In all 12 Step programs, we are told that we can change sponsors at will. This sounds light and uncomplicated, but in reality, it is rarely so easy. We develop deep relationships with our sponsors and sponsees, often blurring the line between friendship and the sponsor/sponsee relationship.
I have been on both ends of bad breakups and let me tell you, it hurts either way. Most painful were the breakups where I thought a friendship transcended program and was unpleasantly surprised to discover it didn’t. I have also been involved with simple, considerate breakups, and there is a world of difference between them.
Because of this, I would like to give you some thoughts and suggestions about how to maximize this relationship.
Before I do, let’s remember that we are not paid to sponsor and no sponsee is held at gunpoint. We sponsor as service. We get a sponsor so we can be abstinent and free from debt one day at a time. Our sponsors guide us on this journey. They say we should get a sponsor who has what we want and ask how it was achieved. The next sentence is only implied — then we follow direction. If the sponsor no longer has what we want, then we are free to move on. Otherwise, we do what is asked of us, even if it is challenging. But it is how we enter and extricate ourselves from either side of the relationship that is the main topic of this post.
So here are some thoughts on how to have good sponsor/sponsee relationships, and how to break up with grace and integrity.
Do not pick a friend as a sponsor.
The lines will inevitably get blurred. The only exception is if you both agree to shelve your friendship during the time you are in this relationship. You only have 15 minutes each day and you don’t want to feel guilty about not listening to the sponsor’s issues during your call or worse, have extended calls because your sponsor launched in anyway.
In my opinion, as a sponsee, you don’t want to know about your sponsor’s issues. It could make you feel uncomfortable and take the focus off of your recovery. I’m not saying to be unfriendly, but I strongly suggest being clear that for the duration of the sponsor/sponsee relationship, it stay one-sided, with each doing his or her role.
For instance, I have a sponsor in another fellowship who used to be a friend. We would talk and share equally. Now, as my sponsor, she only reveals her own issues when it is relevant to helping me with one of mine. She turns to others for outreach, leaving me free to have a full, unencumbered sponsee experience. Because of this clean line drawn, should our sponsor/sponsee relationship end, I’m sure we would revert to sharing on outreach.
Do not co-sponsor
Because of the intimate nature of this relationship, it is a bad idea for the same reasons as described above. Your “co” may hear things from you as a sponsee that will upset him or her when they are in that role. It is too enmeshed of a relationship and sooner or later problems will inevitably bubble up. Please trust me on this one as I speak from painful experience in more than one program.
Have a test period
If possible, take a two week trial period for the sponsorship relationship to see if this is a good match. Because there are not many available sponsors, we may jump at any opportunity. However, as with any relationship, it may not work for a variety of reasons. Yes, we all work our DA HOW program in the same basic way, but there are different personalities and small variations. For instance, some sponsors insist you call if there is additional spending, while others are fine if you text.
When you have a trial period, it may sting, but will be far less painful if one or the other says it is not working out. In this case, there is generally no need for explanation because you have not established a long-term relationship. One can simply be gracious and thank the other for the opportunity to work with him or her and move on.
It is always kind to leave an open door in case the situation turns around and the sponsor needs to be sponsored. Or a friendship might grow out of a sponsor/sponsee relationship that wasn’t a good fit. One never knows what life brings. But if one is kind and lets go without blame in such a case, there will never be resentment or a need to apologize later.
Do not stay in an abusive sponsor/sponsee relationship
While it is always advisable to be thoughtful and examine one’s motives for changing sponsors or letting go of a sponsee, one should extricate oneself quickly if the situation is abusive. This is where a strong network comes in.
Often, we may think we are being hurt when in reality, our sponsor is simply showing us our defects and aiding us in our spiritual growth. Alternatively we may be in an unhealthy sponsor/sponsee relationship and think we are doing something wrong. Please pray, meditate, and talk to your network before making a move rather than stewing in your pain alone or jumping ship impulsively.
Examples of problems in the sponsor/sponsee relationship
If any of the following happen, I believe it is appropriate to leave the relationship:
- The sponsor isn’t available at your agreed-upon time on a regular basis.
