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When Sponsors Give Relationship Advice

By Taylor Ellsworth 09/04/12

There’s nothing in the "Big Book" about the exact role sponsors should play. So how are newcomers supposed to know if sponsors are overstepping their bounds?

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Should I be plugging my ears? Photo via

“I love my sponsor but I just feel like she is too emotionally invested in my relationship.”

I caught myself disclosing this bit of information to anyone who would listen in the months before I made the decision to get a new sponsor. Over the course of three years, I’d called her nearly every time my boyfriend and I had gotten in a fight or whenever I’d become overwhelmed with abandonment anxiety and felt like I needed to ask her for guidance. Calling another alcoholic, particularly a sponsor, when distressed is one of the quintessential coping skills taught in AA meetings. “Call your sponsor, go to a meeting and pray” is really the ABC of recovery advice within the rooms. This advice is particularly helpful to those new to sobriety, who don’t yet know how to handle a missed train or stubbed toe without reaching compulsively for a bottle, a bump or a hit. A sponsor can talk a newcomer down from the ledge or just listen until the alcoholic’s crushing hopelessness subsides and he or she begins to regain perspective.

Seemingly regardless of the complaint, I was usually told not to criticize my boyfriend or ask for anything, regardless of how badly I wanted it.

But when does this suggestion, one repeated so often in meetings that it has become unwritten sobriety law, no longer apply? The Big Book’s lack of direction in the realm of sponsorship leaves the role of a sponsor up for interpretation—by anyone, really, because you’re a member of AA when you say you are.

After a few months of staying sober, most members experience a transition. Recovery in 12-step programs stops being about just staying sober and becomes more of a daily effort, however unnatural, to make right former wrongs and help others by being a productive, honest, and useful member of society. In my using days, I called in sick on a weekly basis when I was hung over or just feeling especially narcissistic and lazy. The amends, my sponsor told me, was to show up to my new job, regardless of whether I’d stayed up until 3 AM watching The Office on Netflix or not. Steps 10, 11, and 12 instruct us to do daily inventories, make amends on the spot as necessary, communicate with a Higher Power, and attempt to pass AA and sobriety along to others.

When my sobriety made the transition from a frenzied series of tearful phone calls and social-anxiety induced meltdowns to a life that was somewhat manageable and relatively calm, I tried to incorporate steps 10, 11 and 12 into my life, as instructed. I also continued to call my sponsor when I felt upset, irrational, irritable, or frustrated. I still often lacked the emotional maturity to process my feelings without being consumed by them and talking them out with another person—usually regardless of what she had to say in response—was an easy way to self-soothe. Opening up to a fellow human when distressed is not a tidbit of wisdom that is unique to AA—therapy, after all, is a full-blown industry based upon the concept that verbalizing our feelings and fears makes them more bearable—but the fact that this person should be a sponsor whose advice we blindly follow is.

My moments of distress were often grounded in my romantic relationship. It’s not that my relationship is unhealthy—it is far healthier and much more real than any other farce of a commitment I attempted to make in the past. As far as I can tell, my relationship is relatively normal. I, however, am not. Depression, anxiety, alcoholism and the chronic low-self esteem that plagues anyone who has routinely ingested drugs and stuck a finger down her throat as a solution to insecurity left me with a series of neuroses that routinely interrupt the normalcy of my sober life and drive bitter wedges of distrust into my relationships. Additionally, as the result of being emotionally stunted at 13 by my drug use and mentally dominated by my fear of abandonment, I fail, at times, to be able to differentiate between the proverbial cat setting off the car alarm when she walks across the hood from the carjacker who breaks in to steal my stereo and purse. In practical terms, that means that I called my sponsor both when my boyfriend didn’t do the dishes after dinner and after the few blow-out fights that might actually have been worth talking about, conflating each with occasions that necessitated sponsorly guidance.

She welcomed the phone calls and commended me for making the effort to do the next right thing. If nothing else, they at least provided 15 minutes to gather my thoughts and refrain from fighting. But then came the advice. Her catchphrase seemed to be “It’s none of your business.” Seemingly regardless of the complaint, I was usually told not to criticize my boyfriend or ask for anything, regardless of how badly I wanted it; other times, she suggested sharing with him a list of every expectation I had for the relationship, along with an ultimatum and a written time limit by which my expectations should be fulfilled. It was inconsistent and confusing, but the AA logic that was now ingrained told me that she knew better than I; that if I didn’t follow all my sponsor’s suggestions, I was headed toward my next drink.

