Personal Relationships with Group Members: Pros and Cons

Contributor: written by Sonora Behavioral Health clinical content team member Hugh C. McBride.

Beach couple laughing in love romance on travelFor both patients and family members, support groups can play important roles during the residential phase of treatment and after the patient has returned home. For individuals who are struggling with addiction, groups that are based on the 12-step model, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA), can be lifelong sources of support.

For family members of recovering addicts, groups, such as Al-Anon and Alateen, can provide an essential connection with others who are experiencing similar challenges. Support groups are not limited to addiction-related topics or to the 12-step model.

In the decades since the founding of AA, a myriad of support groups have formed for patients and caregivers that are associated with a wide range of physical and mental health issues.

Meaningful Connections

Support groups offer many benefits, including the opportunity to learn from, offer support to, and otherwise form meaningful connections with others who are in similar circumstances.

Of course, as is the case with virtually all interpersonal relationships, forming personal connections with members of a support group can be both advantageous and problematic.

Among the obvious pros, personal relationships between two members of a support group is that the individuals have at least one important connection: the issue that they or their loved one is dealing with. Because recovery-based support groups address topics of such significance, the common issue shared by members of the group is likely to play a major role in their lives.

Personal Relationships Outside of Support Groups

People walking on path with others from Support GroupsIn recovery groups such as AA and NA, personal relationships that extend beyond the walls of the meeting room are part of the program model. In these programs, participants are encouraged to select another member of the group as their sponsor.

Sponsorship is a one-on-one relationship that can provide the new member, or the sponsee, with access to the insights and guidance of a member who is more strongly established in his or her recovery.

Sponsorship also allows the sponsor to meet the mandate that is described in the 12th step of the 12-step model: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

The Need for Constant, Close Support

A pamphlet published by Alcoholics Anonymous World Services describes the general nature of sponsorship in the following terms: “Although people at meetings respond to our questions willingly, that alone isn’t enough.

Many other questions occur to us between meetings; we find that we need constant, close support as we begin learning how to “live sober.” So we select an A.A. member with whom we can feel comfortable, someone with whom we can talk freely and confidentially, and we ask that person to be our sponsor.”

The Role of Sponsorship in Support Groups

Sponsorship is a strong personal relationship that can benefit both participants. The person who is newer to recovery gets a strong connection to the principles of AA and to the group, while the sponsor has the opportunity to strengthen his or her recovery by being a source of information and support.

AA emphasizes that sponsorship is a personal relationship, and that the sponsor’s activities should not attempt to replicate or replace services offered by professional counselors, therapists, or other experts.

Reasons to Avoid Particular Personal Relations

winter-575101_640While sponsorship is an example of a beneficial personal relationship among support group members, there are cons or reasons to avoid certain types of personal relations within a group.
For example, many experts strongly advise against romantic relationships, especially when individuals are in early recovery.

Dating, sex, and other elements of romance can involve strong positive and negative emotions – and when the participants are both in early recovery and members of the same support group, these emotions can place undue stress on their ability to focus on their sobriety.

Addiction does not only affect the individual who has the disease, rather, it also impacts his or her relationships with friends, family members, and other loved ones. Many addicts are in codependent relationships, which involve unhealthy behaviors by both participants.

Relationships Need a Foundation in Recovery

Attempting to develop new romantic relationships without having taken the time to establish a solid foundation in recovery and making the necessary changes to one’s behaviors, attitudes, and expectations can doom both the new relationship and the participants’ recovery.

Even non-romantic personal relationships within support groups can be problematic. For example, AA advises against mixed-gender sponsorships, with the exception of among gay or lesbian members, when the AA guidelines indicate that opposite-gender sponsors may be the most beneficial.

Support Groups as Safe Spaces for Vulnerable Members

People in Support GroupsSupport group participants, especially new members, may be at particularly vulnerable points in their lives. Whether recovering from an addiction, dealing with grief/loss, overcoming trauma, or supporting a loved one who is in crisis, support group participants are likely to be dealing with significant stresses and pressures.

Support groups are designed to be safe spaces, where participants can express themselves without risk of being ridiculed, judged, manipulated, or otherwise exploited. As is the case with virtually all human interactions, though, it is impossible to establish a completely risk-free relationship.

As one researcher noted in a paper on ethics in peer-based recovery support services, “Recovery, no matter how long and how strong, is not perfection; we are all vulnerable to isolated errors in judgment, particularly when we find ourselves isolated in situations unlike any we have faced before.”

Don’t Let the Relationship Distract You From Recovery

The general rule for personal relationships within support groups is that if the relationship distracts from, detracts from, or otherwise threatens participants’ recovery, then the relationship should not be pursued or continued.

Support groups can be essential to individuals in recovery and to their loved ones. When established between ethical individuals who have the goal of strengthening their recovery and/or supporting the progress of another individual, friendships or other personal relationships between support group members can be beneficial – though appropriate caution should always be exercised before forming such relationships.

This information is good to keep in mind when seeking treatment, as many treatment programs feature support groups as part of their programming.

Finding the Greater Purpose of Support Groups

Among the many benefits of completing treatment, patients and family members will develop a greater understanding of the purpose, benefits, and limitations of support groups and will be able to bring an informed understanding to their participation in such groups.

About the Author:

Bio: “Personal Relationships with Group Members: Pros and Cons” was written by Sonora Behavioral Health clinical content team member Hugh C. McBride. Hugh has several years of experience researching and writing on a wide range of topics related to behavioral healthcare. He has a Bachelor of Arts degree from Grove City College.

Site Description:

Located in Tucson, Arizona, Sonora Behavioral Health is a 72-bed psychiatric hospital that provides care to children, adolescents, and adults who are struggling with acute behavioral healthcare conditions and co-occurring chemical dependency. Established in 1994, Sonora Behavioral Health provides inpatient and intensive outpatient services.

Treatment at Sonora Behavioral Health includes comprehensive assessment, short-term psychiatric treatment, medication management, and discharge planning services to clients and their families. Sonora Behavioral Health is also proud to offer the BRAVEST (Believing in Recovery for Active-duty Veterans to Ensure Success for Tomorrow) program, which is specifically designed to meet the unique needs of active duty military members, veterans, and their family members.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental, and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on April 7, 2015
Reviewed and Updated by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 7, 2021
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Baxter Ekern is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He contributed and helped write a major portion of Addiction Hope and is responsible for the operations of the website.