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Dealing with a High-Functioning Alcoholic: Tips for Spouses & Friends

Written By
Chris Elkins, M.A.
This page features
5 Cited Research Articles

High-functioning alcoholics can be difficult to deal with. It’s sometimes hard to convince them that they have a problem with alcohol because they appear to function normally. But their drinking habits can make it difficult to live, work or communicate with them.

Unlike other alcoholics, the term commonly used to refer to people with alcoholism, high-functioning alcoholics don’t display obvious side effects of their disease. Most people with alcohol addiction have trouble keeping up with work. They lose track of friendships and prioritize time with alcohol over family time.

High-functioning alcoholics are one of five types of alcoholics. Also referred to as functional alcoholics, these people usually don’t realize that they rely on alcohol to feel normal. They don’t experience the typical consequences of alcoholism, such as drunk driving arrests, financial problems or blackout episodes.

The issues that high-functioning alcoholics experience are less noticeable, including:

  • Striving for unrealistic goals
  • Hiding negative emotions
  • Relying on alcohol to cope with stress
  • Hiding how much or how often they drink
  • Struggling to maintain relationships
  • Possessing co-occurring mental illnesses

High-functioning alcoholics often do such a good job of hiding their issues that other people don’t know the issues exist. Functional alcoholics may not even realize they’re actively concealing symptoms of their disorder.

Functioning Alcoholics and Relationships

Alcoholism doesn’t discriminate. High-functioning alcoholics can be moms, dads, husbands, wives, brothers or sisters. The type of relationship that you have with the person with alcoholism often affects how his or her disease affects you.

Married to a High-Functioning Alcoholic

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 social settings involving alcohol, 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 be emotionally distant from their spouse. They may also be emotionally abusive. Emotional abuse includes threats, insults and controlling behavior, according to the Office on Women’s Health website.

Dating a Functional Alcoholic

It can be difficult to tell if your boyfriend, girlfriend or partner is an alcoholic. Unlike husbands and wives, you may not live with the person you’re dating. Significant others may be able to hide their drinking, and it may be easier for them to keep problems a secret.

However, even high-functioning alcoholics can’t keep drinking problems a secret forever. Key warning signs that people are alcoholics include always ordering alcohol when they go out or struggling to control how much they drink. Boyfriends, girlfriends or partners of functional alcoholics may also experience emotional or relationship problems.

Children of High-Functioning Alcoholics

On the outside, high-functioning alcoholics may appear to be great parents. They may show up to their child’s events and seem to have good relationships with their children. But they may choose to drink at home instead of spending time with their children. Or they may drink in front of their children, increasing their risk of becoming an alcoholic when they grow up.

Alcoholic parents may be physically present but emotionally distant. They may put themselves and others at risk by secretly driving under the influence with children in the car. Even though they think they’re being good parents, high-functioning alcoholics can’t be fully committed to their children’s well-being when alcohol is also a major part of their life.

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How to Manage a Relationship with a High-Functioning Alcoholic

Every person who knows someone with an addiction has to choose whether to help the person or to distance themselves from the person. Distancing yourself can seem selfish, but you have to look out for your own well-being before you can help someone else.

Avoid Codependency

People who are close to high-functioning alcoholics need to avoid becoming codependent. That means they need to avoid enabling and make sure they don’t become emotionally dependent on helping their loved one.

People who are in a codependent relationship with an alcoholic prioritize the needs of the alcoholic over their personal needs. They often suffer a variety of mental health issues, such as low self-esteem and depression. If you’re suffering from the effects of codependency, it may be time to take a break or distance yourself from the relationship.

Support Groups

Support groups can also help people who are codependent on a high-functioning alcoholic. Co-Dependents Anonymous is a 12-step program for people who are trying to recover from a codependent relationship. Other support groups, such as Al-Anon, are available for friends and family members who need help dealing with an alcoholic’s issues.

These groups give people affected by someone else’s alcoholism a safe environment to talk about the impact that the person has on their life. Group members include peers who provide comfort and advice to one another. Many people who attend support group meetings experience therapeutic benefits.

Interventions

In addition to taking care of yourself, you can try to help your loved one find rehab for alcoholism. Most of the time, people convince a loved one with an addiction to seek treatment by showing them how the substance is negatively impacting their life. This may be difficult because the person may think he or she is healthy.

Family members may need to hold an intervention for their loved one with alcoholism. Professional interventions allow family members to communicate constructively in a safe environment. They aren’t like the interventions that are seen on TV.

High-functioning alcoholics can cause a variety of issues. Some of their issues are personal. Others affect their friends and family members. Regardless of whether the person can function in some aspects of life, alcoholism is a serious disease. High-functioning alcoholics need treatment just like other alcoholics do.

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