Sponsor/Sponsee Breakups

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:

Sponsors

  1. The sponsor isn’t available at your agreed-upon time on a regular basis.
  2. The sponsor only gives you part of your 15 minutes.
  3. The sponsor is clearly multi-tasking and not listening to you.
  4. You feel like you have to walk on eggshells and do not feel safe with your sponsor.
  5. The sponsor launches in with his or her problems during your call without being asked.
  6. The sponsor attempts to control your life in areas other than your spending.
  7. The sponsor is nasty, yells at you, or consistently criticizes you.

Sponsees

  1. The sponsee consistently misses the call entirely or calls late.
  2. The sponsee is nasty or yells at you.
  3. The sponsee call consistently goes on longer than 15 minutes.
  4. The sponsee does not respect boundaries of when to text or call at additional times, such as late at night or early morning.
  5. The sponsee lies to you.

Gray areas

A little less clear are the following scenarios, and I think what you do would depend on your relationship with the person:

Sponsor

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Sponsee

  1. 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.
  2. 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?

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13 thoughts on “Sponsor/Sponsee Breakups

  1. Excellent post! I would like to add one thing – as a newcomer, I was very shocked when after 1 month of diligently working the DA-HOW program, my sponsor broke up with me because I was not a Christian. If sponsors are judgmental of people’s religion or lifestyle, they need to be up front about it. It was devastating to me to have told this person intimate details about my life only to have her toss me aside because of such a silly difference. After about 8 months, I am finally returning to the program, because it truly was an excellent help to me, but the whole process of getting another DA-HOW sponsor fills me with dread.

    I have talked to some other people in the program who have had similar circumstances, where their sponsors “fired” them for having lifestyles they don’t agree with (things that don’t have any bearing on their financial situation, obviously). While I realize sponsors aren’t perfect, it seems like if someone is diligently working the program, they should be able to transcend petty bigotry.

    It is quite terrible to give someone your ultimate trust and then have them betray you, and I’m not sure that I will be able to give the next sponsor (if there is one) the same degree of confidence.

    • I couldn’t agree with you more. While I have not had that experience, myself, I have seen the harmful effects of that attitude on other members. I’m glad you came back. There are many more people who are not like that than those who are in my experience. Thank you for taking the time to write.

  2. I have been sponsoring someone for over a year and feel like I am always walking on eggshells around my sponsee; I never seem to do anything right and she rarely consults me for advice, only checks in once a week via email or text.
    I’m thinking of letting her go because it’s too triggering to try to help her when most of my suggestions or attempts at connecting with her are criticized or dismissed. She’s almost done with step 4 and I can’t imagine guiding her through step 5, it would take heroic amounts of detachment on my part.

    • Just want to respond to your heartfelt post. I can only speak for myself, but if I feel very uncomfortable with a sponsee, it would affect my recovery and I would have to lovingly let her go for my own recovery. Also, please remember that we don’t give advice as sponsors, but only share our experience, strength, and hope with our sponsees. If a sponsee refused to take direction, however, I would remind her that we find a sponsor who has what we want and ask how it was achieved. I also wouldn’t work with a sponsee who was defiant. Again, just my own opinion. Remember, there are many who are desperate for recovery and would take direction. Wishing you the best with your situation.

      • I don’t understand how I can read in DA literature and hear at meetings that sponsors don’t require sponsees to adhere to their advice or orders, but instead are to share their experience, strength and hope with their sponsees. I have not found this to be the case in many sponsor-sponsee relationships. For example, in Sober With Money’s post above, she begins by saying that sponsors don’t give advice to sponsees, but in the next sentence reveals that she is not likely to continue working with someone who doesn’t “take direction.” Which is it? I don’t think that this dichotomy is at all unusual. I would like the DA fellowship to give some serious thought to this issue. I seem to recall reading somewhere in DA literature, the Big Book or the Twelve and Twelve that, in fact, it is best NOT to tell a sponsee what to do as their nature makes it likely for them to react against this. That wisdom, however, seems to be frequently overlooked. For myself, I find DA to be very helpful in general, and I will continue to attend meetings and use various tools. I think that sponsors can obviously be extremely useful to their sponsees when they speak about what has worked for them. However, sponsors are imperfect–as are we all, some more than others–and ultimately I want to be the person who decides what is best for me.

      • This is a very good observation and I thought the post made clear what I meant, but since there is still a question, I’d like to respond to “WantingClarity.” What I mean is that if I am your DA sponsor, I shouldn’t be telling you how to handle your marital problems or what jobs you have to seek (advice-giving). However, I work my program in a certain way regarding money. That is the experience, strength, and hope (ESH) I have to offer (direction).

        I see advice as meddling in outside issues. Direction is what I can pass on to help someone become and stay sober with money based on my own recovery from compulsive debting in DA.

