Are You In a Relationship With a Functioning Alcoholic?
Recognising the signs and symptoms of a high functioning alcoholic can help you to confirm if your suspicions are correct and give you the confidence to confront the person and urge them to seek help.
Alcoholism can present in many different ways and stages. As a progressive disorder of the brain, someone can be alcoholic and not fit the stereotypical park bench drinker who has lost all. Perhaps this is the case with someone you are married, in a relationship with, or are related to.
Living with someone who suffers from alcoholism, regardless of their drinking pattern, is always extremely stressful. You constantly worry about their health, what alcohol is doing to them, what mood they are in, and if they are telling the truth. Alcoholism, also known as alcohol addiction, affects loved ones and family members like no other illness known to man.
To love a person suffering from alcoholism. means to live in constant fear, anxiety, disappointment, anger and insecurity. You may often feel frustrated and powerless, as time and time again, their heartfelt promises to you are broken. This cycle can be relentless and exhausting for anyone.
What is a functioning alcoholic?
What defines an alcoholic? The first thing to understand about alcohol addiction is that it is a medically recognised illness that affects the sufferer both physically and psychologically (1) The sufferer has no more control over their drinking than you do.
Alcoholism can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, race, religion, intelligence and social standing. The point is that as an incurable and life-threatening illness, this is not something the sufferer has chosen. No one sets out to become an alcoholic; it is something that happens to someone, usually over time.
Living with an alcoholic can greatly impact on your self-esteem and your self-worth – if you allow it to. It can also gravely affect your own mental health and even make you question your sanity.
Someone who suffers from alcoholism is not really choosing drink over you; the fact is that once alcoholism is fully established, the individual has no choice in whether they drink or not. They may fool themselves (and even persuade you) that they still have a choice in the matter, that they are able to give up alcohol if they want, or that they will stop when the time is right.
The truth is that until someone who suffers from alcoholism accepts that they have no choice when it comes to alcohol and their alcohol-related behaviours, they are likely to continue trying to prove that they can drink responsibly, and continue to fail.
Signs of a functioning alcoholic
In a medical context, you could be in a relationship with an alcoholic if two or more of the following signs and symptoms of alcoholism exist:
- They drink large quantities of alcohol over a long period of time
- They experience difficulty in trying to reduce or moderate their drinking
- They spend a great deal of time thinking about alcohol, how to get it and where to drink it
- Their alcohol consumption affects their ability to fulfil responsibilities
- They suffer negative consequences as a result of their drinking
- Alcohol negatively impacts on other areas of their life. It may affect their social life, their health, their relationships with others, their finances, their career and their mental health.
- They have overwhelming cravings for alcohol either physically, mentally, or a combination of both
- Not drinking results in alcohol withdrawal symptoms (alcohol dependence)
- They develop a tolerance to alcohol and so need to keep increasing the amount that they drink
- They take high risks with their own and sometimes others wellbeing while intoxicated (examples of this would include drink driving, unprotected or unsafe sex and placing themselves in dangerous situations)(2)
How do I live with a functioning alcoholic?
There is no doubt that living with an alcoholic, of any description makes for a very toxic environment. Fuelling alcoholism requires secrecy, lies, manipulation and dysfunctional and damaging behaviours. This naturally impacts on those that are closest to a person suffering from alcoholism.
With a functioning alcoholic, damage to themselves and loved ones can often be more subtle and manipulative and therefore continue over a more extended period of time. A functioning alcoholic is likely to still be able to operate on a day to day basis, even, hold down a job, still care for their family and still be very much aware of what is going on. But this is all a facade that enables them to continue drinking without being challenged. If you do challenge them, the chances are they will be able to dismiss your concerns with the reasoning that their drinking does not affect their work, social life or health (at least not obviously), so they cannot possibly be an alcoholic.
Regardless of how an alcoholic partner or family members drinking affects them, it is paramount that you take care of yourself. A person suffering from alcoholism. is unlikely to want to stop drinking or to seek help until the consequences of their drinking become too painful for them to bear. For some, this can take a long time and a lot of implications.
How to cope with an alcoholic spouse
Caring for yourself not only helps you to stay sane in a toxic environment but also shows the alcoholic that you value yourself. They are less likely to try and take advantage of you if they know you are onto them and secure in yourself.
Understanding how to live with an alcoholic and caring for yourself means putting your own needs above theirs. This is simpler than it sounds when you always worry about their welfare. If you have decided to stay in the relationship, there are some key things you can do to help safeguard your own wellbeing.
