Background There is a need for studies that can highlight principles of addiction recovery. Because social relationships are involved in all change processes, understanding how social motivations affect the recovery process is vital to guide support programs. Methods The objective was to develop a model of recovery by examining addicted individuals’ social motivations through longitudinal assessment of non-professional support dyads. A qualitative, longitudinal study design was used, combining focus groups and in-depth interviews with addicted individuals and their sponsors. Data were analyzed using the principles of grounded theory: open coding and memos for conceptual labelling, axial coding for category building, and selective coding for theory building. The setting was an addiction recovery social support program in Oslo, Norway. The informants included nine adults affected by addiction, six sponsors, and the program coordinator. The participants were addicted to either alcohol (2), benzodiazepines (1), pain killers (1) or polydrug-use (5). The sponsors were unpaid, and had no history of addiction problems. Results Support perceived to be ineffective emerged in dyads with no operationalized goal, and high emotional availability with low degree of practical support. Support perceived to be effective was signified by the sponsor attending to power imbalance and the addict coming into position to help others and feel useful. Conclusions The findings appear best understood as a positive identity-model of recovery, indicated by the pursuit of skill building relevant to a non-drug using identity, and enabled by the on-going availability of instrumental support. This produced situations where role reversals were made possible, leading to increased self-esteem. Social support programs should be based on a positive identity-model of recovery that enable the building of a life-sustainable identity.