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High Functioning Alcoholics And Relationships

by Landmark Recovery

April 23, 2019
A couple looking at the water and the sunset

Alcoholism is a harmful disease that takes a devastating toll on the lives of those it touches. High functioning alcoholics can ruin a career, drive a marriage to the breaking point, and spiral someone’s life into chaos.

For some, it happens right away. For others, it takes a years of quiet abuse before the effects start to take place. Some people may appear to have it together while they secretly cope with high functioning alcoholism.

While high-functioning alcoholism may seem doable in the short term, over time it is unsustainable. It is also unsustainable to be in a relationship with a high functioning alcoholic who does not address their addiction.

Sometimes husbands and wives of high-functioning alcoholics are the only ones who know their spouse has alcohol problems. People addicted to alcohol may be able to function at work or in a social drinking situation, but they’re unable to hide the disease from the person closest to them. Spouses may catch alcoholics drinking in secret or see the emotional side effects of alcoholism.

Alcoholic husbands and wives may even be emotionally distant or abusive. Every person who loves someone with an addiction faces tough decisions when figuring out how to help. Distancing yourself can seem selfish, but you have to look out for your own well-being before you can help someone else; there is a saying, “Put on your own oxygen mask first.”

Being in a Relationship with a High-Functioning Alcoholic

A couple looking at the water and the sunset

High functioning alcoholics may seem to have it all going for them on the outside, but this does not mean they aren’t experiencing significant personal or business-related problems underneath. And being in a relationship with or being under the care of a high functioning alcoholic can cause serious psychological and emotional damage.

High functioning alcoholics can be difficult to identify because, the way they see it, if the world doesn’t see they have a problem, it doesn’t exist. In other words, if they’re doing well financially or feel that they are seen as happy and successful, they are fine. High functioning addicts find it difficult to admit that they have a problem, so here are some signs to help you determine whether you or a loved one may be a high-functioning alcoholic.

When you’re in a relationship with a high-functioning alcoholic, here are several common things you may experience on a frequent basis:

  • Prioritizing drinking over most other aspects of their life.
  • Frequently blacking out.
  • Aggressive mood changes while drinking.
  • Asking you to cover for them when they can’t take-on their responsibilities.
  • Hearing rumors and comments about their drinking.
  • Partying too hard in social situations.
  • Breaking personal commitments because of drinking.
  • Having four to five or more drinks every sitting (per hour) on a daily basis.
  • Putting limits on themselves and failing to adhere to them.
  • Intense swings in their personality when drinking vs. not drinking.


Signs of a High-Functioning Alcoholic

Being in a relationship with an alcoholic who seems functional may appear 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 emotional pain, if not physical.

It’s difficult as you watch the person you love suffering in silence because of their disease. It’s likely never talked about between you, and you keep quiet because you think you’re helping.

7 ways to Identify the Signs of a High-Functioning Alcoholic

1. They Impose Limits on Their Drinking

You may have witnessed this one before: A high-functioning alcoholic may impose limits on their drinking such as “I only drink on weeknights,” or, “I’m only drinking beer tonight.” These kind of limitations can be helpful for preventing abuse or binge drinking, but they could also result in someone attempting to convince themselves they are in control of their drinking.

2. They Ask For Help to Cover Things Up

High-functioning alcoholism often arises when someone helps to enable it in another person. For example, the alcoholic may chronically borrow money from a friend or loved one to cover their habit. Or, perhaps they constantly make excuses for not being somewhere.

They could also be constantly needing rides to and from places or have to be bailed out of jail. High-functioning addicts are usually only a step removed from full blown dysfunction, so it’s usually the assistance of another person that keeps them afloat.

3. They Use Alcohol as a Coping Mechanism

This is one of the universal signs of a drinking problem. If a person constantly leans on alcohol to ease the stress of a long day at work, or for dealing with problems in a relationship, they could have a serious problem. Alcohol is a depressant, so they are essentially using it to dull their senses. Even just a few drinks a night to take the edge off could be the start of a serious alcohol dependency.

4. They Isolate Themselves

This sign is likely harder to notice. While in social settings, the high-functioning alcoholic could be outgoing and gregarious, but behind closed doors they simply want to be, and drink, alone. When they’re not engaged in their “social responsibilities” such as work or parties, they spend their time holed-up in a bar, or quietly drinking at their home. A high-functioning alcoholic may specifically forbid people from being in their home because they do not want to expose their drinking habits to the world.

5. They Drink For Every Situation

Whether it’s a night out or just a small office get-together at lunch, this person uses any occasion as an excuse to drink alcohol. This type of drinking typically starts as an accompaniment to any social situation and quickly blossoms into a drink for any situation at all, from waking up to calming down and going to sleep. Some may see alcoholism as drinking too much in general, but in reality it can start with moderate drinking at inappropriate times.