- The sponsor only gives you part of your 15 minutes.
- The sponsor is clearly multi-tasking and not listening to you.
- You feel like you have to walk on eggshells and do not feel safe with your sponsor.
- The sponsor launches in with his or her problems during your call without being asked.
- The sponsor attempts to control your life in areas other than your spending.
- The sponsor is nasty, yells at you, or consistently criticizes you.
- The sponsee consistently misses the call entirely or calls late.
- The sponsee is nasty or yells at you.
- The sponsee call consistently goes on longer than 15 minutes.
- The sponsee does not respect boundaries of when to text or call at additional times, such as late at night or early morning.
- The sponsee lies to you.
A little less clear are the following scenarios, and I think what you do would depend on your relationship with the person:
- The sponsor gives you unsolicited advice on issues unrelated to money or debt. I have been guilty of doing so and it has been helpful for a sponsee to tell me that I am doing so, giving me the opportunity to improve in that area.
- You feel like the sponsor is judging your choices. In this case, if you have a strong relationship with the sponsor, I urge you to have an honest conversation about the issue. People who really value recovery want to grow in tolerance and understanding. Sometimes, it may simply be a miscommunication. But having the courage to speak up can prevent a resentment from brewing.
- The sponsor has health or other issues that cause him or her to ask you to get a temp sometimes. If you have an otherwise good relationship, it may be worth being flexible in order to maintain the relationship.
- The sponsee makes a mistake. We all make mistakes. I look for intention. If the person clearly wanted to do the right thing, but inadvertently did something wrong, that is simply a learning experience. For instance, the person didn’t realize she was over in a category and thought she still had money to spend, but discovered the error when reconciling her spending plan. That is not the same as deliberately spending without committing it first.
- The sponsee is dishonest, but it is an anomaly. I had a situation where this happened. It was more sneaky than dishonest and didn’t cause a debt, but unexpected spending that was suddenly urgent. It wouldn’t have been urgent had the sponsee been forthright about the situation as it developed. However, we talked it through and it was a learning experience for both of us.
Do not make your sponsor your Higher Power
To a sponsee, losing a long-term sponsor can be devastating and turn one’s whole world upside down, sometimes leading to relapse or even leaving the program. But we must always remember that the sponsor is just another tool in our arsenal and not our Higher Power. If we continue to work our program, reaching out to others daily to turn over our numbers and writing, we will stay in Recovery and eventually find another sponsor. Losing a sponsor is not an excuse to debt, but some members play on this pain as a reason to do so.
None of us are saints! We are all just suffering debtors trying to stay in recovery and help each other one day at a time. I implore you not to make your recovery dependent on a sponsor. I learned years ago that people will disappoint us. People are not our program of recovery. The steps and a relationship with our Higher Power are the program. Sponsors are simply one way of carrying the message.
Do not become overly dependent on your sponsor
In order to keep from making your sponsor your Higher Power, I believe that it is imperative to develop a network of people in program to turn to for support and to whom you can give service. The DA HOW “rule” to make one call a day may seem like a pain (to me) sometime, but it is the only way those of us whose tendency is to isolate will develop relationships in the program.
Remember, you are not the only call your sponsor receives and makes. He should not be the only person you turn to in times of distress. In fact, it may be best not to have your sponsor on your PRG team. I turn to my PRG team to help me with big spending decisions and pressures, while my sponsor helps me with day-to-day choices and issues.
But the most important reason for having a well-developed network is that they will keep you buoyed up if you lose your sponsor until you find another. Yes, in a sense we are dependent on each other for support, but we don’t want to become overly dependent on any one individual.
In long-term relationships, be honest if the relationship is going south
Just as with any relationship we have, it is important to treat a long-term sponsoring relationship with respect and kindness. When two people have worked together over time, a close, intimate bond of trust has been formed. Likely, the sponsee has shared parts of himself that he may never have exposed before, becoming completely vulnerable to the sponsor. For instance, he may have shared a fifth step with the sponsor. Certainly, the sponsor has been a key resource in the sponsee’s life to guide him in his journey.
