Tiebout turns it over

My grand-sponsor, Jerry, once told me that you can never force someone to take a 3rd step. “If you do that,” he said, “You will rob them of the opportunity to surrender.” Surrender is something that one must come to willingly, and so a 3rd step done simply to comply with someone else’s demands isn’t really a 3rd step at all. It’s just an empty gesture. The Big Book says more or less the same thing in Working With Others. In its advice on how to bring a newcomer to surrender, it suggests that the newcomer “should not be pushed or prodded by you, his wife, or his friends. If he is to find God, the desire must come from within” (95).

Bill Wilson and Jerry both knew how stubborn and resistant we alcoholics can be. Even when I’m offered something obviously good for me—even if it’s the only thing that can save my life—if you try to force it on me, I’ll buck. It is not good or even rational to be this stubborn. But it’s how I am, especially when I’m newly sober. And so, alcoholics like me need to be approached carefully with the idea of surrender. With folks this resistant, the more you push, the more they’ll fight you. Therefore, the best practice is to provide alcoholics with the opportunity to surrender, and let them make up their own minds.

Jerry’s comment has an interesting further implication: force will not only increase alcoholic resistance but will also prevent alcoholics from being able to surrender, even if you are successful in getting them to agree with your demands.

Consider the following scenario: You have a sponsee that’s ready to take a 3rd step and has come to terms with the God stuff. You happen to know that she is in a deeply sick relationship with another alcoholic, who is actively drinking. Your sponsee isn’t really willing to give up on this relationship. You make clear that a 3rd step means total surrender, including surrender of all relationships, especially codependent ones like the one she is having with this other alcoholic. The relationship has to be given to God along with everything else in her life. Your sponsee understands, and says she will think about what you’ve said. So far, so good.

But let’s say that for some reason you’re not content to just let her make an unpressured decision. Maybe you know how much pain her family is in, or maybe you’re having a bad day, or maybe you’re just that kind of sponsor. Whatever the reason, you lay it on thick: you say she needs to get out of her relationship, and she needs to do it fast. You say she will never get well if she doesn’t. She’ll relapse for sure. You say that if she can’t break it off, then she can’t make a full surrender, and if she can’t make a full surrender, then there’s no point in you working with her any more. You tell her she has to choose between her relationship and her recovery. It’s clear from your tone and your presentation that you disapprove of her attachment to the relationship. She can tell that if she decides not to break it off, you will not be happy with her choice.

You’ve now put as much pressure on her decision as you possibly can. You’ve given a direct order for her to leave her sick relationship, and you’ve threatened to remove yourself from her life if she does not comply with your demand. You’ve also made a sort of “frothy emotional appeal” in effectively scolding her for even thinking about staying in the relationship. If you wanted to up the stakes any further, you’d have to rope her family and friends into a group bullying session. Or else resort to making threats.

Let’s imagine that your pressure works. She agrees to break up with the active alcoholic. She says she hopes you’ll keep working with her as her sponsor and that she’d like to take a 3rd step. To all appearances, this is the positive result of a successful act of sponsorship. You intervened in a potentially bad situation. Without your advice, your sponsee might have stayed in the sick relationship and relapsed, but instead she made a healthy decision and is going to keep working steps. Did you force her to make a surrender? Not exactly, you say. After all, she could have made a different decision. Did you push and prod like the Big Book says not to? Well yes, you say, but it all worked out for the best. The pushing and prodding and pressure paid off.


Well, no. Not according to Bill and Jerry, at least. According to them, in all your pushing and prodding you actually stole something from this woman. You took away her opportunity to surrender and replaced it with something else, something that may have actually made it more difficult for her to turn her life over to God. And Bill and Jerry are not alone in thinking so. Harry Tiebout, the psychiatrist who treated Bill Wilson for his depression in the 1940s, wrote a number of papers about surrender and its value to the treatment of alcoholism, and he speaks specifically about the difference between surrender and this “something else,” which he calls by two names: “submission” and “compliance.”

Surrender, for Tiebout, begins with “a moment of accepting reality” that leads to “a state in which there is a persisting capacity to accept reality.” In other words, surrender is the opposite of the alcoholic’s natural way of being. We alcoholics normally exist in what Tiebout would call a “negative relationship with reality.” We have an inner restlessness that is born of a basic discontentment with the world. We resist everything, or, as the Big Book says, we make “heavy going of life.” Surrender completely reverses our normal attitude: we say yes to life no matter what our present circumstances, and we suddenly become willing to live life on it’s own terms. Acceptance replaces resistance, and the alcoholic is set free into a new way of living that Tiebout describes as “positive and creative” since the alcoholic can now “work in [reality] and with it.”

