This article has been medically reviewed by Dr Robert Lefever, a world-leading addictions specialist.
Are you suspecting your partner is abusing alcohol? Does your partner deny it? Are you unsure how to handle the situation? Do you think your partner fits the description of a functioning alcoholic? Human relationships are complex and have the potential to get much more difficult with time. However, the situation can get more complicated when unhealthy variables such as the chronic abuse of alcohol are introduced into it. “Alcoholics” are typically unable to fully handle their jobs and relationships due to the constant abuse of alcohol. When it comes to high functioning alcoholics, however, it’s a different ball game altogether.
If you suspect that your partner is abusing alcohol but hiding it, this article is for you. You can also call 0203 955 7700 immediately, and an experienced advisor will be ready to speak to and provide the assessment you need.
What is a Functional Alcoholic?
A functioning alcoholic or high functioning alcoholic typically refers to someone dependent on alcohol yet able to perform daily life tasks such as managing their homes, jobs and even families. Although this is not a medical term, it typically describes an individual struggling with alcohol and has been riddled with unsuccessful attempts at quitting it. Such an individual may have uncontrollable cravings obsessive thoughts about their next drink.
This individual may outwardly appear physically and mentally healthy, yet struggling with and having the hallmarks of someone with an alcohol use disorder. However, the National Institute of Health states that more often than not, functional alcoholics are middle-aged, well-educated individuals with stable jobs and families.
However, one difference between a “functional alcoholic” and someone diagnosed with Alcohol Use Disorder might be that drinking might not necessarily interfere with the discharging of their daily duties. Although that can happen from time to time, it’s just not as often as someone with alcohol use disorder.
Although this might seem like a good thing for the work environment because the person can maintain their work performance et al., being in a relationship or marriage with such a person can be stressful.
Note: Although the term alcoholic is typically used to describe someone who abuses alcohol, in addressing such individuals, it is more appropriate to describe the person as someone struggling with alcohol use disorder.
How do you identify a Functional Alcoholic?
If a functional alcoholic can still maintain productivity even while abusing alcohol, is it possible to identify such a person? While active alcoholics might do well hiding their addition and actions from colleagues and friends, it might be complicated for them to conceal the activity from significant others, especially individuals they are in a relationship with.
Generally speaking, having more than three drinks a day for women and four or more a day is considered heavy drinking. A functioning alcoholic may do the same or go beyond it. However, it might be harder to catch individuals drinking a lot since they might conceal it, underestimate the amount of alcohol drunk, or even lie about it.
If you are in a relationship with or married to such an individual, some signs could give away that your partner is a functioning alcoholic. Some of these signs include;
- Drinking alone and at odd times of the day
- Justifying drinking behaviour as celebrations or reward milestones
- Struggling to remember information from previous nights or days.
- They are storing alcohol in strange places in their car, garage or even the home.
- Becoming irritable whenever unable to drink within a specified time, usually a day or two.
- Exhibiting a different attitude or personality after drinking; sometimes becoming aggressive, short-tempered or impulsive after drinking.
- Unable to cut down the quantity of alcohol consumed even after promising to several times
- Denies drinking and gets angry whenever confronted about it
- Unexplained blackouts (alcohol-induced)
- Having unexplained withdrawal symptoms
- Risky sexual behaviours
If your partner exhibits a number of these symptoms and signs, the chances are that they are a high functioning alcoholic.
Please call 0203 955 7700 if your partner is exhibiting any of these signs, and an experienced advisor will be ready to assist you. You can quickly get a full assessment with a detox plan to start sobriety.
Factors that could lead to becoming a functional Alcoholic
Are there factors that could have contributed or are contributing to your partner being a functioning alcoholic? Although there are no established direct causes of this phenomenon, the factors listed below have been stated to increase the chances of an individual developing a problem with alcohol. They include:
- Exposure to high levels of stress
- Having friends who encourage an individual to drink
- Having low self-esteem
- Poor mental health including having challenges such as anxiety and depression
- They are directly related to someone with alcohol use disorder.
Barriers to Getting Help for a Functional Alcoholic
We have already stated that functional alcoholics can maintain their social and work lives to a degree. If that’s the case, then why doesn’t the person seek help? There are a variety of reasons, including denial, built up tolerance and withdrawal symptoms.