6. They Have Split Personality

For many alcoholics, drinking is a means of moderating their emotions and feelings to avoid the negative ones. For a high-functioning alcoholic, they may be inebriated sometimes, or they may be sober other times. This results in what appears to be a split personality, where either they are up or down. This kind of roller coaster of emotional management can take its toll in the long run because gradually the highs and lows will become more pronounced.

7. They Suffer from Withdrawal Symptoms

High-functioning alcoholics tend to have things together while they’re drunk, but as soon as the substance starts to wear off they find themselves undergoing withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, increased irritability, and tiredness. For severe alcoholics, withdrawal can be dangerous and painful enough so as to be life-threatening. For high-functioning alcoholics, withdrawal can be painful and unpleasant enough that they experience symptoms such as anxiety and hostility.

Help For Being in a Relationship With a High-Functioning Alcoholic

An individual holding another persons hand as a sign of help

Addressing a drinking problem is never easy. You’ll need to choose a time when you are both sober in a good place emotionally. Above all, aim to have a conversation that is not fueled by anger or emotion but that openly and honestly conveys your feelings about your partner’s drinking.

When confronted with the emotional pain a spouse is experiencing, a person suffering from alcohol use disorder may deny the problem, lash out, blame their spouse, or engage in other combative behavior. During this time, it is important to stay focused on the problem and keep it short and simple. Keep in mind that this is about healing the relationship, not ending it.

Some possible ways to start include:

“I love you very much. Is it okay if we talk about something difficult and you hear me out?”

“I’m worried about your health and well being. Your drinking frightens me and I just want you to be okay. Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Would you consider seeking professional help? It would put me at ease and I would be there to support you every step of the way.”

Of course, these are only general ways to start the conversation. The best way to approach this conversation generally comes from your own personal relationship and perhaps with help from your closest friends and family members. The first time you bring up the subject, your spouse may deny that a problem exists, or they may rationalize it. Listen with compassion and thank your partner for hearing you regardless.

Support Them in Cutting Back

If your spouse agrees to address their drinking problem, you can help support them by staying sober when you go out together or promising to do fun activities with them in place of drinking. Offer encouragement and love and applaud them for making this difficult decision to become more healthy.

At first, it may be difficult. They may grow agitated, grumpy, or depressed, but given enough time of cutting back and hopefully achieving sobriety, they will emerge happier and healthier.

Consider an Intervention

If your spouse refuses to acknowledge a problem or continues to deny getting help, it may be worth considering the professional assistance of certified interventionists. In the world of recovery, an intervention is a carefully planned process by which friends and family members of an addict may confront that person about their addiction. The most successful interventions usually involve a large amount of forethought and careful planning towards structure: what people plan to say, and the next steps following the intervention.

To begin, talk with friends and family members about staging an intervention and gather input from all concerned parties. You can seek out a professional intervention specialist online, or you can consult with online resources and guides. It helps to talk about specific examples of behaviors that are problematic and the consequences that affect you and others who are around your spouse.

It also helps to offer specific treatment options for your loved one. Getting an addict to agree to enter treatment is a crucial moment, and you do not want to give them time to reconsider or to drink again. Having treatment lined up and ready to go ensures that they can immediately start to get the help they need to get better.

Finding Health and Happiness

A man smiling because he is happy and healthy after becoming sober

Ultimately, being in a relationship with an alcoholic is a physically and emotionally draining experience. You have to remember that, ultimately, it is not your burden to carry. Alcoholism is an insidious disease that can pull a person apart. However, it’s not something that you can control or cure, and it’s certainly not something that you have caused.

When in a relationship with a high-functioning alcoholic, you need to think of your own health and wellbeing above all else. Support groups for friends and loved ones, such as the 12-step program Al-Anon, can help people navigate these relationships. Support groups give people affected by someone else’s alcoholism a safe environment to talk about the impact that the person has on their life and offer a safety net of peers who provide comfort and advice to one another.

Next Steps

For those who need help, there are addiction treatment centers that specialize in helping people recovery, gain clarity to their mental state, restructure their lives, and give them continued support. Recovering from alcoholism can be tough, but our team at Landmark Recovery is here to help you live the life you dreamed. To learn more about our inpatient rehab program, as well as the many other services and care we offer, call one of our dedicated admissions consultants today at 888-448-0302.

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About the Author

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery was founded with a determination to make addiction treatment accessible for all. Through our integrated treatment programs, we've helped thousands of people choose recovery over addiction and get back to life on their own terms. We're on a mission to save one million lives over the next century. We encourage all those struggling with substance use to seek professional help.