High-Functioning Alcoholism: 5 Ways to Tell if Your Partner Is Too Close to the Edge

May 10, 2022

He has a few beers with friends after work to blow off steam, but he rarely, if ever, gets completely drunk. She holds down a good job, and her boss loves her at work. They aren’t having any issues studying and getting good grades. So what’s the problem with a bit of drinking if it’s not interfering with their lives?

Good question, one that begs another: How much is too much? The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends either abstinence or drinking in moderation to substantially reduce your risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. In moderation means one drink or less a day for women and two drinks or less a day for men. The CDC states that a standard drink equals one 12-ounce glass of beer with five percent ABV (Alcohol by Volume), one 8-ounce glass of malt liquor with seven percent ABV, one 5-ounce glass of wine with 12 percent ABV, or one 1.5-ounce glass of distilled spirits with 40 percent ABV or 80 Proof.

High-Functioning Alcoholism

(chermitove / pixabay)

“People can be dependent and not have abuse problems at all,” Dr. Mark Willenbring wrote in Sarah Benton’s 2009 book Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic. He is the former director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s (NIAAA) Division of Treatment and Recovery Research. Willenbring continued, “They’re successful students. They’re good parents, good workers. They watch their weight. They go to the gym. Then they go home and have four martinis or two bottles of wine. Are they alcoholics? You bet.”

Findings from a 2007 study by the National Institutes of Health first debunked the notion of a ‘typical’ alcoholic, stating that the disease presents itself in several subtypes. Nearly 20 percent of the nation’s alcoholics, referred to in the study as the functional subtype, were middle-aged, well-educated, and had stable jobs and families. At least on the surface, high-functioning alcoholics look and feel like they have it all together.

However, this kind of alcohol abuse is unsustainable over time, according to Dr. Bob Huebner, current Chairperson at Friends of NIAAA. “[No one] can drink heavily and maintain major responsibilities over long periods of time. If someone drinks heavily, it is going to catch up with them.”

What are some of the signs your loved one may be leaning on alcohol too heavily? Our addiction recovery center counselors suggest you look for these five warning signs:

1. Using Alcohol as a Coping Mechanism

After a stressful day at work, is the first thing they reach for a shot of whiskey chased by a couple of beers? How about if she recently ended a romantic relationship or experienced a death or severe illness? Does she seek solace in a bottle of vodka or Jim Beam?

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, so it dulls the senses and impairs cognition. It makes sense that many people would use it to relax and unwind, curb social anxiety, or numb emotional pain.

However, using alcohol to cope with mental health stressors often does more harm than good. Instead of dealing directly with intensely negative feelings like depression, anxiety, shame, and embarrassment, alcohol only masks them. And as your body acclimates itself to the substance, it will take increasing amounts to yield the same sense of escape.

2. Every Occasion Is Made for Alcohol

Office Christmas party? Definitely calls for several glasses of wine. Having good friends over for dinner? Break out the Bourbon. Business lunch? Cocktails, please. Whatever the occasion, he always looks for ways to include alcohol.

The desire to drink constantly then may extend to less appropriate settings, such as a child’s birthday party or a family barbecue. When your partner isn’t drinking, she’s still thinking about it, obsessing over when she’ll have that next drink. A last-minute change in plans – such as staying home instead of going out – might rattle her if she counted on having those drinks at the restaurant or club tonight.

3. Self-Imposed Limits on Drinking

“I never day-drink.”
“I only drink socially and only as much as my friends.”
“I get drunk on the weekends but never during the week.”
“My drinking or hangovers don’t get in the way of my family or work responsibilities.”
“I’m able to stop drinking any time I want.”

By limiting when and how much they drink, high-functioning alcoholics continuously seek to reassure themselves and others that they have everything under control. And, at that moment, they might. But as we mentioned above, heavy drinking without any negative consequences doesn’t last.

4. Increased Isolation

High-functioning alcoholics may seem like the perfect social drinking companions, but they often prefer drinking alone. Social drinking backs up the notion that he only drinks in keeping with his self-imposed limits, that he’s responsible, and that he’s firmly in control of his alcohol use.
Drinking in isolation keeps the actual extent of her alcohol consumption a secret. She can drink without any judgment or harm to her reputation as a successful person. As her alcohol use becomes more pervasive, she’ll likely spend increasing time alone, away from you and the rest of the family. You might also find well-concealed bottles or flasks in her things or hidden throughout the house.

5. Who Are You and Where Is My Partner?

Chronic alcohol abuse, albeit well-disguised, can manifest itself in drastic mood swings and other symptoms associated with withdrawal as the effect of the alcohol wears off in between use. For example, if your partner didn’t have the opportunity to have his usual two or three drinks after work, he may suddenly seem irritated, anxious, or maybe even downright hostile.

These are some of the withdrawal symptoms you might encounter as his overall drinking gets more excessive. In addition, life can quickly turn into an emotional roller coaster with increasing ups and downs as he struggles to maintain his perceived ‘control’ over his drinking.

Maybe if society more readily viewed alcoholism as a disease rather than a life choice, it wouldn’t carry the negative stigma its sufferers feel so desperate to avoid. A high-functioning alcoholic suffers as much as anybody else with an alcohol use disorder, but in silence and shadows. They haven’t lost their family relationships, jobs, or any other significant measure of outward happiness … yet. Unfortunately, it’s only a matter of time.

If you feel that your partner exhibits signs of being a high-functioning alcoholic, contact our faith based drug rehab center in Utah.


High-Functioning Alcoholism: 5 Ways to Tell if Your Partner Is Too Close to the Edge