Solutions to Help the Functional Alcoholic in Your Life
The definition of a functional alcoholic is that although they have a dependency on alcohol, they are still holding down their job and maintaining relationships. At the surface, things might look great, but statistics on struggles families go through when parents are functioning alcoholics will make you think differently. Living with an alcoholic who seems functional may seem normal on the outside, but there are underlying dangers that can cause a lot of pain and destruction.
If you are in a relationship with a high functioning alcoholic, you are probably already in pain. It’s difficult as you watch the person you love suffering in silence because of their disease. It’s likely never talked about and you keep quiet because you think you’re helping. Whether you’re dating a functioning alcoholic or married with children, there are steps you can take to help the one you love.
Functional Alcoholic Signs To Watch For
The subtle high functioning alcoholic symptoms may not appear evident to you in the beginning. They will likely never admit to having a problem until they’ve hit rock bottom. For you to help, you’ll need to look out for the signs. Perhaps you just started dating a functioning alcoholic or you’ve been married to someone for a long time whose dependency on alcohol has progressed. It may be helpful for you to know what the signs are for functioning alcoholics.
The amount of alcohol daily is as follows:
For a man, three or more drinks per day. For a woman, two or more drinks per day.
The CDC has defined moderate drinking as one drink per day for females and two drinks per day for men.
Binge drinking is four or more drinks in one sitting for women. For men, it’s five or more. A regular sitting is about two hours.
High functioning alcoholic specific symptoms include;
Restricting their drinking times, beverages, and situations. This kind of alcoholic might state that they only drink in bars or only drink beer. This limitation they put on themselves aids the facade that they can control their drinking amounts and patterns.
If you’re living with an alcoholic that is meeting their responsibilities, they will likely have asked you to cover for them in some way. This might include calling in sick for them because they have a hangover. They may ask their friends to borrow money to pay bills if they’ve spent too much money on alcohol. Most high functioning alcoholics are enabled through the ones they’re closest with.
They tend shut the world out and have their own private time. While a functioning alcoholic may act social and attend office parties, they prefer to spend time alone drinking. The behaviors they exhibit can include discouraging you from inviting guests over because they want to hide their drinking habits.
They may break commitments due to their drinking. It includes forgetting important family events or an anniversary. Being hung over or drunk causes alcoholics to become irresponsible.
Often, a high functioning alcoholic will have a co-occurring disorder where they use alcohol to mask depression, a social phobia, or another type of mental illness. Some studies show 25% of functional alcoholics have a problem with depression. When they’re not drunk, they may be moody and withdrawn. They may talk about harming themselves or talk about suicide.
The Challenge of Helping Functional Alcoholics
While every type of alcoholism comes with its challenges, perhaps the biggest wall a functioning alcoholic will have to overcome is the denial. The stigma of alcoholism is a homeless, dirty individual who has nobody in their life. Signs of an alcoholic that functions and thrive in life are hard to see and if the person tries hard enough, they don’t have to acknowledge what’s going on. There are ways you can help your loved one with their disease.
There may not be consequences on the surface for years that would lead this type of alcoholic to feel that they have a problem. They have relationships, are well liked at work with a seemingly functional family dynamic. They have friends and have gained much respect at work. The problem is the constant use of alcohol is still occurring on a regular basis. The dependency on a substance still exists and the toll on the body, well-being, and relationships will eventually reveal itself.
There is a lot at stake for a family dealing with addiction. Staying silent is unconsciously enabling someone you love to continue abusing their body. If you try to talk to your partner, they will likely get angry or just silent to protect their secret. This is where interventions with loved ones are so powerful.
One of the high functioning alcoholic symptoms is that they tend to use drinking as a coping mechanism. They deal with stress in the present or a painful past by drinking. While it may have been harmless in the beginning, the drinking has created more mental instability and stressful issues in life. Functioning alcoholics are always on edge because they’re keeping a secret from the world, which is that they have a problem with alcohol.
