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Abstinence Rule

Updated: SEPTEMBER 14, 2018

The Abstinence Rule is a rule developed by Sigmund Freud governing that therapy patients should not participate in self-indulgences or gratifications, such as sexual activity or smoking. Freud believed these pleasurable activities would divert patients’ energies away from their therapy.

The Abstinence Rule is also called the Rule of Abstinence.


More About Abstinence Rule

Freud felt that withholding various types of gratification until treatment was complete would motivate patients to work harder to improve themselves. He even went so far as sitting behind patients who lay in his couch, so they couldn’t enjoy the conversational cues present in normal human interactions.

The Abstinence Rule is a common part of 12-step therapy for addiction. During their treatment, patients abstain from all kinds of addictive substances and behaviors. For example, alcoholics will still be required to abstain from sex, even if they are not sex addicts. That’s because researchers believe exposure to any addictive substance or behavior can trigger an addictive response and set back the treatment.

Many people feel the Abstinence Rule dictates they must go without all pleasures while in therapy. However, Freud stated that he did not intend for “the denial of every desire.” However, he felt patients should deny themselves enough that they still felt a sense of yearning and neediness for certain pleasures. These sensations, Freud felt, would become agents for change.

However, even this more flexible reading of Freud’s principle has been challenged. Some therapists believe making patients deny their desires may make them hostile. They typically advocate for maintenance therapy, where patients enjoy small amounts of what’s most pleasurable to them.

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