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.

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