- Do not enable their drinking.
This means not lending money or making excuses for them to others. By allowing them to feel the pain of their consequences, you are not only safeguarding yourself against colluding with their illness but also ensuring that they take responsibility for having an illness that requires professional treatment. They are not at fault for being an alcoholic – but they ARE responsible for asking for and accepting help. They are more likely to do this if they do not see you as a safety net they can fall back on.
- Put boundaries in place of what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour.
By placing healthy boundaries, you are reaffirming your own value as an individual and your right to be treated with respect. Limitations may include, not drinking alcohol in the house or in front of the children, not getting behind the wheel of a car while intoxicated, not asking you to cover up for them or lie for them. However, their alcoholism is affecting you the most, put a boundary in to lessen the effect.
- Seek help and support for yourself.
This may be through attending a mutual aid group such as Alanon or accessing counselling through your GP. If you feel able to talk to other family members and friends about your concerns, chances are they will have their own concerns and offer to support you.
- Enhance your own life.
This may mean doing something just for you that has no relevance to your situation at home. Examples of this may mean visiting friends and family more, taking up a new hobby or time out away from your usual environment without feeling guilt.
- Be prepared to leave home or ask the alcoholic to leave if you continue to be affected by their drinking.
It’s important when to recognise when an alcoholic is resigned to not accepting help or changing their ways. To stay in the same environment where this is the case will only cause more heartbreak and pain. For some who suffer from alcoholism, it takes losing a loved one or care of their children to make them look at themselves. Whether they do ask for help or choose to drink more is not your responsibility. Your priority is to your own wellbeing and that of your children (if you have them)
- Do not tolerate bad behaviour.
If the alcoholic you are living with is aggressive or abusive, whether it be verbally or physically, please do not stay in this situation or blame yourself. Abusive behaviour in any form cannot be justified by any means. The longer you stay, the more harm you will suffer. Only the alcoholic can choose to change through accessing the correct professional treatment. This is not something you or anyone else can achieve for them.
- Take care of your own basic needs.
This means getting enough sleep, rest and eating well. If you are not putting your basic needs before the needs of the alcoholic, then this is a sign of codependency, for which you should seek help yourself.
You may well ask, “But how do I stop them from drinking?” The answer to this is quite simply you can’t; neither should you feel it is your responsibility. Alcoholism is a life-threatening illness that requires specialist treatment and support, at best all you can do is look after yourself and encourage them to seek help
How to help a high functioning alcoholic
If your loved one is willing to accept that they have a problem with alcohol and accept that they need help in overcoming it, two main pathways are considered successful in terms of alcohol treatment:
- If your loved one needs free help for their drinking, please encourage them to contact their GP and their local drug and alcohol team. They can self refer to local alcohol services. They should also try to engage with local mutual aid support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Smart Recovery. Accessing treatment for alcoholism in the community can be challenging, especially if the individual is alcohol dependent and in need of alcohol detox. Nevertheless, it is possible, providing they are willing to fully engage and follow suggestions made to them by professionals and those who have gotten sober themselves.
- Residential alcohol detox is a privately funded treatment option but is also clinically proven to be the safest method of stopping drinking. It is also recommended for any individual that requires an alcohol detox that they undergo a full alcohol rehab programme. This will address the root causes of their drinking and provide them with the tools to enable them to stay sober. Alcohol detoxes need not be hugely expensive, please call Rehab Guide for information on affordable CQC registered alcohol detox clinics in your local area.
Help for an alcoholic in denial
Functioning alcoholics are exceptionally challenging to support. No alcoholic wants to give up drinking while they still have their marriage/relationship, job, children, friends, social life and a roof over their head – Why would they?
If your loved one point-blank refuses to accept professional help for their alcoholism you only have two choices
- Leave them and hope that by your leaving they will come to their senses
- Organise a professional alcohol intervention
An alcohol intervention can be a life-saving measure when all seems lost. If you fear your loved one may well die before accepting help in any shape or form, then you may want to give a professional intervention serious consideration.
For more information on alcohol detox, alcohol rehab and alcohol intervention, please call and speak to a friendly member of our team, who can guide you to the best treatment options available.
Connect With Us – 02072052845 or 0141 427 3491
- Mersy, DJ (1 April 2003). “Recognition of alcohol and substance abuse”. American Family Physician.
- “Alcohol Use Disorder: A Comparison Between DSM–IV and DSM–5”. November 2013. Archived from the original on 18 May 2015