When living with a functioning alcoholic, you’ll notice that if they have a problem, they won’t talk it out. They will hide out and drink by themselves because this has become the only way to deal with problems. Dealing with stress and celebrating with events can’t be done without drinking and this is an indication that your partner is an alcoholic. Your partner isn’t going to believe you even if you confront them with the proof. As they still have their job and family, they will have plenty of reasons why you are wrong. If they are so convinced they don’t have a problem, you may want to present them with a functional alcoholic test.
The Functional Alcoholic and the Downward Spiral
High-functioning alcoholics and relationships can work through some of the stages of alcoholism but the time will come where it’s painfully obvious that life can’t keep going on the in the same way. Maybe you’ve ignored the signs of alcoholism in your partner because it didn’t affect your life much and you didn’t feel it was worth the trouble to mention. The problem is that the disease progresses through time.
While you may not classify your loved one as a real alcoholic, the truth is, their drinking behaviors do classify them as an alcoholic. The addiction can morph into stronger dependencies or a different style of drinking. Know that it is addiction affects your family members daily because your kids notice it, your loved one is hurting themselves, and you know what’s happening. There is an underlying emotional pain that’s occurring and you can’t ignore it. Know that while your partner is ignoring their problem, you don’t help them by keeping silent about it. They need help and it’s likely that they need more help than you can give them. Some resources will help you support the person you love. Even if the alcoholic is functioning, they still need help with the disease itself.
Regardless of what kind of alcoholism, it is a progressive disease. It takes some time to lose everything from an addiction to alcohol. If you can help your partner before a DUI prevents them from driving before the isolation occurs and before alcohol destroys their body, there is a chance they can maintain a normal life.
Co-Dependency Hurts Your Partner
When living with a functioning alcoholic, you may fall into the trap of a co-dependency role. Even worse, your children may suffer from the task of protecting a parent’s secret. Your family will sacrifice their own needs to hold up the facade that everything is fine at home. If you find yourself exhibiting some of the following behaviors, it’s possible that you are in a co-dependent role;
- Making excuses for your functional alcoholic partner like why they can’t attend an engagement or mean tendencies come from being under too much stress.
- Covering expenses that typically occur in alcoholism like legal fees, traffic tickets or fines that alcoholism incurred.
- Cleaning up your partner or the messes they’ve made before they’re sober.
- Using passive-aggressive behavior to make your partner feel guilty for drinking, so they’ll quit.
- Attempting to control how much alcohol they drink.
- Not being honest about your feelings and admitting that your partner is hurting you with their addiction. Actions can include pretending you’re not disappointed by how they’ve failed to honor commitments.
You may be helping the functional alcoholic in your life to continue drinking when you take on the co-dependent role. The fear that you will lose everything if your partner realizes they have a drinking problem can sometimes cause you to help maintain the facade to hold everything together. The problem is that eventually, everything will unwind and you will slowly lose all the security they give you anyway. If you continue to hide the truth and enable addiction, your kids grow up in an unhealthy environment that can cause trauma and confusion. There is a possibility of losing your children if things get out of control. The ramifications are serious and you have the chance to help your loved one in a positive way. You can heal together as a family through therapy and counseling together as a family.
Most functional alcoholics are smart, work hard and are well educated. They often hold a high professional status and it can be highly challenging to approach them about their addiction. What’s important to note is that there is nobody that can drink consistently and not suffer the consequences. That includes both physical and psychological issues like liver or heart disease, cancer, depression, and neurological damage. Maybe they can function for many years but eventually, they will suffer loss. You will have spent your life covering up their dirty little secret, pretending that you had the perfect home life.
If you’re living with a functioning alcoholic, it’s important to note that you need as much support and help as they do. Make no mistake; alcoholism is affecting everyone in your family. When someone abuses alcohol, there is a greater risk of emotional and physical abuse. It may be helpful to seek out information about what to do if your family member is an addict so you can understand the nature of the situation more.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (October 18, 2016). Amount of drinks that are considered to be a problem. Retrieved from,
nih.gov (June 28,2007) Alcoholic subtypes and the percentage of functional alcoholics that fight with depression. Retrieved from,