How to Talk to a High-Functioning Alcoholic

If someone you care about seems to be drinking excessively but still manages to get to work or school and do what they need to (for the most part), seems reasonably healthy, shows up for social events and otherwise participates in his or her life, you may be reluctant to broach the subject of alcoholism with him or her. After all, the substance use may not seem to be causing problems — at least not yet. But that doesn’t mean a so-called “high-functioning alcoholic” (or substance abuser) isn’t headed for trouble, cautions Tom Horvath, PhD, a clinical psychologist and owner/president of Practical Recovery, a non-12-step drug rehab and alcohol treatment program in San Diego, California.

With high-functioning alcoholics, “it takes a while for problems to catch up to them,” Dr. Horvath says. Often, “they can mitigate the damage caused by their drinking while still drinking the same amount.” But unless the excessive drinker stops or cuts back on their own, or seeks help, the habit is likely to progress, potentially leading to personal, professional, legal and/or health problems and/or an accident or injury, for example. The first step toward helping your spouse, partner, relative or friend is to recognize the signs of trouble brewing and intervene — before serious harm occurs.

Seeing the Signs

How to Talk to a High-Functioning AlcoholicPatterns can vary somewhat, but high-functioning alcoholics often have several symptoms in common. These include an inability to control how much they drink once they start; focusing excessively or obsessing about when they can next drink and who they can go out drinking with; “pre-partying,” or drinking before going to parties or bars, on a regular basis; and/or setting drinking limits — saying that they’re only going to have two drinks, for example, but not being able to adhere to a limit, says Sarah Allen Benton, a therapist in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and author of Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic.

In addition, high-functioning alcoholics tend to have an “increasing sense of denial that their heavy drinking is a problem since they are able to succeed professionally and personally,” Benton says. “They also tend to become defensive in conversations about possibly cutting back or stopping drinking.” Part of the underlying problem: They simply can’t imagine their lives without alcohol.

Addressing the Problem

When you’re ready to confront a potential issue with your loved one, start by following Benton’s number-one rule: “Any conversation with a high-functioning alcoholic about his or her drinking should occur when the person is not under the influence,” she says, adding that “it can often be most effective when they are hung-over and possibly feeling guilt or remorse.”

Start by expressing how the person’s drinking is having a negative effect on you and how you also see its harmful impact on your children, friends and/or family members. You might point out how the person’s behavior changes in uncharacteristic ways that are upsetting, or how you worry about his or her safety while drinking. “To prevent a high-functioning alcoholic from getting overly defensive, place the emphasis on your feelings and concerns instead of stating how you think he or she should be living [or behaving],” Benton recommends. “It’s important to come from a place of compassion, not a position of judgment.”

You might remind the person how much you love or care about him or her, and give him or her credit for being so accomplished and capable, adds Horvath. Then, point out that there will eventually be a price to pay, and most likely in a major way, for all the drinking and that you want to help prevent that from happening. It’s important to be patient and realize that you may not make much headway on your first attempts. Don’t expect the person to quit drinking or seek help right away. “What you’re doing is planting a seed that may help this individual to get help in the future,” Benton says. If your loved one is receptive to your concerns and willing to seek help, encourage him or her to be assessed by an addiction specialist (such as a therapist, physician or psychiatrist) to determine the appropriate level of care. In the meantime, it may help to offer to attend an “open” meeting of a mutual-help support group like AA, SMART Recovery® or Women for Sobriety with your loved one, Benton says, to ease their fears and get the recovery process started.

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17 Responses to How to Talk to a High-Functioning Alcoholic

  1. Avatar
    Nic May 10, 2016 at 7:01 am #

    What if you have tried these techniques numerous times over the course of more than 2 years & are still met with nothing more than defensiveness, attacks, belittlement, insults, hurtful comments, personal jabs, an attitude of pure entitlement & anger and the person insisting there is nothing wrong with drinking a handle of vodka each night? Even after getting so drunk they black out, pass out & leave a 10 month old child to fend for himself for hours, not being fed or changed, crying for hours where the child now refuses to go to him? Or after almost getting arrested at 9:30am on a Monday morning for still being so drunk from the night before that they don’t know who they are or where they live? Or when his entire family are all alcoholics, one is a crackhead who disappears for days with hookers, they all believe his blatant lies & they all think I’m some crazy psycho bitch because of the lies he tells?! I feel like the only option left is to give up & walk away.

