12 step groups can be harmful
12-Step: What You Need To Know

12 Step programs teach self-improvement to women who actually need safety and validation.

A lot of 12 step work is about protecting the [porn-user], not the spouse. This type of model only enables the addict, who already has themselves in the center of everything. The spouse’s well-being, feelings, and trauma are not really considered in the 12 step program.

Michelle Adams, betrayal trauma expert

When women experience intimate betrayal, they may seek support as they work through betrayal trauma. Often, 12-step programs for betrayed women seem like a good option. However, 12-step programs can both enable abusers and blame victims. Michelle and Kate, betrayal trauma experts, join Anne on the BTR podcast to explain how 12-step programs can harm victims, despite their positive principles and content.

12 Step Utilizes The Codependency Model

When women experience betrayal and abuse, they may feel eager to gain some degree of control over their lives that feel very out of control.

The codependency model taught in many 12-step groups subtly blames victims for their partner’s choices and often suggests that women should become “safe people” for their partners.

Codependency was created solely with the belief that the wife is hurting the addict, and since she is exhibiting the same behaviors as the addict, she is just as diseased as the addict. Nowadays, codependency is so sugar-coated, but it still rooted in the same things.

Kate, betrayal trauma expert

12 Step Does Not Use The Trauma Model

Women who have been betrayed are often severely traumatized. This is called betrayal trauma. Betrayal trauma can be a debilitating result of a partner’s choices. Victims deserve to be appropriately labeled so that they aren’t blaming themselves and are receiving the support and empowerment that is applicable to their situation.

Codependency and trauma are two very different things. One is external, one is internal. Trauma is external. It is a wound that has happened to you. Codependency is internal. It is saying that fundamentally you have a problem. Because we live in a patriarchal society, it is man’s society. For example, ecclesiastical leaders often protect men instead of protecting and helping women.

Michelle, betrayal trauma expert

12 Step Programs May Keep Victims In Danger

Codependency is misogynistic. It is essentially a way to get women to stay in their relationships. Codependency does not examine the possibility that the behaviors of the spouse are caused by the addict, whereas trauma does.

Anne Blythe, founder of Betrayal Trauma Recovery

Safety is the number one priority for victims, whereas “self-improvement” is a high priority for codependent people. By mislabeling a victim as “codependent” that victim is not given the information she needs to find safety for herself.

Betrayal Trauma Recovery Supports Victims of Betrayal and Abuse

Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group meets daily in every time zone and offers victims the opportunity to share experiences, process trauma, express hard feelings, and make genuine connections with other betrayed women.

Join today.

Full Transcript:

Anne: Welcome to Betrayal Trauma Recovery, this is Anne.

If you’re new to the podcast and you’ve never listened to it before, please go to last week’s episode and listen to it first. Last week we ended with Kate stating her views that 12-step was beneficial, not necessarily because of the steps themselves, but because of the sisterhood that she felt there.

So, we’re going to start with her comment that you heard last week and go from there.

Kate: I feel like 12-steps might even make someone go backward. Take out all the connection that you found in 12-steps, all the wonderful friends that you were able to find, the feeling that you’re not alone. Take that away. Were the 12-steps as beneficial without any of that stuff? What makes it good, if it is good for someone, is mostly the connection.

12 Step Programs May Offer Connection

Michelle: I don’t know if you know, but I teach 12-step. I teach it for addiction here in my area. So, we do a combined, we do the spouse and addict together. As if there are so many times why I have to say: I know this is what this says, but in real life if you want a happy marriage, if you want to stay with your wife, if you want to help her heal, you’re not going to follow what that says because a lot of 12-step is about protecting the addict. It’s not about the spouse. It’s about keeping that addict safe. We’re not accountable to our wife. Not only does it keep the spouse stuck, it keeps the addict stuck too and it enables his abusive behavior.

