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The 'three circle plan" is an exercise originally developed by 12-step recovery groups but now widely used to help couples to manage their recovery plans. By listing out wanted and unwanted behaviors in three concentric circles, an unfaithful partner can focus on behaviors that either promote fidelity or endanger recovery.

When creating the three circles diagram, the unfaithful partner draws three concentric circles, one inside the other (like a dart board with a bull's eye in the center). Behaviors are then listed in one of the three circles as guided by the instructions below.


Please realize that the examples are for illustration ONLY. What may be in an inner circle for one couple may be in the middle circle for another.


These are behaviors you absolutely want to stop.  Engaging in any of these actions are considered "bottom-line" behaviors. It means you have "lost sobriety". Such actions call for a reset of the recovery plan and a re-evaluation of the boundaries for the couple.

Here are the tell-tale signs of an inner circle behavior:

  • You find it hard to stop them even when you want to.

  • You keep them secret

  • They have negative consequences if your spouse found out

  • The help you turn off negative feelings

  • Don't include or lead to genuine intimacy

  • They cause you to lose your self-respect

Examples include:

  • Meeting ex-affair partner in a hotel (sex, kissing...)

  • Strip clubs

  • Erotic massage

  • Watching porn

  • Calling ex-girlfriend/boyfriend

  • Dinner off of work campus with opposite sex co-worker

  • Sending texts to 3rd parties with sexual innuendo



Some couples divide inner circle behaviors into two categories, relapse and slips.


Slips are included in the inner circle for most couples. A slip can be defined as:


a short duration, one time drift into acting-out behavior that the partner puts a stop to by reaching out to get help and get back on the recovery path. The act is also one that is not so damaging that even one occurrence is considered a relapse.

They fall short of a full relapse but should be taken seriously.

In contrast, a relapse can be defined as:

a shift back into the pre-recovery dysfunctional pattern. Instead of seeking help after initial behavior, the partner remains 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.” Some couples will also define certain actions that are so damaging that one occurrence will be considered a relapse.

Examples of slips include:

  • single instances of lying or covering up, 

  • viewing slips (allowing your eyes to look too long at something), 

  • movement slips (allowing yourself to go somewhere unnecessary that is tempting),

  • fantasy slips (allowing your mind to imagine future misbehaviors), 

  • euphoric recall (dwelling too long on the pleasures of past betrayal activities), 

  • virtual slips (misuse in the on-line world), 

  • avoidance slips (avoiding or prolonging a conflict which gives you resentment), or 

  • flirting slips (any violation of agreed guidelines for contact with the opposite sex that would not constitute a relapse).  

Your partner should be told about slips in general terms but not in detail. For example, the unfaithful partner may share the number of viewing slips but not any details of what was viewed. The slip check-in would typically happen on a weekly basis. 

It is easy to play games with the language of slips and relapse. Often, unfaithful partners wish to categorize behavior as a slip because they want to be able to tell their partner they are still sober. Legalistically defining whether or not one is “technically sober” or whether a behavior is a slip or a relapse can be counter-productive to recovery. The real focus should be on whether the partner is doing the internal work of recovery, including honesty and faithfulness to maintaining the recovery plan. 


The second or middle circle represents "boundary behaviors". These are behaviors that may or may not be appropriate but could lead to another affair or other behavior in the inner circle.

Examples of middle-circle behaviors include:

  • too much travel

  • not exercising or getting enough sleep

  • spending too much time on video games or on social media

  • too much unstructured time alone

  • overwork

  • over-eating or drinking

  • using the internet

  • celebrity photos on social media

  • masturbation by self

  • procrastination

  • resentment


It is easy to be in denial about the power of middle circle behaviors. The attitude may be that these violations are not as bad as slips or relapses so these behaviors are OK to do occasionally. This kind of lax thinking shows how the unfaithful partner can fool him/herself and gets into trouble. It allows engagement with behaviors that will keep the reward center in the brain activated.

The voice inside the unfaithful partner's head says: "It is not that bad", or "I'll stop after I do this one thing". Unfortunately, the unfaithful partner who dabbles in middle circle behaviors eventually succumbs to the temptation and does serious damage to his/her marriage.


Consider these examples:

A woman believes that she can send a flirty text to a co-worker but is confident that she will resist his response when he texts her back.


A man who starts viewing attractive models on social media and tells himself that they have clothes on, and you can see more skin just going to the beach. It is just too easy to easy for him to keep making small steps until he has returned to hard-core pornography.



Extra caution is warranted for placing substance abuse into the middle circle. Substances like alcohol “light up” the reward center, producing chemicals that create hard-to-resist reactions. Substance abuse can become mentally fused with sexual acting out, making it much more difficult to stay faithful if the substance use is taking place. Our recommendation is to speak to your therapist about this risk and, when in doubt, keep the substance use firmly in the inner circle.


Finally, in the outer circle, the unfaithful partner lists healthy or "top line" behaviors. These "outer circle" behaviors lead the partner away from a future affair. There are behaviors that should be nurtured and cultivated.


Examples include:


  • spending time with family or friends,

  • sex with partner

  • talking to partner

  • walks with partner

  • texting partner during the day

  • eating well

  • getting regular exercise

  • attending a recovery meeting

  • therapy

  • completing therapy homework

  • check-in with spouse

  • receiving spiritual direction

  • going to church, mosque, or other spiritual worship or celebration

  • making amends

  • calling an accountability partner from a support group

  • reading a meaningful reading in one's spiritual tradition

  • helping someone in need

  • writing in a journal

  • completing a section of a recovery workbook



This visual impact of the three circle image can empower the unfaithful partner to recognize when he/she is getting into trouble. This should activate a plan to reach out for help and quickly get back on track.


Once the unfaithful partner has created his circles and run them by his/her therapist, he/she should feel free to share the 3 Circle Plan with his partner. Only do so once you are on Step 4 of the Roadmap. Sharing this information prematurely (before the FTD) may end up causing a premature disclosure of partial information and cause undue pain for both partners.


The couple should have an agreement that slips or relapses, no matter how small, be shared with the partner within 24-48 hours. Allowing a reasonable amount of time to lapse before sharing allows the unfaithful partner to connect with his/her support system (mentor, accountability partner, sponsor, or therapist) to process the slip or relapse.


The unfaithful partner can also get some advice on the best way to share the what happened so that the disclosure is straight-forward and completely transparent. It is also wise to avoid any hint of defensiveness, minimization, or rationalization. The unfaithful partner will also have some time to anticipate questions and to prepare to respond honestly to questions of facts and with empathy to difficult feelings which may arise.


Please realize that the content of the circles will change over time as the unfaithful partner becomes increasingly aware of how he/she reacts to different temptations as well as healthy activities. Be sure that you discuss changes in your circle with someone trustworthy as it may be tempting to "loosen" the circle as a way to ease your way back into behavior that is dangerous for your recovery.

3 Circles Recovery Plan
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