AA vs Al-Anon: What’s the Difference?

When navigating the world of recovery and support groups, particularly those associated with alcohol misuse and addiction, getting lost in the sea of acronyms, methodologies, and purposes can be easy. Two such groups, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Al-Anon, often become intertwined in discussions because of their shared historical roots and their focus on dealing with the impacts of alcohol misuse. However, these two organisations, while interconnected, serve different roles and cater to different audiences. This can understandably lead to confusion about what each group represents, who they are for, and how they operate.

This comprehensive article aims to clarify the differences and similarities between AA and Al-Anon. Understanding these differences is crucial for individuals seeking support and their families and friends affected by the recovery journey. We delve into both organisations’ origins, functions, and structures and highlight their distinct yet complementary roles in the recovery landscape. We also seek to answer frequently asked questions and clear up misconceptions about these two vital groups.

Whether you are an individual grappling with alcohol misuse, a family member, friend, or loved one of someone in that situation, we trust this article will be a helpful resource. Through a better understanding of AA and Al-Anon, we hope to guide you towards the appropriate resources and support networks that can aid in navigating the complex journey of recovery from alcohol misuse and its widespread effects.

By the end of this article, you should clearly understand the following:

  •  The unique roles that AA and Al-Anon play in supporting those directly and indirectly affected by alcohol misuse.
  • The methodologies that these support groups employ.
  • How AA and Al-Anon contribute to the overall landscape of addiction recovery.

What is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)?

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a worldwide fellowship of individuals who have struggled with alcohol use. It was founded in 1935 by Dr Bob Smith and Bill Wilson, two alcoholics who found that talking about their experiences helped them stay sober. They developed the Twelve Steps – a programme of spiritual and character development – as the core of their recovery programme.

AA operates on the principles of anonymity and peer support. Meetings are often run by AA members who share their experiences with alcoholism and recovery. There is no requirement for membership other than a desire to stop drinking.

Evidence of AA’s Effectiveness

Research has shown that, while challenging, the road to recovery can lead to a better life. A study by Laudet, Morgen, and White (2006) found that longer recovery time was significantly associated with lower stress and higher quality of life. The study also found that social supports, spirituality, religiousness, life meaning, and 12-step affiliation, such as AA, can buffer stress and enhance life satisfaction.

Another piece of research by Groh, Jason, and Keys (2008) found that AA involvement is related to a variety of positive qualitative and quantitative changes in social support networks. The study found that AA had the greatest impact on friend networks and less influence on networks consisting of family members or others. Furthermore, social support variables consistently mediated AA’s effect on abstinence, suggesting that social support is a mechanism for the effectiveness of AA in promoting a sober lifestyle.

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What is Al Anon and What is it For?

On the other hand, Al-Anon is a mutual support program for people whose lives have been affected by someone else’s drinking. Founded in 1951 by Lois Wilson, the wife of AA’s co-founder, Al-Anon employs the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, similar to AA, but tailored to meet the needs of friends and family members of alcoholics.

Al-Anon aims to help relatives and friends of alcoholics understand and cope with the effects of living with a problem drinker. Meetings provide a supportive environment where members can share their experiences and learn from each other.

Al-Anon, also known as Alcoholics Anonymous Family Groups, is a support group intended for individuals affected by another person’s alcohol misuse. This includes friends, family members, and anyone else concerned about the alcohol misuse of another individual. The group is not intended for individuals whom themselves have alcohol use disorder (AUD) unless their life has also been negatively impacted by someone else’s alcohol misuse, such as a parent or sibling. However, even in these cases, it is recommended that such individuals maintain their memberships in AA and Al-Anon separately​​.

Al-Anon operates on an open and closed group system. Open groups allow anyone interested in the programme to attend a meeting, with the primary goal of these meetings often being educational. Closed meetings, on the other hand, are only available to group members. Participants can share personal information, with confidentiality being prioritised. It is generally beneficial for family members to attend open Al-Anon meetings together for collective healing, but attending closed meetings or sharing the same therapist is not advised​.