Anne: Absolutely and there is another element to it. They’re already narcissistic. So, then the 12-step tells them to focus even more on themselves. They need to think less of themselves. They need to be like: I have abusive thought patterns and what I need to do now is focus on how my wife feels and how my children feel. That is what I need to focus on.

Kate: And the social impact of my choices rather than all about me and me and me and just making myself happy.

Safety Does Not Often Come First In 12 Step Programs

Anne: To go back to your question Kate where you said: Without the support would I still like 12-step and I think for me the answer is: I really needed those principles in my life and I didn’t know that I needed them. I used the opportunity of that happening to learn those principles. It’s very good to learn the principle of say, reaching out to someone. It’s very good to learn the principle of taking accountability. It’s really good to learn the principle of honesty. So, the principles that I learned in 12-step someone could also learn not in 12-step.

Michelle: Yeah, and that’s why it’s a danger. That’s why I don’t recommend it to people because even if it does help someone I keep thinking: No, there is a better way. There has to be a better way then sending someone to something that yeah, it might help them, but it also might create more danger.

Anne: So, Kate, I see tons of therapists doing this and it really ticks me off. They say: I help women with betrayal trauma. But what they really mean is codependency because they don’t even know what betrayal trauma means. Tell me about your experience with that.

12 Step And Codependency Go Hand In Hand

Kate: Okay, first off, codependency: It was created solely with the belief that the wife is hurting the addict and she’s exhibiting a lot of the same behaviors as the addict, which means she must be an addict too. Which means she must also be diseased like the addict. Which is why they created the 12-steps because they’re like: Hey, these wives man. These family members are just as bad as the addict. They need to go to 12-steps just like the addict. We need to go and send them to the same treatment as the addict.

Michelle: Then now you have it nowadays where it’s all sugar-coated. I read an article by Vicki Palmer and she talks about how codependency doesn’t mean the same thing that it used to mean. You know, it’s not as harsh. It’s more just a way to help yourself and help heal all your flaws. No. It’s not though because it’s still rooted in the same thing.

Stephanie Carnes, she used to be all about codependency and then she came out and said: Oh, I don’t like codependency. I never felt good with it, it’s all trauma now, but they haven’t changed anything. Like, nothing. Like, Robert Weiss, he even is like: Oh, I don’t like codependency either but then he calls it some other name and it’s the exact same treatment as codependency, but he just calls it a different name.

12 Step Programs Do Not Consider Trauma

No, codependency and trauma are completely 2 different things. They are caused by 2 different things. One is external, and one is internal. Trauma is an injury. Something happened to you. Somebody did something to you. Whereas codependency, something is wrong with you. You have a disorder. You have a problem.

Here’s the problem too. A lot of people think: Oh, but they have a lot of the same behaviors and so they read this list of all these codependency things and they’re like: Yeah, that fits, that fits. I’m like that. Yeah, I’m like that, but then when you really look at it it’s like so what if some of the behaviors are similar. It doesn’t mean that it’s the same thing. Like, I have similar behaviors as someone who is schizophrenic or bipolar but guess what I’m not I have ADHD. Just because 2 symptoms are similar does not mean that they are the same thing or that they are caused by the same thing. They are completely different.

Anne: My Opinion is that it’s extremely misogynistic. It’s a way of pathologizing and blaming women and trying to silence them and get them to stay in their lane, rather than hold the perpetrator accountable really.

12 Step Programs Can Blame The Victim

Michelle: Like, back in the day, therapists were even taught that if a child came to them and said they were abused that the child was making it up for attention. This was the belief that if a woman was raped she must have done something to cause it. That it was her fault or that she’s making it up. That’s what they would believe is: Oh, she’s just as crazy, there is something wrong with her instead of looking at the fact that he’s the one making her crazy. Like, he’s the one causing all of the symptoms. He’s the one gaslighting her. So, if she’s feeling crazy or she’s angry that doesn’t mean there is something wrong with her. It means that he’s the one doing it.