As a sponsor, we feel a lot of responsibility for our long-term sponsees. We have watched them grow and thrive over time, been there when crises happened, and helped them forgive themselves through mistakes or slips.
When you have developed a long-term relationship, leaving a sponsor or dropping a sponsee is a serious matter. If you are contemplating doing so, try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. How would you like to be treated if the situation were reversed?
If you have decided that you need to drop a sponsee, rather than just dropping her cold, why not let her know that she will have to look for another sponsor and give her a few weeks to do so? If you bring this up sooner rather than waiting until it is unbearable, it will allow you to end the relationship with an open door for friendship, and trust will remain intact.
And then there is the question of what to tell your sponsor or sponsee if you need to move on.
Relationships grow stronger by facing tough issues, not by avoiding them.
If you are feeling that things aren’t good between you and your sponsor, why not gently talk about the issues before they blow up into a crisis? If you have developed a long-term relationship, then surely you know the sponsor well enough to be able to talk about sensitive issues. No one working a recovery program wants to cause harm to a sponsee. I, for one, want to know if I have inadvertently done so. It is an opportunity for me to grow. The same is true in reverse.
In program, we learn ways to communicate honestly so that we can be gentle and still tell a painful truth without being mean and blaming, ensuring that both parties walk away without rancor … and a need for later amends.
Consequences of Bad Breakups
If we don’t talk about issues in the relationship as they come up, but let things build to a boil and then act without warning, we risk losing the trust of the other person. While life may not be fair, it is compassionate to have unpleasant conversations with those we care about so they are not blind-sided when the relationship is about to change. Trust is fragile.
I’m not saying that such a conversation wouldn’t cause pain, but it will cause less harm than ending the relationship suddenly and with no explanation. Sometimes, such a discussion will clear the air and the relationship may be stronger than before. Other times, the sponsor/sponsee relationship will end anyway, but both parties will leave with clear understanding, and an open door for future friendship. There may be hurt feelings that need to heal, but trust will remain intact and the relationship will be left in the light of truth.
Putting the Program into practice
If you do experience a “bad” breakup, you can turn to the Big Book for comfort and guidance. (You may even want to write a “mini” Fourth Step around the breakup.) As it says on page 67,
We realized that the people who wronged us were perhaps spiritually sick. Though we did not like their symptoms and the way these disturbed us, they, like ourselves, were sick too. We asked God to help us show them the same tolerance, pity, and patience that we would cheerfully grant a sick friend. When a person offended, we said to ourselves, “This is a sick man. How can I be helpful to him? God save me from being angry. Thy will be done.”
We can pray for the person if we cannot let go of our feelings, as described on page 552 of the Big Book (4th edition)
If you have resentment you want to be free of, if you will pray for the person or thing that you resent, you will be free. If you will ask in prayer for everything you want for yourself to be given to them, you will be free. Ask for their health, their prosperity, their happiness, and you will be free. Even when you don’t really want it for them and your prayers are only words and you don’t mean it, go ahead and do it anyway. Do it everyday for two weeks, and you will find you have come to mean it and to want it for them, and you will realize that where you used to feel bitterness and resentment and hatred, you now feel compassionate, understanding and love.
And finally, we can ask our Higher Power to show us where we may have caused harm and be willing to look at our own defects so that we can grow spiritually, and improve our relationship with our Higher Power and those around us. As it says on page 84 of the Big Book:
This thought brings us to Step Ten, which suggests we continue to take personal inventory and continue to set right any new mistakes as we go along. We vigorously commenced this way of living as we cleaned up the past. We have entered the world of the Spirit. Our next function is to grow in understanding and effectiveness. This is not an overnight matter. It should continue for our lifetime. Continue to watch for selfishness, dishonesty, resentment, and fear. When these crop up, we ask God at once to remove them. We discuss them with someone immediately and make amends quickly if we have harmed anyone. Then we resolutely turn our thoughts to someone we can help. Love and tolerance of others is our code.
In the end, isn’t that what Program is all about?