Relationship Connection: 12-step support groups versus therapy

12 step program


My brother is an alcoholic and he’s been encouraged by some other family members to start attending the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step group. Do the 12-steps really work for people with addictions, or should someone just do therapy with professionals?


This is a question that I’m sure has been around since those first individuals met together in the late 1930s to form the original Alcoholics Anonymous support group. It would naturally seem that 12-step support groups, which are free, community based, and peer directed, would be less effective than a professional environment run by those with advanced degrees. However, the evidence to the contrary may surprise you.

I’ll discuss the benefits of each approach and explain why a multi-dimensional approach of both 12-step support and professional counseling is typically the most effective form of treatment for an individual struggling with an addiction.

Individuals who are actively working to overcome the devastating effects of addiction in their own lives lead 12-step support groups. They are personally acquainted with the thinking errors, denial, relationship drama, and other challenges faced by those dealing with addiction. And, most importantly, they are in a position to support and guide those who are beginning the path of recovery.

12-step support groups offer something that counseling can never offer. It offers a free, long-term support system with peers who personally understand the ravages of addiction. In that structure, individuals struggling with addiction can always find encouragement, support, and inspiration for the rest of their lives.

Of course, not everyone connects with the 12-step approach. Some are turned off by the emphasis on a Higher Power. Some are turned off by the stories told by those struggling. Some just don’t think they’re cut out for a group experience. I recommend to everyone that they give it a month or two. If they still don’t feel like it’s working for them, I encourage them to switch to a different group and see if it feels like a better fit.

Professional counseling is designed to help address the underlying issues, patterns, emotions, beliefs, and traumas that create and maintain the addictive behaviors. Good professional help will compliment 12-step group support and move the individual struggling with addiction into a more solid footing.

12-step support groups and professional counseling are equally important. Even though 12-step support will serve as the foundation for long-term recovery, professional treatment provides a critical component for individual and relationship healing. For most people a multi-dimension approach works best. Like a rope, the real strength is not in the individual strands of the rope, even if you put the strands side-by-side, but in weaving them together. A balanced recovery program will include years of 12-step support, individual and couples counseling, group counseling, education, proper nutrition and exercise, spirituality, and other lifestyle changes. Even though a handful of individuals and couples have experienced recovery only doing one or the other, the majority of individuals benefit from the multi-dimensional approach.

Attending a 12-step group is low-risk, as the only thing to lose is your pride. And, that’s an important thing to shed when trying to overcome an addiction. Encourage him to give it a try and encourage him to find a counselor who is supportive of 12-step treatment so the two can work in harmony.

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are solely his and not those of St. George News.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @geoffsteurer

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2011, all rights reserved.

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