Anne: Totally. Well, and in the worst-case scenario he comes out looking like nothing is wrong with him. Like, rather than saying she’s just as crazy as him, it’s: Man, he is such a good guy. Like, he is strong at church and he’s obedient. She just went off the deep end.

Kate: Yep. The funny thing is, cause even in my addiction, I knew exactly how to make someone fly off the handle and I could stay calm and I could look like I was the calm one the whole time. I would be like: Why are you getting all upset. It’s really actually sad because here you’ve got wives that are getting angry and of course they’re angry. They’re supposed to be angry. I feel like it’s kind of, even though I don’t like to use this analogy because I’m not saying that women are dogs, but let’s say you abuse like an animal and starved it and then you backed it into a corner and then that animal bit you. Is that the animal’s fault? No, it’s the fact that you starved it and beat it.

Trauma Model Is Safer Than 12 Step Programs

I feel like that’s what happens. So, if a wife all of a sudden reacts and gets angry it’s like: Oh, what? What’s wrong with her? Something must be really wrong with her. Then they look at the abuser and their like: Oh, but he’s the calm one. So, he’s the one that has his stuff together and I’m just like, I can see the opposite now and I’m like: What did he do?

Anne: That’s how I am too. I just talked to some clergy and I said one sign is if the wife seems really raunchy, right. If she’s walking around church giving everybody the stink eye and nobody likes her, and she seems super grumpy and her husband seems like so nice and outgoing and he’s making friends with everybody, just consider for a minute that he’s abusive, you know. And that would never cross anybody’s mind. Women don’t become crazy pants for nothing.

Michelle: Exactly, and I want to add something to this because I think it’s really important. So, this idea of: I’m just going to change the label. I’m going to say that it’s trauma and not codependency, it does become really sneaky and it becomes really hard to see, which adds to the abusiveness I think. Because then it’s just so subtle and it moves in and some of the things are: So, can we just forgive him? Can we just work on that already? Oh, you just found out a few weeks ago but you know you’re supposed to forgive. Can we work on starting to trust each other now?

12 Step Programs May Create More Danger

Dealing with trauma is so much more complicated than dealing with codependency. If we actually have to start healing a serious injury and a wound it’s going to be different for everybody. It requires more knowledge and understanding instead of looking at as: Okay, we’re going to treat this sick patient because they have deep-rooted problems. We’re going to treat somebody who has been a victim and not known it for such a long time. That is harder to deal with and it’s these little things that people in a nice way are trying to help but really, it’s not helpful. It is shirking responsibility from the one that it belongs to and putting it on the person that has nothing to do with it at all.

Anne: I see that all the time. The pressure the victims are under to forgive the perpetrator and continue to tolerate the abuse is happening everywhere. Rather than saying: Okay, you are an abuse victim. Our first order of business is to ensure that that abuse is stopped in whatever way possible, right. He either has to leave the home, he cannot talk to you anymore, he miraculously stops abusing you out of thin air, which never happens but let’s say that’s one of them. These are the options. Guess what is not an option? Saying you need to forgive him, or this is what you need to do in order for him to stop abusing you or this is how we need to help him with this.

None of those things should even be on the table.

12 Step Programs Can Perpetuate Codependency

Michelle: And I think that again stands back to something that you pointed out that’s really important. It’s because we live in a patriarch society. Where Kate said it used to be we would focus on the rape victim. We still do that today. It’s because this is a man’s society and if we’re talking about like church, right. Ecclesiastical leaders, the thing that should be done first: Protect the abuse victim is the last thing that’s done because she’s a woman and it’s just a crazy woman and we need to protect the men. We’re going to shirk off as much responsibility from him onto her because it’s a good ‘ole boys club and it’s even bigger than that. It’s just this idea of abuse and the way that we treat women and view women is on such a lower plane than the men and that’s the root of this I think.

