Am I Married to a Functioning Alcoholic?

April 3, 2019

Am I Married to a Functioning Alcoholic?

A functioning alcoholic (sometimes called a functional alcoholic) is not always easy to spot. Unlike most alcoholics, functioning alcoholics do not exhibit obvious symptoms of alcoholism. They also manage to be generally competent in all or most aspects of their lives, therefore avoiding the stereotypical image of alcoholism. They are often middle-aged, successful, and have a job and family. This makes it very hard, even for someone who is married to a functioning alcoholic, to recognise there is a problem.

It is human nature to view the people we love in their best light. You may be ignorant to the signs, or subconsciously excusing them. However, if you find yourself questioning your husband’s, wife’s, or partner’s drinking habits, it might be time to take a second look at the situation.

Being Married to a Functioning Alcoholic

From the outside, your partner and your relationship appears just fine. In fact, it may appear fantastic. The problem with being with a functioning alcoholic is that things are not what they seem. A functioning alcoholic may keep a stable job, take care of the family and live an otherwise healthy lifestyle. However, they’re hiding a dark secret, which is harming them and those around them.

Alcoholism doesn’t just affect that one person. It affects everyone around them too. Many people underestimate the harsh reality of living with a functioning alcoholic.

People married to a functioning alcoholic, or in a relationship with one, often face the same problems as someone who is not able to function well. However, they also face a number of additional challenges.

You Feel Guilty

It isn't unusual to find that someone married to a functioning alcoholic actually blames themselves for the problem. Perhaps you feel guilty that you’re complaining too much, or are not taking good care of your partner. Or perhaps, you were accused of “ruining their life”. Over time, this can take a toll on your self-esteem, and lead you to develop codependent behaviours.

Your guilt can also turn you into an enabler, making the problem worse. Lying on your partner’s behalf or covering up for their actions not only creates extra stress for you, but also encourages their drinking.

You Doubt Yourself

Functional alcoholics are good at hiding or making excuses for their drinking. So good, that you may be wondering if you’re imagining things, especially when others do not notice anything wrong. Your partner may not even be aware of the problem themselves.

Whether they are hiding and lying due to denial or on purpose, it doesn’t change the fact that this situation creates a lot of trust issues. In time, this lack of trust will lead to rifts in your relationship. Sustaining a good marriage is hard work - being married to a functioning alcoholic makes it even harder.

You Fear For The Future

Your partner’s behaviours are undoubtedly making you feel uneasy. If you’re living with a funcitoning alcoholic, you may feel like you’re in an unstable situation. This can make you feel very stressed over a number of issues including your own future.

In certain situations, you may also fear for your safety, or your children’s safety, especially if your partner has shown aggressive or unstable behaviour.

Why It Matters to Get Treatment

As you can see, even a functioning alcoholic can create a lot of problems for the people around them. Even if those problems are not present right now, they will be likely to show up in the future. Remember, a functioning alcoholic is still an alcoholic, and they need treatment. Too many people think that if their drinking does not appear to be causing anyone harm, then it’s not a problem. 

Even though your partner may claim to be feeling fine, they may be suffering on the inside. Alcohol could be their way of coping with other problems they are not willing to admit.

For example, even if everything else is ok, but a person is regularly drinking an increasingly large amount of alcohol, eventually, this will take a toll on their health. Or, in time, your partner could pose a risk to you or others. Maybe they’ll be driving drunk, and even if they are extra-careful drivers while under the influence, they are still putting you in serious danger. If you have children, you should ask yourself if you want them to grow up with an alcoholic parent - which can be traumatic, and increases their risk for addiction in the future.

Signs You are Married to a Functioning Alcoholic

If you’re concerned about your partner’s drinking, you should look out for signs of alcoholism. However, keep in mind that many functioning alcoholics do not show these in obvious ways. In fact, you may not be aware of the problem until it gets very serious. The signs of a functioning alcoholic may be slightly different, or more subtle, than other addictive behaviour signs. But beware - the longer their addiction goes untreated, the more likely these symptoms will begin to show. Look out for:

  • High tolerance for alcohol
  • Elevated consumption of alcohol (even if not daily)
  • Regular drinking patterns (e.g. weekend binges, specific occasions, in stressful situations)
  • Fluctuating moods/behaviour based on intake or lack or alcohol
  • Joking about their drinking
  • Secretive behaviour or lying
  • Finding excuses or justifications for their drinking
  • Pre-drinking before social events or work
  • Decreased productivity, especially when not drinking
  • Lack of responsibility about commitments
  • Risk-taking behaviours

If you spot these signs, you may be married to a functioning alcoholic. It is a good idea to talk to your spouse, or partner, about their behaviour as soon as possible. However, you should be careful how you go about it. Compared to some addictive behaviours, functional alcoholism can be extra hard to address because the denial is so strong. If your partner doesn’t want to continue the conversation after you express your concern, you should ask for advice from a local addiction service centre, or attend an Al-Anon meeting. You can also contact us at Smarmore Castle, and one of our staff members will happily answer any questions you have.

How is Functional Alcoholism Treated?

Functioning alcoholics are still alcoholics and need to be treated like any other person with an addiction. Addiction is a chronic illness so addressing alcoholism is more than reducing their drinking or detoxing from alcohol. Any alcoholic will need therapy as well as detox, and will need to prepare for a lifetime of continuing care. In addition, even functioning alcoholics may need medical supervision during detox, as long-term heavy drinking creates life-threatening withdrawal symptoms.

In treating functioning alcoholics, there are likely to be considerable denial issues to address. The patients may have convinced themselves that they don’t have a problem by virtue of their apparent ability to function. For these reasons, a residential rehab is often recommended when treating alcoholism.

The Sooner, The Better

Unfortunately, most functioning alcoholics do not seek treatment until they hit rock bottom. Because denial is so strong with functioning alcoholics, it often takes a significant life-changing event for them to “wake up” to reality.

However, it is always best to tackle alcoholism sooner rather than later. You shouldn’t wait for a catastrophe to happen.

If your partner has a drinking problem, you will face a number of problems yourself. Any relationship with an alcoholic, functional or not, is going to be a challenging one. Even so, remember that alcoholism is a disease that can be successfully treated. By helping your loved one to start treatment, you are not only changing their life for the better, you are also helping yourself, your family, and others around you.

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