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    Cathy June 16, 2016 at 10:05 am #

    You leave them Nic. Plain and simple.

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    jodee June 22, 2016 at 7:44 pm #

    I have been with a high functioning alcoholic for 13 years. He’s not mean or irresponsible but it def changes his responses, reactions, thought processes etc. Through the years his addiction has calmed down but has an average of a 6+ pack a night ….every night. More on the weekend’s. It causes on going arguments and leaves me feeling very lonley regularly. Its to a point I never feel like I’m ever with HIM…the real him. The real him is amazing. I just want to help him. I want him to realize drinking is a recreation not a lifestyle. I want to see him embrace life not cloud it. I do t expect him to never drink….I drink sometimes….but this daily shit is for the bird’s. When I attempt to talk to him he just gives the regular high functioning excuses added with some sweetened verbage, and also a few jabs. Tonight it was “I love you even with your flaws.” his manipulation within the alcoholism is that of an expert. Several times I’ve found myself wondering if I’m just a nagging bitch that needs to get off his back. I’m exhausted and completely Fed up with wondering when he comes home….how manu beers will he have??? He doesnt seem to care that it all upsets me and truly believes its not a big deal and I should just deal with it because he is functioning and isn’t mean. Our 3rd and last child is 17. He will graduate and move out before I know it. When that occurs my “empty nest” is going to be super lonley. My father was an alcoholic …but is not high functioning. My mom left him when I was 9. I still have a relationship with him and he is still an alcoholic today. Not as extreme as age and sickness has caused him to slow down. Its so frustrating that my childhood and adult life has been so impacted from alcohol. Sad reallly. At this point I’m at a crossroad of not wanting to live like this and allow it to affect me anymore and the fact that I love the real him and the life we’ve built so far together. Does anyone else deal with this? Any coping advice? I’m wishing for all of us finding ourselves on a forum of this nature lots of love and luck!

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      Kelly July 23, 2016 at 6:52 pm #

      This could have been written by me. Only its been 28 years for me and no children at home. Just pets that I’m not willing to give up.
      I just had that ultimatum conversation with him tonight. After 26 years of marriage to a highly functioning alcoholic, im ready to walk away. Im lonely and misserable. I would rather me alone and happy.

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      victoria August 1, 2016 at 2:17 pm #

      Hi jodee, my name is Victoria and my situation is just like yours i to grew up with an violent alcoholic father my parents divorced in 2007 leaving my mom in the hospital and my dad in prison. He attempted to kill her for the divorce. I meet my husband in 2004, he was a binge drinker then a year later he sobered up for another year. When we becaming pregnant he picked the habit up to present day. I to feel lonely, frustrated and just tired. His addiction has caused me depression. I sometimes forget the person he used to be. I pray for him but feel no hope, i feel guilt for not being strong enough for wanting to separate, even though if we did i know he will just drink more. I often feel like i care for him but who cares for me. My thoughts and prayers for you.

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    Rich June 28, 2016 at 9:13 am #

    He seems not bothered? Tell him it’s either the booze or his family?
    I also have an alcoholic wife who isn’t bothered about her marriage.
    Booze comes first?

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    Anaid July 8, 2016 at 5:34 pm #

    I’m with a functional alcoholic who drinks at least a 1/2 to a pint of whiskey starting at 4pm every week day after work. On weekends I have seen him consume up to 2 1/2 pints. He got really mean (verbally) on the 4th of July, went in and went to bed. I left. He wouldn’t take my call on Tues evening. I’ve emailed told him I love him and I’m here if he needs anything; his response; Thank you. I need space right now. I’m hoping he is trying to quit, but he drinks so much I don’t see how that would be possible on his on without getting physically ill.