Kate: A lot of times women are like: Yeah, but my behaviors seem to be very unhealthy. They’re not helping me. There has to be something wrong with me so what is wrong with me? I’m not codependent but what is wrong with me? I kind of have to remind them, I’m like: Think about it this way. All your qualities, what people say are enabling. Now imagine if your husband was wonderful. If he was honest, if he wasn’t an addict. Just imagine if he was a very healthy person. Would any of your behaviors be bad? Would you’re caring too much about what he’s thinking?

12 Step Programs Must Be Molded To Help The Victim First

No, you would actually be in a very healthy marriage so just because your husband is an addict does not mean all of a sudden that you’re loving or too loving behaviors, it doesn’t mean they’re bad. They’re actually healthy. It’s actually one of the reasons probably why the addict wanted to marry you is because you are a good person. Just because he’s an addict doesn’t mean that those behaviors are suddenly bad.

Anne: And for 12-step or a therapist or anyone to say that you need to be safe enough so that he can tell the truth or that you need to stop your controlling and manipulative behaviors because if you stopped he wouldn’t do this. That’s NOT true. He was doing it before. So, no, right. I mean, we could go through every single one of those things and say no, no, no, no, no.

We Encourage Victims To Be Cautious With 12 Step

Kate: Yeah, yeah and another thing is people tend to think: Well, then these behaviors can’t be healthy and I’m just like: I don’t know if I would call it unhealthy. So, at what point would you consider unhealthy or not normal and I was like: Well, think about it this way. If someone was drowning and they started freaking out and thrashing around would you ever think at some point that their behavior was unhealthy or not normal? No! They’re drowning.

Now imagine if they got pushed in by the person they loved the most and then actually held under the water sometimes. Would you think: Wow, why are they thrashing around? Why are they acting like that? No. Their life is in danger. So, I think we need to stop looking at these behaviors as unhealthy and like more just as this is what happens when your life is threatened, and they’re not bad.

Michelle: Yeah, those are protective behaviors where there’s no one else that’s going to be around to protect you. You have to protect yourself.

Anne: It took me a long time to figure it out. It took all of us a long time to figure out how to set appropriate boundaries and how to keep ourselves safe. Even though we have learned what we know now, and we have employed what we know now, I could still be abused and there is literally nothing that could stop me from being abused.

Michelle: Nothing and the odds are against all women because you could become the most healthy person in the world and guess what, what 80% of men still look at porn. So, the odds are against all women so just because somebody marries a porn addict, they’re a liar, and they abuse you, doesn’t mean you had something to do with it.

12 Step Programs Can Protect The Abuser First

Kate: You didn’t attract it.

Michelle: No. It wasn’t because you were abused when you were younger because hey, 1 in 3 women were sexually abused. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. That somehow you attracted this man. It’s like: No, the odds are against you and these men seek women out, not that women attract them.

Anne: It is sad, and it’s hard. I think that when we say that, and all of that is true, the air kind of leaves the room because women are like: So, what can I do? That’s why women gravitate toward codependency at times because it does leave some semblance of: I can enjoy the fruits of my own labor and in this case, you could work and work and work and someone can come into your vineyard and just destroy it in a single moment. That is super scary but that also is what life is all about and I do think that we can live peaceful lives, but we always are going to have things come into our lives that are difficult, that we cannot control.

Then I always tell people the good news is we will die eventually. Hell is now. It will never get any worse than this so just enjoy the journey, right, until you can die. That’s so sad! That being said, I am so much more peaceful and happy now in my life than I ever have been before. I’ve learned new principles, I’ve learned new things, and I’m grateful for what I’ve learned in the process of life.

The Betrayed Spouse Can Be Traumatized In 12 Step Programs

Michelle: So, in this 12-step group that I’m a part of that’s for husbands and wives, there is a guy that will say: I’m so thankful for my addiction. And I’m like: I will never ever say that I am thankful for this addiction or that I’m thankful my husband lied and cheated on me for such a long time. I’m not thankful for that, but the growth that has come from it I am thankful for that. I am thankful for the brokenness. It has shown me my power and how amazing each of these women I come in contact with is.