The Functional Alcoholic and Denial
Functional Alcoholics will typically deny they have an addiction problem and even go as far as convincing themselves that they are in control. Unfortunately, the false sense of power becomes a barrier to them seeking help and receiving the treatment necessary.
One of the main factors that drive individuals abusing addictive substances such as alcohol to seek help and treatment is an embarrassment, pain, and other negative consequences. The functional alcoholic, however, will seldom know these negative consequences.
When compared to someone who indiscriminately abuses alcohol with no level of control, the functional alcoholic goes to work every day, may not have ever been arrested for drinking and still has their finances in check to a reasonable degree. Unfortunately, the mere fact that these seemingly favourable conditions exist prevents the functional alcoholic from recognising they have a problem.
If there is no problem, then there is no need to seek help. Unfortunately, being in a relationship with someone like that becomes troublesome since there is no way they will admit the problem and seek help. Even if they are presented with evidence of abusing alcohol, it might be downplayed as usual.
Tolerance and its connection with the Functional Alcoholic
A second factor that prevents functional alcoholics from seeking help is the built-up tolerance for alcohol. Typically, a high functioning alcoholic might consume as much alcohol as someone diagnosed with alcohol use disorder. However, the main difference between these two is that high functioning alcoholics may never feel the effects of intoxication. That is, they might never feel “buzzed” or “drunk” despite drinking heavily.
The constant use of alcohol may have caused a tolerance for it; thus, only large amounts of alcohol can intoxicate them. Also, they might be consuming alcohol at a slower rate and perhaps not at one sitting would have led to a slow but sure build-up of alcohol tolerance. Does that mean functional alcoholics don’t get hangovers? Not necessarily; they do. Just not as often and regularly as other individuals who abuse alcohol.
This tolerance might sometimes seem like a strength. Nonetheless, it can have severe health implications due to the quantity of alcohol being consumed.
Potential health risks due to high tolerance for alcohol includes:
- Alcohol-Related Organ Failure: Constantly taking alcohol without feeling the effects could cause the individual to go overboard and damage organs like the kidney and liver.
- Alcohol Dependence: Alcohol will now become a requirement to function properly on daily tasks, and a lack of it can have adverse effects on the individual.
- Cognitive Impairment: This is where the influx of alcohol into the system of the individual or the lack of it could affect the ability of the individual to perform well on mental tasks.
Factors that influence alcohol tolerance levels
Tolerance levels, however, differ from individual to individual, and there are a variety of factors that can account for it. Some of these factors include:
- Gender: Men tend to have more enzymes that will allow them to metabolise alcohol much better than females. This means all things being equal; men have a higher tolerance than women.
- Ethnicity: Believe it or not, ethnicity plays a role in how much tolerance an individual can have for alcohol. Asians and Native Americans do have a lower level of tolerance compared to the rest of the world.
- Amount of Alcohol Consumed over time: Generally, the amount of alcohol an individual consumes affects the body’s tolerance.
- Genes: An individual’s genetic makeup can affect the level of tolerance they can build up for alcohol.
Aside from these biological factors stated, individuals can also develop learned tolerance. This refers to when an individual learns to perform his daily activities under the influence of alcohol. It mostly happens when high functioning alcoholics consume alcohol during the day and still have to finish their work tasks.
The Functional Alcoholic and Withdrawal Symptoms
The functional Alcoholic is also a prime candidate for withdrawal symptoms. Active alcoholics may stay in denial for too long. When they are ready to admit they have a problem, their bodies might have already gotten used to the regular influx of alcohol into the system. Once they finally decide to try and stop on their own, they do experience withdrawal symptoms. These include;
- Racing Heart Rates
- Loss of Appetite
- Fatigue and tiredness
- Nausea and Vomiting
- Mood Swings
- Cognitive Impairment
- Unexplained shaking and sweating
Once a functional alcoholic starts experiencing these unpleasant symptoms, he may resort to going back to drinking to make them cease. It is also much harder for them to seek help because they might be thinking no one knows what they are going through.