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    Deb August 28, 2016 at 4:49 am #

    Wow, you have just described my marriage. I am absolutely miserable, my husbands health has been impacted by his drinking, he is on medication for blood pressure, cholesterol etc, has been diagnosed with alcoholic fatty liver syndrome, and has been told if he doesn’t quit drinking, or at least cut back significantly, he will have irreversible liver damage within the next few years. He doesn’t care, he doesn’t see it as a problem because by his standards, there is nothing wrong with him, he gets up and goes to work, he doesn’t go out to the pub every night, he says he works hard and is entitled to a drink at the end of the day. Doesn’t care what the doctor says, claims the doc doesn’t know what he is talking about. We will be down to our last $50 with a few days to go until payday, and he will spend it on beer, doesn’t even care if we are out of essentials like bread or milk. His personality has progressively gotten worse, he is short tempered, paranoid and mean (not violent, just mean). My daughter is almost finished school, soon to turn 18. I don’t want to stress her out any further in her final year, so I am biding my time, but I have had enough. Once she finishes school and gets settled into uni, I think I will have no choice but to leave. I still love my husband, but I’m not in love with this hollow version of him. He used to be a good man, but I can’t stand by and watch him drink himself to death. It breaks my heart to have to think about this, and I feel guilty and selfish considering the option, but I just can’t take anymore. My biggest issue is going to be how to get out and where to go.

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    Ann September 8, 2016 at 6:41 pm #

    My thoughts and prayers are with you all. I share all your feelings as I have an alcoholic spouse who is in COMPLETE denial. His parents got divorced when he was 10, and his father was a abusive alcoholic (verbally and physically).

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    K September 14, 2016 at 7:25 am #

    I just got married 10 months ago and I’m having a hard time with my husband’s drinking. He doesn’t drink EVERY day, but when he does (at least 2-3 times a week), he drinks A LOT. To the point where he wets the bed and is really mean to me and disregards my feelings. Even his friends think he has a drinking problem, but no one says anything to him and they always drink with him, too. His mom is having an alcohol problem right now as well and alcoholism runs in his family. I love him, but I’m afraid of my future with him. I’m young and I want kids, but don’t want them to have an alcoholic father who wets the bed. Everyone says I should leave him, but I just got married! I’ve approached him several times and he doesn’t think he has a problem.

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    Susan September 20, 2016 at 5:45 am #

    I left my high functioning alcoholic 2 months ago. I have been going to Al-Anon which has helped me tremendously. There is no need to give details of my relationship because all of our stories are the same. They just have different details. Just as alcoholics can hit bottom, so can loved ones of the alcoholic and I hit mine. I was co-dependent, helping him to bed, waking him up after blacking out so he wouldn’t hurt himself, trying to stop him from driving. I realized that I needed to let him feel the natural consequences of his actions. I set boundaries and limits and voiced them to him when he was sober. I followed through with them. My final boundary was leaving and I followed through with that. It was the most difficult thing I’d ever done but he needed to feel those consequences. More importantly, I needed to protect and save my own sanity. Did I want to live this lonely life night after night while watching him slowly self-destruct or did I want something better for myself? I chose the latter. I left with love and let him know that if he ever decides to get sober, I will be there to support him. He is still drinking and I am moving on with my life.

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      Marie October 15, 2016 at 9:13 am #

      Hi K…
      I’m so sorry to hear that you’re having problems with your husband because of his drinking after being married a short time. If you are looking for advice, I would say that the best thing that you can do is to leave him, now. I was married to a highly functioning alcoholic for 20 years before I finally left him. And I wish that I had not waited so long.
      It’s hard to give up and leave someone that you love. But, with an alholic, they will leave you if you stay with them. They may not physically leave you. But the person that you fell in love with leaves because their personality changes. While I was with my ex, I mourned the loss of him throughout our entire marriage. Though he was alive, the person that I had married had died. And being with him was lonelier than being alone.
      The day he moved out, it felt like a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders.
      Leave now, before children are in the picture. And it’s easier to start over when you are young.