Al-Anon employs a 12-step programme, similar to AA but applied through the perspective of a friend or family member of a person with AUD. The steps are:

  1. Admitting powerlessness over alcohol and recognising that their lives have become unmanageable.
  2. Believing that a Power greater than themselves could restore them to sanity.
  3. Deciding to turn their will and lives over to the care of God as they understand Him.
  4. Making a searching and fearless moral inventory of themselves.
  5. Admitting to God, to themselves, and to another human being the exact nature of their wrongs.
  6. Being entirely ready to have God remove all their defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove their shortcomings.
  8. Making a list of all persons they had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Making direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and, when they were wrong, promptly admitted it.
  11. Through prayer and meditation, they seek to improve their conscious contact with God as they understand Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for them and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening due to these steps, trying to carry this message to others, and practising these principles in all their affairs.

What is the Difference Between Al-Anon and AA?

The key difference between Al-Anon and AA lies in the target audiences. AA is for people who are struggling with alcoholism themselves. It provides them with a platform to share experiences, draw strength, and learn from others who have faced similar challenges.

Al-Anon, however, is for friends and family of those struggling with alcoholism. Its focus is to help these individuals cope with the effects of a loved one’s drinking problem. While both groups provide support, they serve different sectors of the community affected by alcoholism.

A study by Timko et al. (2013) provides a deeper understanding of the two organisations. It confirmed that both AA and Al-Anon operate on the principle of mutual aid, providing a safe, confidential space where members can share their experiences, learn from each other, and receive support.

The study also revealed that the main stressors influencing newcomers’ and members’ initial attendance at Al-Anon meetings were problems with their overall quality of life and relationships with their Al-Anon trigger – the person in their life with alcohol addiction. This is similar to AA, where individuals often join due to the negative impact of alcohol on their lives.

what is al anon

What Are the Similarities?

Despite their differences, AA and Al-Anon share many fundamental similarities rooted in their mutual objective of providing support for those affected by alcohol misuse.

Both organisations follow the framework of the Twelve Steps, a set of guiding principles outlining a path towards recovery and healing. These steps encompass acknowledging the problem, accepting help, self-reflection, amends-making, and ongoing spiritual growth​​. In AA, these steps are applied directly by individuals struggling with alcohol use disorder, while in Al-Anon, the steps are approached from the perspective of someone affected by another’s alcohol use disorder.

Another significant similarity is the principle of mutual aid that underpins both AA and Al-Anon. This principle embodies the idea that members can help each other in ways that professionals may not be able to, based on their shared experiences. In both groups, members gather in a safe and confidential environment to share personal stories, gain insights from others’ experiences, and offer mutual support. This peer-led approach fosters community and shared understanding, helping members feel less alone in their struggles​.

Furthermore, both AA and Al-Anon meetings are member-led rather than facilitated by professional therapists. This structure emphasises that everyone in the room is on an equal footing; it promotes a culture of shared responsibility and mutual respect. It also reflects the belief that the collective wisdom and experiences of the group members can provide valuable guidance and support to each other.

Lastly, both organisations are open to all, irrespective of age, gender, socioeconomic status, or religious beliefs. They uphold the principle of inclusivity, ensuring that anyone affected by alcohol misuse – either directly or indirectly – can find support and understanding within their communities.

The Role of Recovery Support Groups

Recovery support groups play a pivotal role in the journey towards healing from the impacts of alcohol misuse, whether you are the person directly struggling with alcohol use disorder or a loved one affected by another’s AUD. These groups, such as AA and Al-Anon, offer a safe and supportive environment where individuals can come together to share experiences, offer understanding, and provide mutual support.

These groups can be particularly beneficial for family members and loved ones of individuals with AUD. Groups like Al-Anon provide a unique opportunity for these individuals to learn from the experiences of others who have faced similar challenges. This can be a profoundly empowering and enlightening experience. Through shared stories, family members can gain insights into how others have managed similar situations, which can inform their own strategies for dealing with the impacts of a loved one’s alcohol misuse.

