Sponsors: the missing link for many recovering sex addicts

Sponsorship is the missing link for many people in recovery … and especially for sex addicts. Sex addicts are especially prone to isolation and many guys struggle with the willingness to persevere in the ups and downs that occur in sponsor relationships. (I’ll be using male language here, because this was originally written for the 90 Days to Sexual Sanity program … which is for male sexual strugglers.)

I don’t have empirical research to back this up, but I talk to a lot of people about this subject, and continue to get this message: the sex addict who’s actively working with a sponsor is the exception rather than the rule. That’s a big part of the reason why so many people are struggling and not recovering.

In early AA, there were no “walkins.” People didn’t come to the meetings without being sponsored in by someone. AA continues to have a stronger commitment to sponsorship than most sex addiction groups.

This is especially true with church based groups like Celebrate Recovery. In fact, the material I have seen from Celebrate Recovery applies principles of sponsorship to either sponsors or “accountability partners.” Big problem.

If you are focusing your recovery around a relationship with an accountability partner, you are asking for trouble. If you were out in the middle of a lake, struggling to swim and starting to drown, who would you rather have … another guy who’s drowning like you, or someone who’s a strong swimmer? Your accountability partner in the water is just as likely to pull you down into the water with him as he is to pull you to shore. Find someone who is further along than you are, who you can learn from and lean on.

If you want to think in terms of accountability partners, that’s fine … just make sure you have a bunch of them. At any given time, one or more of these accountability partners is likely to be unavailable and/or struggling himself with falling off the recovery wagon. In traditional recovery language, these are not accountability partners, these are fellow group members. A sponsor is something different. A sponsor is someone who’s recovery is more firmly established, who has a sponsor himself, and who therefore has the credibility to deserve a certain amount of trust.

What follows are two lists that I have taken from Celebrate Recovery literature … and done lots of editing and changing. This might help you understand more about sponsors:

Question: What is the role of a sponsor?

Let me answer that with a list of several things that a sponsor can do for you:

1. He can be there to discuss issues in detail that are too personal or would take too much time in a meeting. Many sponsors set up a structure of having regular phone contact with their sponsee … sometimes having them call every day. The sponsor can be there to share his or her own experiences and to offer strength and hope. When things are going well, he can encourage you … when you are struggling, or not facing reality, he can challenge you. But most of all, he can listen. The fact that he has gone through the things you’re going through – in terms of recovery challenges – he will have a unique compassion for your problems, and wisdom to share from his experiences.

2. He is available in times of crisis or potential relapse. A sponsor is someone you can call when things are getting rough … even if it’s late at night. A sponsor can give you feedback about what they’re hearing and seeing in you, which will keep you on track. Not only can a sponsor help you during times of crisis, hopefully he can help you avoid times of crisis. A sponsor can see your old dysfunctional, self-defeating patterns beginning to surface and point them out to you quickly. He or she can confront you with truth and love without placing shame or guilt

3. He serves as a sounding board by providing an objective point of view. One of the keys to successful recovery is maintaining an honest view of reality as you go through the ups and downs of life without your “drug” and as you work each step. I have yet to see this program fail for someone who could be completely honest with himself or herself. I have, however, seen some give up on their recoveries because they could not step out of their denial into the truth. Having someone help to keep you honest is a real plus in successfully working their recovery.

4. He is there to encourage you to work the 12 Steps (or principles in the LIFE and Celebrate Recovery programs). What makes recovery group experiences transformative is not simply that they are safe places to be honest … but that they are places that help you do the hard work of looking at yourself and working through the character issues that keep you fixated on sexual behavior. Remember that these are not primarily accountability or confession groups … they are recovery groups. This is not a matter of being picky about word choices. we are talking about two very different approaches to recovery.

The reason many people fail to get help from attending groups – and ultimately fail to recover from sex addiction – is that they don’t work the steps of recovery. They go to groups expecting the group experiences to do something magical for them without investing the time and energy to work the steps that are at the heart of recovery. A sponsor will help you make the most out of your group by helping you work the steps.

Question: What are the qualities of a good sponsor? What should I look for?

When you are selecting a sponsor, look for the following qualities:

1. Does his walk match his talk? Is he living the steps, or the principles or recovery? I have known many people who have the 12 Step “lingo” down pat. But their lifestyle doesn’t match their talk. Be certain that the person who you choose as a sponsor is someone whose life example is worthy of imitation.

2. Does he express the desire to help others on the road to recovery? There is a difference between helping others and trying to fix others. We all need to be careful to guard the sponsorship relationship from becoming unhealthy and codependent.

3. Does he show compassion, care and hope, but not pity? You don’t need someone to feel sorry for you, but you do need someone to be sensitive to your pain. What makes sponsors so helpful is that their experiences as addicts give them unique understanding and compassion for your struggles.

4. Is he a good listener? Do you sense that he honestly cares about what you have to say? You need to be on guard against a sponsor who is too quick to speak and provide solutions. Are they really hearing you? Do they understand your situation?

5. Is he strong enough to confront your denial or procrastination? Does he care enough about you and your recovery to challenge you? Note that this can be the flip side of principle #4. Some of us addicts use “over-talking” as a way to defend ourselves and manipulate others. A good sponsor will see this and cut us off. We may feel like someone is not listening, when in fact they are helping us to focus on the issue and not allowing themselves to be manipulated by our many words.

6. Does he offer suggestions? Sometimes we need help in seeing options or alternatives that we are unable to find on our own. A good sponsor can take an objective view and offer suggestions. He should not give orders, but give alternatives.

7. Can he share his own current struggles with others? Is he willing to open up and be vulnerable and transparent? I don’t know about you, but I don’t want a sponsor who says that he has worked the steps and makes it sound like he’s somehow “arrived.” I want a sponsor who is living and working the steps every day!

4 thoughts on “Sponsors: the missing link for many recovering sex addicts”

  1. Mark,

    Excellent article! If there was any weakness in our five support groups here is the lack of sponsorship committment. It works both ways: The newcomer is hesitant (and afraid) to make new relationships AND the veteran addict seems so busy with his newfound freedom that he ‘forgets’ to follow-up with his new responsibility.

    As I often remind myself, we are dealing with men who have lied, cheated and taken the short cut for years. Their past behavior suggests that resistance is normal…but, NOT ACCEPTABLE. We will continue to encourage the sponsorship model in our meetings.

    1. Leroy,
      There are a few options from 12 step groups, and possibly from LIFE ministries as well, a Christian Recovery organization for sex addiction. First, with 12 step groups, both SA and SAA offer a lot of resources for people who don’t have local meetings. They both have a variety of online or telephone “meetings” where people can get to a meeting even if they don’t have one locally. In addition, I believe they also provide ways of getting a sponsor who is not local (using either email or phone … likely a combination). Try searching the following websites for information about getting online sponsors: http://sa.org (sexaholics anonymous … you may have to email them to get info on online groups and sponsors) http://sexaa.org (sex addicts anonymous … there offerings of online meetings and sponsors is more clear on their website http://freedomeveryday.org (LIFE groups … I know for sure they have online meetings, not sure about sponsorship). If that doesn’t work, you could also contract with a Recovery Coach to get assistance in recovery. I have done some of that … but there is a cost involved, and I don’t see recovery coaching as an alternative to sponsorship. It can provide some support though. Blessings!

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