  10. Avatar
    Ki October 17, 2016 at 2:05 pm #

    I am currently in a relationship with a high-functioning alcoholic and it has been driving me crazy. The worst part about being driven crazy, is that I’m already crazy in love with him. We have been dating for 9 months and he is pretty much everything I want in a man – literally everything I asked for. The signs of his alcoholism didn’t start to show until we were 5 months into the relationship and he got hurt on the job and was off work for 3 months. He had too much time on his hands, and there would be days where he would just drink until he passes out (you know how scary it is to know someone is passed out inside of a house that you can’t get into?!). I have had several conversations with him about how dangerous this is, and he keeps giving me false hope that he’s going to try to cut back. He may start off good with having two drinks a day or every other day, but all of a sudden he falls off the path to potential greatness and gets back on the path of sending himself to an early grave. It’s become too much but I’m so invested in his well-being that I just want what’s best for him, and that’s him getting help. It’s been hard as ever to walk away because I still feel there’s some hope for him just because of how great a person he is. But lately, I’ve been the one providing false hope to myself. I’m only 26 years old & i have no children. I have a lot to look forward to, but I’m so stuck on getting this man the help he needs.

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    Sue November 5, 2016 at 6:28 pm #

    Wow! I’m reading these entries and feel so much validation in how I can relate! I’ve been married 30 years and the last 6 or so have been unbearable. My husband is not present anymore. We hardly speak anymore and it’s like the elephant in the room. I am so done. I want to have connection with someone not live in a house of silence, alcohol laced breath, hypersensitivity to anything and everything. I’m walking on eggshells and I need something to change. I want to go to an Al Anon meeting. I think that might help. Thanks for listening, you and my dogs 🙂

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    Claire November 6, 2016 at 4:37 am #

    My husband and I have been married for almost 2 years and for over the last year, I’ve been trying to cut back on his drinking. He fits the definition of a high functioning alcoholic. He drinks everyday. Everyday he comes home from work with at least 1 6-pack. The first 2 beers are finished within 20 minutes of him walking in the door. He usually follows up the 6 pack with a bottle of wine. I can’t remember the last time he skipped a day drinking – even when he was sick with a fever. I’ve lost 2 friends from liver damage and this still doesn’t seem to deter him. He doesn’t see an issue. He never misses a day of work,he bike everyday and runs regularly. He seems to think this cancels out any damage the alcohol has on his body. His tolerance is so high, he rarely gets drunk, although his blood alcohol level must be through the roof. And, this scares me to no end because he usually thinks he’s okay to drive.

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    Mary November 13, 2016 at 8:53 pm #

    I can tell you what happens to a high functioning alcoholic. They die! their health deteriorates. my dad died at 57. Busch beer and peppermint schnapps every night! he tried to quit one time but he couldn’t. it was so sad. I felt so sad for him because he said he couldn’t quit but he wanted to. he sure did work and provide for us though. he was an excellent cook. I miss his food so much! he loved cooking. he left my youngest brother at age 21… too young to lose your dad. it’s been almost 3 years now since you’ve been gone. why didn’t you care about yourself? what happened? I don’t understand how it all started.

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    Malebo November 14, 2016 at 3:59 am #

    Hi everyone,

    Shoo! This is very depleting. I’ve been married to functioning alcoholic for 13yrs and knew him 14yrs before we wed. He was everything a woman would want. He was considerate, patient loving man. A few yrs after our wedding he started to be a bit controlling and I revolted immediately and that stopped. When that failed he moved to late nights and been very nasty when he get’s home. Then came the bringing, then came the lies, then the was the spitefulNess. Now it’s annoying cause we both adults so and don’t have time for his paranoid behaviour. I tried been patient, I don’t think I can do more than what I’ve done. I’m leaving it to the higher power. I pray he get’s help very very soon. All of us here may we find peace in all our efforts to help our loved one. It’s a full time job.

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