One day when I was feeling a particularly nasty brand of self-doubt and insecurity, I blew up on my boyfriend for neglecting to provide any validation for a new piece of my writing. I hadn’t told him it had been published; I’d assumed that he saw the link I’d posted to Facebook, as I had all the other times he’d said nothing about my work. I’d complained repeatedly to my sponsor about the lack of approval, receiving her signature response nearly every time. I wasn’t supposed to ask him to read my stuff, or what he thought of it; to do so would be selfish and grounded in ego. To my surprise, he was horrified; he had no idea that I’d been anxiously awaiting his approval every time he missed the compulsory Twitter or Facebook post for each new piece of work. All I had to do was let him know when there was something new to read. Had I done this the first time he missed a chance to placate my needs for attention—which was what I had wanted to do, before I was told to keep it to myself—the teary, blubbering blowup could have been avoided entirely. Incidents like this have happened throughout my recovery, but something about the ridiculousness of that moment—that I could have avoided feeling awful and imposing the feeling upon my boyfriend had I just listened to my first instinct, rather than asking for advice out of habit—really struck me. I had been trained to ignore my first instinct. The “first thought wrong” mentality that pervades meetings is helpful for newcomers whose minds constantly turn back to drugs and alcohol, but what happens when the message is internalized, long after the obsession is gone? I was left with a refusal to trust myself.

I began to question the frequency with which my sponsor had been giving me advice. I peddled my tale to other women in AA who shared similar stories: a sponsor who obsessively encouraged one woman to form a relationship with an old-timer; a young woman whose sponsor aggressively tried to set her up with a male friend, even after a spectacularly anticlimactic first date; and another, whose sponsor touted the idea that because many women in the program suffered rape during or prior to our addictions, it was only logical that the program’s male population was comprised mostly of former rapists, none of whom were to be trusted.

It seemed that relationship advice and opinions about sex were being tossed around, specifically amongst women, under the guise of sponsorly direction as frequently as the more basic suggestions like 90 meetings in 90 days. Though there are no specific guidelines for sponsorship and advice-giving within the pages of the Big Book, the fabled page 69, which provides a vague overview of AA’s somewhat feeble stance on sex and relationships, states “Counsel with persons is often desirable, but we let God be the final judge...We avoid hysterical thinking or advice.” So there it is. We should talk to people about our sex lives, but look to a Higher Power for the right answer, while avoiding the dispensing of advice when another alcoholic comes to us. Many sponsors are guilty of giving direction when they really shouldn’t but sponsees are encouraged by both shares in meetings and the Big Book to discuss their relationships. Since we alcoholics cannot stand discomfort, we conflate discussion with problem solving; we look to others for all the answers because we don’t want to face the dangerous possibility of trusting our own volatile instincts. Can we really blame sponsors—who are still alcoholic to the core, despite sobriety time—for bending to the allure of appearing to have all the answers when faced with the temptation of a desperate soul, one who will believe practically anything on the off-chance that it will dispel some of their chronic discomfort?

I know that my sponsor’s heart was in the right place when she was giving me advice. She sincerely cared about me and wanted to help. Somewhere in those three years that we worked together, the line between sharing her experience, strength and hope and offering advice unrelated to AA blurred. She just wanted to help me but the made-up ideas that stem from the somewhat codependent desire to fix another person often come at the expense of truly helping someone. Oft-repeated AA lore tells us that if we simply follow direction, we will get “the results.” Maybe I got greedy with AA because it seemed limitless; it performed the miracle of sobriety on me when I took the initial steps so why shouldn’t continuing to walk its path open other doors that once seemed to be padlocked from my existence? 

Guru-ism and the combination of the appearance of skill with expertise are not confined to AA, though. The internet has made it possible for anyone to be a hero, a fitness expert or a motivational speaker, provided they have a working knowledge of HTML and a narcissistic streak. In situations where the advice-giver is particularly protected from consequence—hidden behind a computer screen or glorified under by the title of sponsor—it is easy to get caught up in the ego boost that follows the ejaculation of advice. 

Ultimately, neither the sponsor nor the sponsee are to blame. Cultural dynamics, the ambiguity of AA’s stance on relationships and sponsorship, and vulnerabilities of the alcoholic personality contribute to the dysfunctional sponsor-sponsee relationships that can transpire within the rooms. I was lucky to realize that the dynamic between my sponsor and I was unhealthy before ruining my relationship over misguided efforts to improve it. I now have a sponsor who only shares ideas that might be helpful when she has experience specific to the situation. I can only hope that in my continued, sloppy attempts to help others, I can do the same, keeping this slightly less-ambiguous tip from the Big Book in mind: “When working with a man and his family, you should take care not to participate in their quarrels. You may spoil your chance of being helpful if you do.” The Achilles’ heel of AA is that we can’t kick anyone out or force people to do things differently. All I can do is hope to be a better example of what ended up working for me.

Taylor Ellsworth writes from Portland, Oregon. She also wrote about getting fired by a sponsee and managing her eating disorder, among other topics, for The Fix. Follow her on Twitter here.

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