The benefits of participating in such support groups are manifold. Firstly, it helps to reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, as members realise that they are not alone in their struggles. Being surrounded by others who understand and empathise with their experiences can offer great comfort and a sense of belonging.

Secondly, these groups provide practical strategies and tools to help members navigate the challenges associated with a loved one’s alcohol misuse. Through discussions and shared experiences, members can learn about establishing boundaries, practising self-care, and communicating effectively with their loved ones.

Thirdly, the principle of mutual aid fostered in these groups can have significant therapeutic benefits. By offering support to others, individuals often feel a sense of purpose and fulfilment, which can benefit their own emotional well-being.

Finally, the structured format of the groups, particularly the incorporation of the Twelve Steps, can provide a clear path forward, helping members move from a place of pain and confusion towards one of healing and understanding.

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Recovery support groups serve as a vital resource for those grappling with the impacts of alcohol misuse. By offering a platform for shared experiences, practical learning, and mutual support, these groups can make a significant difference in the lives of those affected by AUD, directly or indirectly. As such, they are an integral part of the broader recovery landscape.

If you or a loved one are struggling with the effects of alcohol misuse, remember that you do not have to face this challenge alone. Support groups like AA and Al-Anon offer a community of individuals who understand your situation and can provide guidance and support. You can also seek professional help; we are here to assist you.

At Castle Craig, we provide a range of individually tailored therapies and treatments for alcohol and drug addiction. Reach out to us today at 0808 271 7500, and take your first step towards recovery. You are not alone; let us walk this journey with you.


What Is the Purpose of Al-Anon?

Al-Anon’s primary purpose is to help family and friends of individuals struggling with alcohol misuse. The organisation provides a supportive community where members can share experiences and learn strategies to cope with the effects of a loved one’s alcohol use disorder (AUD)​.

Is Al-Anon the Same as AA?

No, Al-Anon and AA are not the same. While both organisations are part of the larger Alcoholics Anonymous family, they serve different audiences. AA is designed for individuals who are struggling with alcohol use disorder (AUD), while Al-Anon is for family members and friends affected by a loved one’s AUD​.

What Is the Meaning of Al-Anon?

The name “Al-Anon” is derived from the first parts of the words “Alcoholics Anonymous”. The organisation was established to complement AA by offering support to the family and friends of individuals struggling with AUD. Al-Anon provides a space for these individuals to share experiences, learn coping strategies, and find mutual understanding and support​.

What Are the Rules of Al-Anon?

Al-Anon operates based on a set of principles embodied in the Twelve Steps, which guide the recovery process for members. These steps, similar to those of AA, are practised from the perspective of someone affected by another person’s AUD. Al-Anon meetings usually adhere to a universal agenda, and confidentiality is a core principle to ensure a safe and respectful environment for sharing personal experiences​​.


  1. Kaskutas, L.A., 2009. Alcoholics Anonymous effectiveness: Faith meets science. Journal of Addictive Diseases, 28(2), pp.145-157.
  2. Alcoholics Anonymous, 2023. What is AA? [online] Available at: https://www.aa.org/ [Accessed 22 May 2023].
  3. Laudet, A.B., Morgen, K. and White, W.B., 2006. The Role of Social Supports, Spirituality, Religiousness, Life Meaning and Affiliation with 12-Step Fellowships in Quality of Life Satisfaction Among Individuals in Recovery from Alcohol and Drug Problems. [online] Available at: https://doi.org/10.1300/j020v24n01_04 [Accessed 22 May 2023].
  4. Groh, D.R., Jason, L.A. and Keys, C.B., 2008. Social Network Variables in Alcoholics Anonymous: A literature review. [online] Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2007.07.014 [Accessed 22 May 2023].
  5. Timko, C., Laudet, A. and Moos, R.H., 2013. Newcomers to Al-Anon family groups: Who stays and who drops out? Addictive Behaviors, 38(5), pp.2079-2086.
  6. AlcoholicsAnonymous.com, 2023. AA Meetings and Alcoholic Resources. [online] Available at: https://alcoholicsanonymous.com/ [Accessed 22 May 2023]

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