12-Step recovery fellowships such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous have helped hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people recover from drug and alcohol abuse. However, there is one subject within these groups which can bring up controversy: 13th stepping. While views about the negative impact of 13th stepping can vary wildly from one individual to another, the truth is that the real impact can range from something that is relatively innocent to severely damaging.
The act of 13th stepping is essentially comprised of a more experienced member of a 12-step fellowship pursuing a romantic or sexual relationship with a “newcomer” or someone who has little to no experience in 12-step fellowships and is very early on in their sobriety. The controversy over the issue arises from the potential harm that it can cause for all people involved. While many relationships which may start out potentially characterized by some as 13th stepping can blossom into long-term, caring and extremely healthy relationships for both people involved, it also has the potential to damage the sobriety and safety of one or even both involved.
This can also be explained by explaining a related guideline within many 12-step fellowships which state that people with new sobriety should not enter into any romantic relationships for the first year of their sobriety, regardless of if the individual is also in recovery or not. This is typically because the first year of sobriety is a very crucial time for someone. Not only should they be focusing intently on themselves and their recovery, but the emotional highs and lows that can often times come along with any new relationship have many times caused people to go down the road of relapse.
This is essentially the crux of the argument against 13th stepping. By definition it involves a person who is new to sobriety, someone who should be focusing strongly on getting better and recovering from their addiction. Relationships can be a distraction and a danger, particularly for those who are in such a fragile mental and emotional state.
What is 13th Stepping?
As pointed out earlier, 13th stepping in 12-step recovery programs usually involves a person with a significant amount of time sober pursuing a sexual or romantic relationship with someone who is new to recovery. While this is normally known to involve men with experience in 12-step programs seeking out women with less sobriety, it can involve any combination of sexes.
The significance of 13th stepping has less to do with the sex of the individuals involved, and more about the dynamic which can occur. Romantic and sexual relationships are a normal part of humanity, there is no denying that. However, when it comes to 13th stepping there are sometimes less than ideal components to these relationships between someone with sustained sobriety and someone with new sobriety. Those who are new to 12-step fellowships and are new to sobriety are often times desperate to change their lives and recover from drug addiction or alcoholism. Many times the established people in these fellowships are looked up to highly by newcomers, they desperately want the long-term, sustained sobriety that more experienced people have. On the surface there is nothing wrong with this, as that is the core purpose of programs like AA and NA, to have people who are recovered from substance abuse carry the message and the solution to those who are seeking it.
However, in practice this inevitably leads to a combination of recovery and the natural experience of romantic and sexual attraction between people. Sometimes 13th stepping can be innocent or unintended, but other times it can be predatory, malicious and selfish. The imbalance of perceived power between a newcomer and someone with sustained sobriety is very real. The newcomer looks up to the established 12-step member and this power can sometimes be used to manipulate them into relationships. Again, there is nothing wrong with people experiencing romantic or sexual attraction towards one another, but it can be potentially damaging for those in early recovery.
For this reason, 13th stepping has gained a rather negative connotation over the years, mostly due to the negative outcomes which many people in the recovery community have witnessed. However, the outcomes are not always negative. Many people meet their spouses and start families in situations that began as something which would be characterized by many as 13th stepping. These situations tend to get lumped into one category, but the truth is that every situation is different and not all of them have nefarious or malicious intentions. Still, there is no denying that some situations can have the potential for harm.
What are the potential harms to 13th stepping?
While 13th stepping is most commonly frowned upon because of the danger it poses to the newcomer, it can in fact be a damaging situation to both individuals involved. Relationships are a normal and a healthy part of life, but those in recovery have to take extra caution when they are entering into one. Perhaps the largest danger of relationships, particularly for those in early recovery, is that it is a common cause of relapse. Relationships are full of emotional highs and lows, which are not easy to deal with even for someone who doesn’t struggle with addiction. These emotional ups and downs are magnified when they are experienced by a person new to recovery because they are often times in an emotionally fragile state.
Many people abuse drugs and alcohol as a way to regulate their emotions. Once they enter into the world of recovery and no longer have drugs and alcohol to regulate their emotional state, many people struggle getting used to learning how to live with and regulate them in healthier ways. This is a large reason why many people in recovery suggest waiting at least a year to enter into a relationship after getting sober. This first year allows a person to set a foundation for their recovery and learn to utilize healthy coping mechanisms for the rest of their lives.
Because 13th stepping usually involves at least one individual who is new to recovery, this is precisely where the potential danger can occur. Entering into a relationship, particularly with someone else in recovery, can lead to significant issues. These issues can be a potential distraction for people and sometimes things like breakups and arguments between significant others can be used as an opportunity or an excuse to relapse.
One of the most common sources of 13th stepping can come from one or more issues which can be common among addicts and alcoholics, both in active addiction or in recovery. Those issues are codependency and/or sex addiction. These issues can be a significant source of impulsivity when it comes to 13th stepping and the behaviors associated with it. Sexual addiction is characterized by the compulsive participation in sexual acts. This can be common in those who are recovering from substance abuse issues, and 13th stepping can be a result of this.
This doesn’t come as a surprise because many people who are dedicated to their recovery spend a fairly decent amount of time in recovery meetings around other recovering addicts and alcoholics. Again, it is only natural for some people who spend a lot of time around one another to become attached or to develop feelings of romantic or sexual attraction. However, for some this is led by a compulsion to have sex which can be a legitimate problem for some people who struggle to deal with it. This is where some of the potentially predatory aspects of 13th stepping can arise, when a person who has long-term established sobriety also has a sexual addiction or compulsion they may end up using their sobriety as a tool in order to act out on their compulsion with those new to sobriety and recovery.
There is also an issue of codependency which can play a large part in 13th stepping. Codependency is characterized as a dysfunctional relationship where one person supports or enables another’s mental or emotional issues. People with codependency tend to get their sense of identity and purpose from helping and enabling their partners, which can have a negative impact on their lives. Like sex addiction, codependency is common among recovering addict and can lead to behaviors like 13th stepping most commonly when an individual feels the need to be in a relationship for their own emotional well-being.
What to do about 13th stepping?
If you are or have ever been active in the recovery community, then chances are you have encountered at least one instance of 13th stepping. As stated before, this can be relatively innocent in many cases but there are also situations where it can verge into the realm of predatory and malicious. If you come across a situation that you think is inappropriate it’s important not to overreact, but if you feel it is wrong then say something.
If you feel comfortable, speak to either of the parties involved and ask them about the situation. They may tell you that it is none of your business, and if that is the case then its probably best to move on and forget about it. However, it can be helpful to explain to newcomers that this is a legitimate thing and inform them of the potential pitfalls of such behavior.
If you notice a person who is repeatedly preying on newcomers and putting them into less than ideal situations, then it might be appropriate to talk to them or others in the group and express your concerns. If you do this, it is important not to be accusatory but simply inquisitive. Let people know what you have seen and ask them how they feel about it. Recovery communities tend to be small and close-knit groups, so chances are if it is a legitimate concern there are other people who will have noticed it as well. If this is the case, then it might be time to confront the perpetrator.
Still, it is important to remember that romance and sex is a normal part of life and while relationships are not advised early in recovery, there are no laws or rules against it. In the end, adults are on their own too make decisions for themselves and whatever happens between two consenting adults is between them and no one else. It is certainly helpful to stay informed, and perhaps inform others about the potential dangers of 13th stepping, but in the end, you cannot live anyone else’s life for them. As a fellow member of the recovery community all you can do is share your experience, compassion and be there to help in a time of need.