There are times where they might reach out for help, but chances are, they most likely might not. This makes withdrawal symptoms a barrier to functional alcoholics seeking help.
If you are in a relationship or married to a functional alcoholic, you might be wondering why they might have never tried to help themselves. Chances are, they might have tried or given it a thought at one point in time. But, on the other hand, these potential barriers might have kept them from it.
How Do I Help a Functioning Alcoholic?
In as much as you might love your partner and want to help them at all costs, professional help is typically the best way to help individuals who have abused alcohol for so long. This is usually the best choice as professional help comes with therapy and medication that will help deal with the compulsion and alleviate the withdrawal symptoms the individual might experience. Medical detoxification will also be offered to assist the individual.
The probability of a functioning alcoholic agreeing to seek help is relatively low and requires support from friends or family.
If you want to help your partner going through this, we recommend the following actions.
- Educate Yourself on the Condition: When dealing with addiction and mental illness, understanding what the individual is going through and not being judgmental is key to helping them. Once you have a fair idea of the condition, you can recognise various signs, have an objective conversation about it, and arrive at a more informed decision.
- Look for Alcohol Addiction and Rehabilitation Facilities Near You: Spend time researching the various addiction and rehabilitation facilities that are close by. Once you have identified them, try to find out about the process, their facilities, and what will be required. Make sure you select the best facility fitted to handle your needs as well.
- Make Time to Talk to Your Partner: You are now ready to talk to your partner after doing the necessary research. In doing that, make sure you initiate the conversation when they are not sober and can listen to you. Do not be judgemental; instead, show compassion in your approach and explain how the drinking affects you, the relationship and the rest of the family(especially where kids are involved). If the person snaps, retreat and have the conversation another time. Once you are sure they are ready to listen, share your knowledge on the condition and places you have found to get help.
- Start Treatment and Be Supportive Throughout: Once your partner agrees to start treatment, help them throughout the process. Also, remember to be patient, especially in times where there is a relapse. The last thing you’d want to do is make them feel bad about their condition. It might make the situation worse than it was when you started the treatment.
You can also call 0203 955 7700 immediately to begin the assessment. We at Help4addiction use evidence-based treatment to help our patients achieve life-long sobriety.
How do I help myself or my children while living with an alcoholic?
If you made it this far, you might be living with someone struggling with alcohol, which can be stressful for you and the family. Not only are you emotionally stressed by everything, but you have to keep looking out for them and your children as well. However, there are some things you can do to help yourself.
- Take care of your basic needs: Do not attempt to take care of your partner at the expense of your physical and mental health.
- Seek help and support for yourself: If you are already affected by the situation and your children, seek therapy and counselling.
- Do not tolerate bad behaviour: Be prepared to leave the relationship if things get abusive or the situation becomes unsafe for you and your family. Based on the case, confront your partner or retreat for a while.
If you are confused, worried and unsure what to do, kindly call 0203 955 7700 immediately, and an experienced advisor will be ready to speak to and provide the necessary help you need.
Being in a relationship with a functioning alcoholic is no walk in the park. The situation can be handled if the functioning alcoholic in the picture is willing to work at it. In a case where they are unwilling to and will not commit to the process of getting better, it becomes a dicey one to handle. Being in a relationship with someone like that will put you in a place of wanting to help them. It is highly recommended that you care for your physical and mental health. And, seek help, not just for the individual but yourself as well if it becomes unbearable.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can A Functioning Alcoholic Be Helped?
Will Partner Have Withdrawal Symptoms After They Suddenly stops Taking Alcohol?
What If My Partner Is Manipulative Or Abusive?
I Blame Myself For My Partners Actions. Is that Normal?
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). Treatment approaches for drug addiction
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing
- Benton, S.A. (2009). Understanding the high-functioning alcoholic: Professional views and personal insights. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.
Meta – Description
A functioning alcoholic or high functioning alcoholic typically refers to someone dependent on alcohol yet able to perform daily life tasks such as managing their homes, jobs and even families. A functional alcoholic may never admit that they consume more alcohol than they should. Being married to or being in a relationship with a functioning alcoholic can physically and mentally affect their partners. If you find yourself in such a situation, call 0203 955 7700 for immediate assistance.