sex addiction three circles

A Closer Look at Sex Addiction Three Circles

Sex addiction is a complex and often misunderstood issue that can have profound effects on an individual's life. In the field of addiction recovery, the Sex Addiction Three Circles framework is a valuable tool for understanding and managing problematic sexual behaviors. This model, developed by Dr. Patrick Carnes, delineates three distinct zones - inner, middle, and outer - to help individuals identify their sobriety boundaries and navigate the path to recovery.

In this article, we will explore the 3-circles of sex addiction, their significance, and how they can be utilised in the journey towards a healthier relationship with sexuality and intimacy.

What is Sex Addiction?

Sex addiction, also known as hypersexuality or compulsive sexual behavior, entails an inability to control intense or unhealthy patterns of sexual behaviors, thoughts, desires, and urges, which can lead to distress and harm in various aspects of a person's life, including relationships and finances.

This condition is characterised by a loss of control over sexual impulses, leading to excessive, risky and often destructive sexual activities that can significantly impact an individual's well-being.

While the concept of sex addiction is not formally recognised in the two major systems of mainstream medical categorisation, it is a term commonly used in psychology, counselling circles, and 12-step programs to describe the compulsive nature of certain sexual behaviors.

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Who is a Sex Addict?

A person with sex addiction may exhibit the following signs and behaviors:

  • Compulsive need for sexual stimulation, interfering with the manageability of daily life and responsibilities.
  • Engagement in persistent, almost ritualistic, compulsive sexual behavior despite escalating negative consequences.
  • Spending excessive time and energy on sexual activities.
  • Feelings of anxiety, depression, shame or self-loathing associated with sexual behaviors.
  • Altering life and activities to perform sexual acts persistently.
  • Secrecy of behaviors and skill at hiding the behavior from partners and family members.
  • Engagement in various forms of sexual addiction, such as addiction to sexual acts, prostitution, pornography, masturbation, exhibitionism, and voyeurism.

It's important to note that the concept of sex addiction is not formally recognised in mainstream medical categorisation systems, leading to considerable debate among psychiatrists and researchers.

Sex Addiction Three Circles

The "Three Circles" is a diagram and tool utilised by addiction therapists to assist individuals in recovery in identifying and defining addictive behaviors that can lead to a relapse. First introduced in a 1991 publication by Sex Addicts Anonymous, the three-circles diagram has been adapted and employed by treatment programs and 12-step groups working with individuals dealing with substance addiction and process addictions.

The 3-three-circle model is a diagram featuring three concentric circles - inner, middle, and outer. It visually represents an individual's journey, inward out, in addiction recovery, indicating that proximity to the centre increases the risk of relapse.

Inner Circle Behaviors

The innermost circle involves "Bottom-Line" behaviors or a list of activities that form the core of one's addiction. These are destructive behaviors that cannot be safely practised or controlled. They may include addictive, unhealthy activities such as seeking out pornography, engaging in destructive relationships, or other forms of compulsive sexual behavior that have a detrimental impact on the individual's well-being.

Middle Circle Behaviors

This risky territory encompasses actions, desires, and behaviors that may lead to a slip or relapse into the inner circle. Caution behaviors like using sex for emotional avoidance, lying, hiding, or justification may be seen as a "boundaries list" of warning signs that one is slipping back into addictive patterns and loss of sobriety.

Boundary behaviors are often accompanied by denial, as people with an addiction may perceive some actions as acceptable forms of coping. Recognising middle circle behaviors as potential triggers for the inner circle can pose a challenge, and therefore, individuals must acknowledge the detrimental impact of such risky behaviors.

ALSO READ: Sex Addiction Effects on the Brain: Understanding the Impact

Outer Circle Behaviors

The Outer Circle contains a list of healthy behaviors, termed top-line behavior, that reflect the individual's best and healthiest self. Promoting recovery through positive reinforcement, these activities steer the person away from situations or activities that could trigger a relapse. They contribute to the addict's overall well-being and recovery through practical, clear, and realistic approaches, often recommended by therapists, support groups, or partners.

Recovery behaviors include healthy activities, such as healthy sexual practice based on choice, mutuality, and respect, attending recovery meetings, practising recovery writing, seeking therapy, spending time with family, engaging in hobbies, and other constructive and positive behaviors.

Personalising the Three Circles Diagram

The Three Circle Plan serves as a visual guide highlighting objectionable behaviors related to substance use and addiction that need avoidance. The visual image helps victims recognise a precarious or triggering situation before relapse occurs, prompting individuals to proactively shift back to healthy behaviors in the safer outer circle.

Individuals in recovery are encouraged to engage in the circle exercise and draw up their own diagrams, which are then discussed with therapists who guide them in identifying their triggers and gateway behaviors. Customising the diagram offers a nuanced understanding of the interplay between behavior, thoughts, and physiological states concerning addiction and recovery.

ALSO READ: 7 Sex Addiction Coping Skills and Strategies for a Healthier Life


The Sex Addiction Three Circles is an apt model which, along with professional counselling and support, offers a personalised and structured approach to managing addictive behaviors, establishing boundaries, and promoting healthy activities. Its framework serves as a visual tool, allowing individuals in recovery to have agency in their recovery process by having them identify and define their addictive and healthy behaviors and establish boundaries. Despite the personal challenges and social taboo around sex addiction, it is essential to seek specialised help and support to address its complexities and work towards a healthier relationship with sexuality and intimacy.


What is the three-circle technique?

The Three Circles Sobriety Plan is a tool developed by Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) to aid its members in achieving and maintaining sexual sobriety. The technique uses the visual aid of a diagram consisting of three concentric circles to map out the journey of an individual addict's recovery, listing behaviors in gradations of addiction stages from inwards out.

What are the three circles of SAA?

The Three Circles of SAA is a personalised framework for addiction recovery consisting of three concentric circles. The innermost circle represents addictive "bottom-line" behaviors, the middle circle encompasses risky "boundary behaviors" that might lead to potential relapse, and the outer circle comprises healthy behaviors that promote recovery. The model helps individuals identify their own gateway behaviors with guidance from rehab programs, therapists, or support group members.

What are the Three Circles of Behavior?

The Three Circles of Behavior, as used in substance and process addiction recovery, consist of Inner Circle behaviors which are harmful and cannot be safely practised or controlled; Middle Circle behaviors which entail the risk of slipping into inner circle patterns; and lastly, Outer Circle behaviors that promote self-care and healthy recovery.

Anuska Saha

Anuska Saha is an aspiring academician and musician pursuing her Master's in English. A passionate book enthusiast and a singer-musician, she navigates the realms of academia and creativity with equal enthusiasm.

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