I think if there was something that I would say that has been like the biggest magical token is that my life is ambiguous. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow and I can’t do a single thing to control what happens tomorrow. Not a thing. My life is about taking risks. Everything I do is about taking a risk and I can choose to put myself in a box and take whatever limited risks are there or I can choose to become flexible and see that I don’t know everything and there’s more to learn.

12-Step Versus The Trauma Model

As I learn more I’m going to change and I’m going to be valuable and I’m going to then see: Oh, this is the better way and I’m going to do that.

That’s what the trauma model does. It allows you to start trusting yourself and reconnecting with yourself so that you can see that maybe that journey isn’t a journey you need to be on. That you can move into the next journey and move to the next journey. But when we’re so black and white and ridged like codependency teaches, you are going to break over and over and over again. But if you can work through the process of healing and focusing on being that victim and then becoming a thriver and a survivor, you won’t break like that again.

Anne: I love what Kate and Michelle have to say and I hope to have them back on soon. Thank you so much for being with us today Michelle and Kate.

The BTR Podcast Is Here For You

Michelle: Thank you, Anne.

Anne: Michelle and Kate are members of the BTR community of wives, ex-wives, and girlfriends of pornography users.

We would love to see you in a Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group session today.

If this podcast and all of our educational materials are helpful to you and you find yourself sharing them in order to educate women all over the world about abuse, please make a recurring monthly donation to continue to support this podcast. If you haven’t already, please rate this podcast on iTunes. Every single one of your ratings increases our visibility inside of search engines and helps isolated women find us. Until next week, stay safe out there.


  1. Betty B

    Reading these comments about 12-Step groups is enough to scare someone away from them entirely. There are many ways to look at any issue, so to “bad mouth” 12-step groups seems counter intuitive. I have been attending 12-step groups for 15 years, plus one-on-one counseling for the trauma of sexual betrayal. Both have helped me become a powerful, better educated woman. I appreciate the posting of all “ways to heal” because we all need to find our truth. I am standing up for 12-step groups – who have brought me to my truth, helped me see my part, but not let the addict in my life off the hook. I do agree that the word “co-dependency” has been over used. The 12-step groups I have attended were focused on helping me.
    Take what you want and leave the rest behind.

    • Anne Blythe

      Betty, thank you so much for sharing. I agree with you. 12 step has helped me so much. It’s also important to know the ways it can harm victims if interpreted incorrectly:). I appreciate your perspective.

    • Cathy

      Betty if I may respectfully ask, you mentioned that through 12 steps you were able to see your part. What part in the abuse did you have part in?

      • Kari

        Great question, Cathy. I too am interested to know what part Betty played in the abuse.

  2. Kelly

    Trauma or Codependency? I think it depends on when. To pan out, what I learn in the 12 steps is that my family of origin issues, which were traumatic and no fault of mine, lead me to be comfortable in dangerous situations that more securely attached people would run from. But, who I was in the abusive relationship with my ex, if it had continued (and if I don’t do that work now), would have harmed my daughter. In my case that was some codependency, but mostly a coping mechanism that had me Avoidant (as an attachment type) whenever my husband was around, and highly Anxious (another attachment type) when I was with my daughter alone. Thus my daughter would grow up the victim of not just him, but MY dysfunction in just coping with him.

    One I am the victim, and I’d say I’m the victim up until the point of understanding. (Although that’s murky, if D-Day hadn’t come I could still see my daughter as an adult talking to her therapist about my erratic coping mechanisms). But now that I do understand, the 12 steps have a clear path about cleaning up what I do so I don’t victimize my daughter.

