex addiction but don’t rise to the level of ideal behavior. You might think of the Middle Circle as the gray area. As you begin the initial process of recovery you can also put behaviors that you are uncertain about into the Middle Circle.
The Middle Circle is generally made up of behaviors that will eventually cause a slip if engaged in for too long or too often. As you progress in your healing you will very likely begin to understand that behaviors that initially were placed in the Middle Circle actually belong in the Inner Circle. However, recovery from sex addiction is not an overnight process and you should tackle what you can as you can.
Some of the behaviors that might end up in your Middle Circle include: cruising for prostitutes or for a place to act out, acting seductively in an inappropriate situation, contacting former sexual partners, surfing the Internet late at night by yourself, spending time with young children, and anything else that might bring about eventual triggers or a slip into your addictive behavior.
The Outer Circle
In the same way that you knew for certain that behaviors listed in the Inner Circle were compulsive, rooted in sex addiction, dangerous and destructive, behaviors that are listed in the Outer Circle are those that you know for certain will lead to increased success in your recovery and are to be encouraged and practiced freely. The Outer Circle is made up of behaviors that you choose because they enhance your life, your recovery, and your spirituality. In contrast to Inner Circle behaviors, which serve to keep you isolated in your sex addiction, the Outer Circle list will help keep you engaged with community and reality. These behaviors also lead to self confidence and inner peace.
Your list of Outer Circle behaviors, those that benefit your recovery from sex addiction, might include working a twelve-step program, attending group meetings, engaging in sexual activity within a committed relationship, a new hobby or sport, developing non-sexual friendships, or exercise and meditation.
It isn’t necessary for you to have your three circles perfectly worked out. This will be an ongoing process. As you learn more about yourself and your sex addiction, you will find that things shift and change. It is strongly recommended that you work with your sponsor, or with another sober sex addict, in developing your Three Circles. Remember that it is your isolated thinking and tendency toward self-deceit that kept you locked in your addiction. Working alone on these circles may give you a list that is either too lenient or overly strict. You may find that working your sobriety with a group or sponsor will bring the clarity you’ve been missing.