Alcohol & Health
Treatment
Helping Alcoholics
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Updated on February 4, 2023
7 min read

Dating a High-Functioning Alcoholic: Signs and Support Options

A high-functioning alcoholic is not a formal diagnosis. It's a term for someone who drinks alcohol heavily but can still function in society.

High-functioning alcoholics often appear physically and mentally healthy. They may hold jobs, own homes, and have families. This can make it difficult to tell if they have an alcohol use disorder (AUD).

With time, AUD can lead to many health problems, including liver disease and high blood pressure. Therefore, it's important to know some of its warning signs.

8 Signs You’re Dating a High-Functioning Alcoholic

When you're dating a high-functioning alcoholic, it can be hard to tell if they have an addiction. Fortunately, it’s not impossible.

If you see any of these red flags in your partner, it could mean they have a problem with alcohol and need help:

1. Drinking Alcohol to Cope

If your partner drinks excessively to cope with a stressful situation or negative emotion, this may indicate an alcohol use disorder. Drinking to cope with daily stressors is not normal and may require professional help.

2. Drinking in Every Situation

When your partner needs alcohol to function in day-to-day life, they may be experiencing alcohol use disorder. This includes: 

  • Needing a drink to sleep
  • Drinking as soon as they wake up
  • Drinking to calm down

High-functioning alcoholics also often wonder about their next drink.

3. Drinking Alone

Take note of how often your partner drinks alone, as it can signify high-functioning alcoholism. Drinking alone also makes it easier to consume larger quantities of alcohol because there’s no one around to stop them.

Some people even drink secretly because they feel guilty or ashamed of their habit. Other times, they may not want to deal with people commenting on how much they drink.

4. Drinking Too Much

If your partner drinks too much, this may signify high-functioning alcoholism. However, if they’re a functional alcoholic, it can be hard to determine how much they drink.

High-functioning alcoholics may not engage in risky behavior or act up even when they’ve had too much to drink. They can still do normal activities, including:

  • Care for their family
  • Keep up with work tasks
  • Refrain from showing negative emotions or behaviors (depression, anger, or low self-esteem)

You may need to be more observant of their drinking habits to determine if they’re drinking too much. You should also remember that drinking too much can mean binge drinking or heavy drinking.

Binge drinking is drinking too much in one sitting. Heavy drinking is a pattern of having more than three to four alcoholic drinks daily.

5. Developing Tolerance

Alcohol tolerance develops when a person drinks alcohol often. This means needing to drink progressively higher amounts to reach a specific level of intoxication. 

This dependence can lead to cravings and addiction. Your partner may be drinking more than usual because they don't feel the same effects as before or are trying to get more drunk.

6. Experiencing Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Observe whether your partner experiences alcohol withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking for a couple of days. This is a strong indicator that they have alcohol dependence.

Your partner may experience the following symptoms when they try to quit drinking alcohol: 

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Nausea
  • Mood swings
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Tremors
  • Nightmares

In some cases, alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening.

7. Denying the Problem

Many high-functioning alcoholics use denial to avoid a conversation about their drinking problem. They may say they drink because they are stressed out at work or come up with another excuse.

They may also joke about their condition to deny the reality of the situation. If you've tried talking to your partner about their drinking, but they won't listen, they may be an alcoholic.

8. Separate Social Circles

Alcoholics may have specific friends only for drinking. They may not do any other social activities outside of drinking.

If your partner is secretive or defensive about a specific group of friends, it may indicate that they’re trying to keep this area of their life secret from others.

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How Alcohol Addiction Affects Different Relationships

Alcohol addiction is a harmful and damaging disease. It can take a devastating toll on the lives of friends, family, and partners.

High-functioning alcoholics may become physically and/or mentally abusive toward the people they love. This can lead to various mental health problems for either party, including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Low self-esteem
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

Children of high-functioning alcoholics may also experience a profound psychological impact. Their childhood can become a complex and painful experience compared to other children.

How to Help a High-Functioning Alcoholic

Alcohol addiction is considered a family disease because it affects the alcoholic and those close to them, including their children. If you're related to or are in a relationship with a functional alcoholic, various resources can help them reach lifelong recovery.

Professional Treatment

Alcohol addiction treatment is provided in various settings. The setting is dependent on the unique needs and requirements of each person. These include:

Peer Support Groups

Peer support or self-help groups can be valuable in reducing or stopping heavy drinking problems. They can also help improve a person’s health and emotional well-being. 

These groups include:

  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a twelve-step fellowship providing meetings globally to help people stop drinking.
  • SMART Recovery or Self-Management and Recovery Training, is a peer support group that promotes abstinence by applying evidence-based principles in meetings.
  • Women for Society helps women address emotional problems linked with a drinking problem.

Intervention

An intervention can also help diagnose those with alcohol problems. It can also encourage them to seek treatment and help.

If performed early enough, it can help prevent further progression in disease severity. It may also stop the development of other alcohol-related mental disorders or negative health consequences.

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What Not to Do When Dealing with a High-Functioning Alcoholic

Many people fall into the trap of being an alcoholic’s enabler. They protect the person suffering from alcoholism from the negative consequences of the disease.

When this happens, it’s common behavior for loved ones to sacrifice their needs to maintain a sense of normalcy at home. Other enabling behaviors include:

  • Making excuses for a high-functioning alcoholic’s actions
  • Covering expenses for the high-functioning alcoholic (ex: traffic tickets, legal fees, or fines)
  • Hiding the negative consequences of heavy drinking (ex: cleaning up messes or washing ruined clothes)

Other warning signs of enabling an alcoholic include performing their regular life duties, like running errands, and trying to justify their negative behavior to other people.

It's essential not to fall into being an enabler. Instead of pretending that their alcohol problems do not exist, focus on helping the person receive the help and treatment they need.

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How to Find Support Groups 

It can be challenging having a functional alcoholic in your life. Fortunately, there are support groups for the friends and families of alcoholics.

Al-Anon is a good example of this. Friends and families of high-functioning alcoholics can bring positive changes to their unique situations by sharing their experiences and applying Al-Anon’s principles to their lives.

Alateen is a similar support group, but for children aged 13 to 18 years old. It allows teenagers to meet other young people with similar experiences, so they don’t feel alone.

When to Step Away

Walking away from an alcoholic loved one may be essential for your well-being if they refuse to accept help or seek treatment. This can be challenging and may make you feel guilty.

Before you step away, you can try to speak with a local substance use rehabilitation counselor. They can help you understand alcoholism and how the disease progresses.

With this understanding, you and other friends and family members can try to offer support and treatment to your alcoholic loved one. If they still refuse, you can step away, knowing you did all you could.

Summary

High-functioning alcoholics are often difficult to identify because they don't show obvious symptoms of addiction. It's important to know what to look for when dealing with a high-functioning addict.

If you think you’re dating an alcoholic, consider engaging in support groups like Al-Anon and Alateen. These groups can provide comfort and share similar experiences you’re going through.

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Updated on February 4, 2023
7 sources cited
Updated on February 4, 2023
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
  1. About Us.” SMART Recovery.
  2. New Life Program.” Women For Sobriety, 2021.
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  4. Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction.” National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  5. What Is A.A.?” Alcoholics Anonymous.
  6. What Is Al-Anon and Alateen and Are They Right for Me?” Al-Anon Family Groups, 2018.
  7. Becker, HC. “Alcohol dependence, withdrawal, and relapse.” Alcohol research & health: the journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2008.

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