    Does that make sense? Trauma or dysfunction is kind of a subjective term, and can only start healing by recognizing the trauma. So jumping to dysfunction/codependency is harmful by masking that, but does give newcomers a sense of control. After my years experience in 12 steps I do think every co meeting (Al-Anon, COSA, S-Anon) needs part of their intro to be about safety and abuse. In shares, personal conversation, and even the world conference I attended, when faced with the abuse question, I got plenty of support that it wasn’t my fault, people stressed the “take what you like and leave the rest”. But because people go to their first meeting in crisis, there needs to be in the intro a sentence like: “Though we talk about personal responsibility, know that if you feel unsafe right now you may be the victim of abuse and use our fellowship to first figure out steps for your safety, and those small steps, even if just understanding patterns, are you taking responsibility for what you can right now”

    No one in the podcast talked about Adult Children of Alcoholics, which I’ve heard does use a trauma based model. They don’t talk use the term “character defects” but instead “childhood coping mechanisms”. I haven’t attended that one though, my parents weren’t alcoholics, and maybe that group would be better named Adult Children of Dysfunction so people like Kate knows there are already trauma based models.

    I also agree/disagree with many other statements!!! But above are the biggies that I want other listeners to know about.

    • Anne Blythe

      Thanks for sharing! I appreciate your perspective on this:).

  3. Anonymous

    My Husband recently divorced me from chronic lying and Sexual Betrayal w/Pornography, Addictions and compulsive lying.

  4. Anonymous

    I am not satisfied with the COSA 12-step model, but it’s serving as a support for me. It’s true that he lied and used porn before I mistrusted him–his horse was definitely before my cart! According to his disclosure, that addiction began as a teen.

    I am struggling with my current therapist about using a trauma model to help me with damage done by my partner. It’s hell to lose another therapist and have to start over again and I am hoping she comes around to understanding that I did not deserve, ask for, or promote my partner’s addiction and lies. And although he is not using porn any longer, he is still using abusive and manipulative behaviors. I still don’t promote, deserve, ask for his bullying, and I wish my therapist could understand this. I am not against learning about setting boundaries or how old patterns of behavior aren’t helping me now, but I wish she would begin treating me with a trauma-based perspective. Be sure I feel safe! Be sure I have my boundaries intact! Allow me to speak freely when I feel as though I’m being abused!

  5. Anonymous

    I left my abuser. I didn’t deserve to be treated the way. I did forgive them eventually, but I don’t reckon everyone has to forgive in order to be okay. I’m at peace with myself and no longer blame myself for the harm they did to me. I’m wary now, careful how much of myself I give. I don’t want to be hurt again, but I don’t want to let that stop me from living and enjoying my life and making friends or having a partner. I’m single and but don’t want to let fear of being harmed again stop me from having another relationship in the future or stop me from being myself.

    I enjoy my own company and can be alone. I feel safe and happy. I’m glad to know I don’t deserve to be emotionally abused.

  6. Anonymous

    I stumbled across this article, and I’m so glad that I did. I have been struggling with the codependency model and the 12 step program which was the only place I could find help in the beginning of my recovery journey. I will say that the self examination and taking responsibility for my own actions along with the friends that I’ve made have had a positive impact on my life. However the program is flawed.

    So when my husband continued to abuse me, I first went back through the “steps” to heal from the new trauma. But I realized it was the wrong approach – his continued abuse (“relapse in his porn addiction”) was nothing that I could have effected or avoided, therefore I didn’t need to recognize my wrong in it, or make any apologies for it.

    I feel like the most important thing for women to understand is that they are victims of abuse when it comes to their husband’s pornography addiction. And that the first “step” is to get to safety, through setting boundaries. And then our goal should be to stay safe. I have tried to do this in my journey by skipping the parts in the 12 Steps that didn’t apply to my current situation, but replacing them with refocusing on my healing and skills for managing and validating my feelings. This works for me.

    Take what you want and leave the rest.

    It is my belief that even a leaky boat, may still keep you from drowning if you keep aware and bale the water out as it comes in. That is until you can get back to shore and get the materials to fix it properly. So even a flawed program can help to a point, and then hopefully we are healed and strong enough to use the tools we have gained instead of relying on the flawed program.

    We are not alone, not at fault, and are worthy of all the great things that our life has in-store for us.

    Thanks for publishing this article, it really validated many of my thoughts, ideas and feelings.


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