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The Truth About the 13th Step

What Is The 13th Step?

Millions of people with drug and alcohol addictions have found solace, guidance, and lasting sobriety in 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA).

Those new to addiction recovery, however, may be surprised to realize that an informal “step” exists in some of these programs as well.

Although it’s not an official part of AA or its affiliated organizations, “the 13th step” is used to describe men and women who begin a relationship with new members to the program. These individuals tend to have more than a year of sobriety under their belt and use their experience and success to ignite intimate relationships with new members.

At the onset, this doesn’t necessarily sound like a terrible thing. For some, getting sober may seem like an isolating, difficult experience. Wouldn’t dating someone with a track record of sobriety provide comfort, affection, inspiration, and even greater motivation to stay sober?

But “the 13th step” is rife with complications. Melody Anderson, a therapist who helmed the Friends and Family program at Hazelden, puts it this way: “It creates a differing power ratio where someone is gaining power over someone who is weaker, and it can endanger both of their sobriety.”

Here’s the truth behind 13th stepping—and why it should be handled with caution.

Early Recovery Requires Focus

Lasting sobriety necessitates concentration on a number of matters, from remaining committed to a more wholesome lifestyle in general to avoiding people and places that might trigger a relapse.

Such focus is especially true in the early stages of drug and alcohol addiction recovery, when you’re learning how to navigate life without substances. Romantic relationships are undeniably distracting. Even a positive relationship takes time and energy away from the quiet and solitude some discover they need in order to stay sober, especially if a more seasoned member convinces you to spend time with them instead of attending a meeting or engaging in another activity that will strengthen your recovery. A negative relationship, meanwhile, can provoke distress and heartache.

Self-knowledge is a key component in recovery, and when a person involves themselves in a new relationship, their self-knowledge is made in the context of the relationship, and may not be as useful as simply having a support network.

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The End of a 13th Step Relationship May Prompt a Relapse

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, stress is one of the leading causes of relapse. As one might imagine, a relationship intertwined with one’s recovery can cause undue stress if it were to end, and jeopardize both people in their recovery.

A breakup for anyone can be devastating. For those in early recovery, the stress of a separation, coupled with the newness of sobriety, can be twice as hazardous. This is just one of the many reasons why it’s widely recommended that one should avoid dating during the first year of addiction recovery. While existing relationships and marriages can hit the rocks during recovery, they can also exist as a support network independent of one’s sobriety and don’t often carry these complications. New relationships tend not to be as strong and are made in a period of vulnerability.

That Breakup Could Turn You Off from Support Meetings

While Alcoholics Anonymous and similar groups may not be for everyone, they’ve helped countless individuals stay sober by providing a supportive community that encourages abstinence.

That sense of community can be shattered when a sexual or romantic partnership with a more veteran member goes sour, or if you’re put off by their advances. “A lot of the people coming into recovery are vulnerable,” psychologist Dr. Ellen Dye told The Fix. “They don’t have great boundaries, and if they go into a group and feel alienated or violated, it’s very hard for them to go back in.”

It’s for the best if you’re attending support meetings to prioritize your relationship with the support group as a whole rather than individual members.

The 13th Step May Not Be What You Expect

The concept of the 13th step made national headlines when Newsweek published an expose about a cultlike AA group in Washington D.C. Women from the group reported “feeling pressure to sleep with older group members.” Others were bullied into ceasing other forms of addiction treatment, including being told to stop taking medications and to give up therapy.

While such cases are rare, it’s something to be aware of and to serve as a lesson for emerging attendees. There are a myriad of reasons at the root of addiction, from trauma to mental illness and family history. Encouraging someone to not seek professional or medical help for these issues and others can place one’s sobriety in jeopardy. Remember that your recovery is your responsibility. That means that while you are in charge of being vigilant about staying sober, it also means you have the power in your recovery.

When it comes to the 13th Step, the takeaway is this: don’t let another person dictate to you how to engage in your recovery. Tying yourself up in a relationship from the get-go can result in giving up that control in your sobriety. Be cautious about relationships early in recovery, and always prioritize yourself.

Sobriety Starts By Asking For Help. Call Our 24 Hour Rehab: 800-910-3734