What is the Difference Between a “Slip” and a “Relapse” in Recovery

relapseI was recently asked this question: What is the Difference Between a “Slip” and a “Relapse”? by the concerned spouse of a sex addict.

This question is important for any addiction, but it’s fraught with heavy emotion in relationships where there is sex addiction, because sobriety is so important for the restoration of the relationship. Here’s what I said (with some slight editing):

  Thanks for writing. I define a slip as a short duration, one time drift into addictive behavior that the addict puts a stop to by reaching out to get help and get back on the recovery path. It’s not about what the specific behavior was (porn, masturbation, looking at a woman lustfully, engaging in sex, etc.), because different people are struggling with different behaviors to begin with.


A slip is different from a relapse in that a relapse indicates a shift back into the addictive pattern. Instead of seeking help after a brush with addictive behavior, the addict stays isolated and acts out again (and often multiple times, over a period of time). This person has taken him or herself off the recovery path, and is now “in relapse.”


A slip is much “better” than a full blown relapse in that the addict gets right back on the path of recovery, thus limiting the damage, and reestablishing health. But as I’m sure you can see from how I’ve defined it, a slip is still a break of sobriety. It disrupts recovery because it reinforces the addictive urge. It also disrupts intimacy in a relationship, and depending on the behavior might even be the occasion for the breakup of a relationship. So even though I’m saying it’s “better” than a relapse, I’m certainly not suggesting that it’s okay.
I would also add that if someone is engaging in a pattern of regular “slips,” this is an indication that something is not working in their recovery, and they need to step up their program.
Too many people are tempted to play games with the language of slips, relapse, and sobriety. Sometimes addicts do this because they want to be able to tell their spouse they are still sober, and want to call something a slip (and not a breach of sobriety). Addicts also might do this with other members of their support group, not wanting to have to confess a break of sobriety. Or sometimes addicts want to distinguish between a slip and a relapse simply to remind themselves of the good choice they made to get back into recovery.
Whatever the motivation, to focus on legalistically defining whether or not one is “technically sober” or whatever something is a slip or a relapse can be misleading, and can be damaging to recovery. The real issue is the direction of ones heart, and whether one is doing the internal work of recovery, including honesty and faithfulness to maintaining ones program. In that context, there is VERY rarely a perfect record … Everybody has their ups and downs with recovery.
It’s helpful for both the addict and the spouse to step back and look at things from a larger perspective. It’s hard to do this, but helpful. I often tell people who are wanting help deciding whether something was a break of sobriety or not, or whether they had a slip or a relapse, to stop for a minute, and think about their situation from a different vantage point:
Fast forward one year … or even better, five years. In five years it won’t matter whether this was a break of sobriety or not, whether this was a slip or a relapse. All that will matter is if you kept on the path toward recovery, and kept growing and healing. Anything that distracts us from the path, including rationalizing and minimizing behaviors on the one hand, and obsessing on them and berating ourselves with guilt and discouragement on the other. is a problem.
I know some old-timers in the program who have a very simple approach to this issue. If you’re wondering whether something was a a middle circle dalliance, or an actual break in sobriety … just assume it was a break in sobriety and move on. If you’re wondering whether something was a slip or a relapse, just assume it was a relapse and move on. Stop worrying about it, stop trying to parse it … and move on. Keep doing the work. Keep going to meetings. Keep focusing on the positive, and the direction you want to go. Whether for yourself or for your recovering spouse, focus on the direction, not the imperfection.
If you have further questions about this important topic, and/or possible next steps for your recovery, contact me using the contact form, and we can set up a consulting session.