        I have tried other ways, but they never worked out for me. So, since the way I work my program has kept me recovering one day at a time, that is how I sponsor. For example, if I tell the sponsee to call me every morning to tell me what she spent, etc., and she refuses to do that, I cannot sponsor her because that is not what worked for me. That sponsee would want a sponsor who can be solvent without calling in numbers daily.

        Direction, to me, means asking a sponsee to do what I do to work the program. Direction wouldn’t be interfering in other parts of the sponsee’s life, such as telling her how to raise her children.

        I believe I can share my ESH about issues other than the money and spending, but I must be careful to keep it to MY experience as opposed to telling the sponsee what to do (advice).

        However, if sponsors didn’t give direction as to how to be in recovery, we wouldn’t have a program. In Step 12, it’s about passing on what has helped us. And absolutely, I believe that is what got me sober with money … my doing what my sponsor told me to do about getting and staying abstinent with money (direction).

        I hope that makes the subject more clear.

    • After months of bossing me around, micromanaging my recovery, and treating me as if I were a wayward child, I finally put my foot down with my sponsor. She had insisted I hand-write Step 3 instead of typing it, and I wanted to type it. I explained that if I was going to have my full moral inventory on paper I wanted it password-protected. (She said the big book said that it must be handwritten, but I checked and it doesn’t). When she found out I had decided to type it in spite of her saying to hand write it, she broke up with me. She said if I wasn’t going to work the program the way it was intended (read: do exactly as she says), she was wasting her time. It was the first time I had not done things exactly her way.

      • Hi Melissa,

        Thanks for taking the time to write. I can empathize with your situation. And you are correct. The Big Book does not state that one must hand-write the fourth step inventory. But, there is also something to be said for writing by hand, which can be done in a locked diary or keeping the writing in a locked case. However, I think that there is a bigger issue here.

        When we choose a sponsor who has what we want and ask how they achieved it, we then do what they did or find someone else.

        What is most important is to remember that we are all just compulsive debtors/spenders walking the path of recovery. Your sponsor is no more or less flawed than you or me. This is just what worked for her and what she believes.

        Try to bear in mind that for someone who sponsors in that way, it may bring up fear and even threaten her own recovery if she is challenged. It is clearly her belief that this is the only way that works … for her.

        As sponsees, some of us need more specific direction than others and some of us even need to be micromanaged, at least for a time (I sure did!).

        It is hard at times like what you describe, to remember that your ex-sponsor was just passing on what worked for her and not trying to harm you. It sounds like a gift that she let you go so you can find a sponsor who fits you better.

        I’m sorry that the message seemed so harsh, but please try to remember that we all can only give to others what works for us. And we are all human, with character defects we spend a lifetime working to have our Higher Power remove. Sometimes, unfortunately, rigor and control go hand-in-hand.

        But please do not give up or leave program. There are many types of sponsors with many different styles. And I hope you will pray for your ex-sponsor as the Big Book suggests on page 552 of the 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.”

        I wish you the best on your continued recovery,
        Susan B.

  3. Thank you for your blog. I agree with what you have said.
    After my 5th step i had a brief relationship with a man (I chide someone abusive to show myself some things about myself). Not surprisingly, I ended up abused. I was left vulnerable.
    My sponsor who I trusted with every detail of my life began to cross through my boundaries and cause me more damage in an effort to steal what she could as well. It was emotional molestation. I realize today she had reached a place where spiritual growth gets harder and she just couldn’t keep going without some extra self-esteem. I just couldn’t trust what i thought I saw was going on and had severe PTSD from family betrayals and was afraid to be alone in a crisis so I hung on to her until she took the initiative and ended the relationship.
    It was absolutely devastating but what is worse is the back door gossip in the rooms where she has joined others who have their own motives for gossiping about me.
    I guess we have some sick stuff going on in meetings here.
    I have told her how I feel but she won’t come clean or stop it.
    I have heard it said “If you can’t help an addict please don’t hurt one”

    • Thank you for your comment. I am so sorry for your pain. This is when we remember why we turn to our Higher Power and that people can disappoint us (or worse) even with good motives, and also that all of us are just sick and suffering addicts at different stages of our journey. Many of us, myself included, have experienced the pain of sponsors not being who we thought they were as well. Here is a link to some wonderful Big Book information on forgiveness:
      http://www.sober.org/ForgBB.html

      Wishing you peace and healing.

      • Hi again and thanks for the link. I read it but I haven’t done anything to this person. It’s stealing too much wellness from me and I’m using good etc to cope with all the abuse in getting so my decision is to say something openly in a meeting about it, or do it in another way. I know how to do it with love. My whole story is not speaking up, I’ve never found my voice, and if her and her friends step on my toes I can give them some growing pains. They know better.
        I get this because I say nothing and it’s gone on for too long. It’s not my job to rescue other people.

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