Compliance (or submission), is different from surrender in that when an alcoholic complies (or submits), he or she superficially accepts reality while internally, or even unconsciously, continues to resist. Here’s how Tiebout describes it: “In submission, an individual accepts reality consciously, but not unconsciously. He or she accepts as a practical fact that he or she cannot at that moment lick reality, but lurking in the unconscious is the feeling, there’ll come a day.” In other words, submission/compliance happens when I tell you “Yes,” but inside I am saying “No.” Tiebout suggests that this inner “no” can be completely repressed into the unconscious, so that even I do not know that I am not in full acceptance.

For example, when my family told me that I couldn’t live at home anymore, but that they would pay for me to go to treatment if I liked, I was faced with the proposition of being homeless or going to rehab. I didn’t want to stop drinking and getting high, but I didn’t really want to be on the streets, either. So I went to treatment. I said “yes” to my family, but inside I was thinking “When I get out of here, they’ll give me some money, and then I can get high again.” At this point, my inner resistance was conscious. Once I got to treatment, however, I realized that I did have a problem with drugs and that I should probably stop using them. I did not, at this point, fully surrender to reality, but I did (except for that one time when I sort of wandered off the rehab campus for a bit) fully comply with treatment. As far as I knew, I was fully saying “Yes,” but my resistance had only been temporarily repressed. I followed the rules and played along with what people expected of me for a while. And then a day came when there weren’t so many rules, and people weren’t checking on me quite so much. I could do whatever I wanted. And I drank.

Tiebout says that compliance is a “halfway but never total surrender” and that, because compliance temporarily quiets an alcoholic’s resistance, it “deceives both the individual and the onlooker, neither of whom is able to detect the unconscious compliance in the reaction of apparent yielding.” Because the alcoholic has temporarily stopped drinking and arguing and making a mess of things, compliance fools everyone, even the alcoholic. I might think I’m fully surrendered, and you might agree with me, when actually I’m just unconsciously waiting for an opportunity to reassert my self-will. Because compliance can fool everybody involved, Tiebout says it “blocks the capacity for true acceptance.” Compliance acts as a “dog in the manger,” preventing the complying person from realizing that they have a need to surrender. The alcoholic goes about the business of agreeing with everyone else’s wishes for her until all eyes and pressure are off, and then, left to her own devices, she returns to her old ways.

Let’s return to the scenario in which I was pretending that you were putting a lot of pressure on a sponsee of yours (not very nice of you). She agreed to dump her lover and to keep you as a sponsor because you ordered her to so and told her that if she didn’t she would relapse. She didn’t arrive at that decision on her own in a context of surrender to God. She arrived at it in a context of your demands. And so, though it is at least possible that she made a real surrender in spite of your conversations with her, it is most likely that her compliance with your wishes has prevented her from taking an authentic 3rd step. What looked like a successful moment of sponsorship was actually a huge mistake. In effect, your sponsee turned her will and her life over to you and your direction instead of giving herself to God. She’ll do what you ask her to do, at least until it gets really hard, and then she’ll go back to doing exactly what she was doing before. All that good advice accomplished nothing. Worse, it is now harder for her to make a real surrender. She has been completely mislead about what surrender means.

The suggestion in Working With Others that we not push or prod our sponsees and Jerry’s insight that you cannot force an alcoholic to take a 3rd step both reflect an understanding of the danger of compliance. By giving alcoholics space to make an unpressured decision about whether or not they’d like to turn their lives over to God, we can avoid soliciting a compliance response. Our sponsees will not always surrender when given the chance, but at least they will have a genuine opportunity to seek God’s will instead of feeling pressured to submit to ours.


You can read some of Tiebout’s papers at Silkworth.net. Here’s “Surrender Versus Compliance in Therapy with Special Reference to Alcoholism,” (http://silkworth.net/tiebout/tiebout_surrender_compliance.html) and here is “The Act of Surrender in the Therapeutic Process.” (http://silkworth.net/tiebout/tiebout_surrender.html) A more complete collection of his writings has been published by Hazelden.

One Response to “Tiebout turns it over”

  1. Wendy Says:

    Wow. This is really good and very appropriate for my consideration in a mutual ending of relationship with a sponsee yesterday. Interesting to find your blog today, two years after you posted this. Thank you. Love, ALWAYS, to ALL, no exceptions!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: