Is It Always Bad to Be a "Functional Alcoholic"?

Updated on August 30, 2010
P.M. asks from Owings Mills, MD
28 answers

My husband drinks a lot. He can put away a bottle of whiskey or vodka a night several times a week. Or, maybe over a dozen beers.

This IS bad for his health, our budget, etc, etc... He's not a mean drunk. He gets his work done at the office.

I am confused about how hard to push him to change the drinking habits. I don't like THAT much drinking. And, when he's THAT drunk I feel like there's a drunk stranger in my house. He's mostly an intense, happy, obnoxious, annoying drunk.

He's recently called himself a functional alcoholic. I feel like I'm being too sensitive, needy, or selfish in asking him to give up his tool for dealing with stress. It would be one thing if the cost was putting us in the poor house, or if he was violent... but that's not the case. Is functional alcoholism(whatever that is) ever ok?

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answers from Washington DC on

No. It is never ok. I don't think I need to give any reasons why, because alcoholism in any form is a problem - no matter what kind of drunk they are.

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answers from Dallas on

Using a substance to deal with stress, is a dangerous slippery slope. (I have seen it my whole life.) There is something truly wrong, if a person can't deal with stress without self medicating on substances. It's not OK, because it is still destructive. He still CAN"T live without it. He still CAN'T cope without it. Alcohol will eventually cause him to deteriorate physically, mentally, emotionally. Trust me when I say, you can't be a "functional" alcoholic forever.
It isn't safe, or healthy. It is self destructive. You are NOT being needy, for wanting him to stop self destruction. There is a physiological reason behind this addiction. There is a reason life can't happen without alcohol. One day, he will not be able to function at work. His livers will shut down. His mind will be mush. I know it's sounds dramatic, but it is the 100% truth. Just because he can put in a days work, does mean it isn't a SERIOUS, DANGEROUS, problem. Being able to function some parts of the day, does not make it acceptable.

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answers from Washington DC on

I guess if he doesn't care about his own health, shortening his life, etc, that's his business. But in my opinion it's not ok if he ever drives a car, because there will still be a lot of alcohol in his system when he's going back to work. He may think he can handle it if he's been doing it a long time, but he can't. He's putting everyone else at risk, unless he rides public transportation for his commute, but he may still be driving to and from that point. So for the point of public safety, even a happy drunk can take lives behind the wheel.

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answers from Seattle on

Is it ever okay? Sure. But you wouldn't be asking the question if it was ACTUALLY okay in your situation. His drinking is a problem in your marriage. Doesn't matter if it's one beer or a case. A glass or a fifth. A problem is a problem (wait for it) when it's a problem.

I'm 1/2 scottish and 1/2 norweigan. I can build up a tolerance faster than most people and waaaaay higher than most people. When I was drinking for keeps many many moons ago, it took about 10 shots just to get a pleasant buzz going. My dad's the same way. But rather like I am now, my dad rarely drinks more than a single beer. But that became a problem in my parents marriage. At a certain point, he'd come home, eat dinner, have a beer and go to bed. When he didn't have a beer he'd stay up and hang out with my mum. So she asked him not to drink on school nights. So he stopped. That easy.

I'm married to an alcoholic (in recovery), who was quasi functional. Meaning he kept his very good jobs while drinking, had a 3.98 while in school, etc. But he drove drunk (NOT okay), had affairs (ditto, not okay), *never* stopped drinking (whiskey at his posh dayjob, beer at the music studio or rehearsal, shots on stage, beer at the after party, some more at the house he'd stop at on the way home), and had a memory like a sieve. I say my husband was quasi-functional, because his drinking had SERIOUS and very obvious side effects. Many functional alcoholics you don't see those side effects, because they've done the work to keep them either out of sight or at bay (like never driving).

A functional alcoholic is a person who isn't a bum. Who keeps their jobs, keeps their relationships, the whole nine yards. It's very very common. And just as huge a problem, but far far more difficult to treat. Because while a "normal" person (like my dad) gets presented with "Honey, this is a problem for me, can you ________", and they go "Oh. Sure. No problem." While the alcohlic (functional or non) takes the whole thing either as an attack or like the person they love, coming to them with a problem is delusional and starts listing out all the reasons why it's NOT a problem, or says no problem... but never actually changes anything... because they can't. The major difference between alcoholism and problem drinking, is that non-alcoholics can remove alcohol from the situation without any trouble whatsoever. Just a habit to break. Not a compulsion to overcome, like breathing. Telling an alcoholic or and addict to stop is like telling you or I to stop breathing. I mean, we can hold our breaths... but it become physically painful. We HAVE to breathe. The same feeling of *have to* (and all the symptoms... pain, dizziness, rage, and the gasping relief of finally breathing in/ taking a drink... are identical.).

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answers from Portland on

You are obviously not happy with the situation, and will do yourself a tremendous favor, not to try to change him, but to invesitgate your part in this family dysfunction. Get a good book or two on enabling (one good one is "Co-dependent No More"), and consider joining an Al-Anon group, which you will find supportive and life-changing. You have valid reasons to be concerned, and you are letting your husband's insistence on his "need" talk you out of your need to want something more from your relationship with him.

Many blessings. Take care of yourself.

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answers from San Antonio on

YES YES YES it IS bad!!! Here's my biggest reason for thinking so: My FIL is a highly functioning alcoholic. You'd never know he was on his 7th beer or that he's been drinking all night. You would never ever guess. He's a great man and a self-made bazillionaire who gave away his entire income to charity last year. He volunteers at church and would go to anyone's house to fix their dishwasher or car. He's the most generous and responsible person on earth. He's nice. I've never heard him say one rude thing. Ever. And I spend a lot of time at his house.

The downside? He's modeled TERRIBLE habits for his children. Two of his three sons have no ability to put the breaks on their own drinking. It's not possible to predict that your children will handle constant drunkeness well. It's been the only (and very huge) wedge in my marriage. My hubby isn't drunk constantly because I would take the kids and leave. But he has had a dui which cost us 4K, and I'm actually pissed that he got out of it. My husband no longer drinks excessively (I told him I'd leave if I ever saw him drunk again and he knows I don't make empty threats) but it took 40 years to get to that point. My daughter remembers a two week period when she was 2 years old where he was actually drunk the whole time. No bad behavior or anything, but this is her image of her daddy. She's nearly 8 and she still says, "Remember when daddy used to drink fire water all the time?" Yeah. Nice.

I tell him that some day she will meet someone who smells like daddy did and that smell of alcohol will muster feelings of security in her. How sick is that? And Lord knows what kind of a drunk that guy will be. And it will be HIS fault. I tell him that clearly. Because of the physical construction of our brains, smells harbor memories more than any other sensory experience. And he's programed alcohol=security connections in her little brain. I'm sick over it.

Aside from this, my husband is THE ideal man. His father's example has caused him marital problems, boundary issues, and God knows how it will manifest in our children. It is a shameful example to set.

One more thing: My husband is a happy, romantic, sweet drunk too. I don't like that man. I don't respect that man and I don't respond well to him. I'll take a stressed out sober responsible man over the drunk romantic idiot every single time. And as far as you taking away his coping tool... you're not. He isn't using a coping tool, he's using something that is destructive to your marriage. He's ignoring your happiness and your feelings. He needs to find a different coping tool. If he cares enough about his family, he can find one.

good luck to you.

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answers from Washington DC on

i'm married to a functional alcoholic, and the daughter of another. fortunately for me, both have decades of recovery behind 'em. but i know very well your situation.
i'm appalled at those who are blaming YOU for 'enabling.' it is affecting your life and that of your children, but it is not your *fault* and you do not need to take on responsibility for his drinking along with everything else you have to cope with.
of course al-anon should be your next step. i suspect you know that. do it today.
functional alcoholism is sneaky. since your dh is nicer, funnier, happier, and no doubt much more productive at his job while he's a drunk, it's very difficult to interrupt. ugly violent drunks are much easier to point fingers at.
stop taking on all the pejorative attributes to yourself. you're not being needy or selfish or any of the other clubs you're using to beat yourself up with. you're also not in a position, sadly, to get him to do anything. hopefully he'll want to at some point. it's pretty much on him.
that doesn't mean you're powerless. go to al-anon. learn what tools you do have and how to use them effectively.
and not to be an alarmist, but you really need to prepare yourself for the nasty shock of sobriety. men like yours (and mine) do not become nicer people when they sober up. happy drunks tend to become frustrated stressed angry sober people. the stressors in their lives don't go away with the alcohol, and replacing the booze with healthy coping techniques is a long slow process. he will be MUCH harder to live with in the meantime.
in the long run it has been a blessing beyond description. i pray that it will be the same for you.

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answers from Norfolk on

From what I have witnessed from other's life experiences,this type of alcholism is the most dangerous because it presents opportunities to their loved ones and co workers to enable their dependence innocently. These alcoholics often coax others into compromising positions and often their addiction can move from alcohol to sex, food, prescription drugs, etc and become deadly without notice. Do not be deceived by your eyes. You may see a person that works hard and is a contributing member of the household...what you don't see... is the years of emotional and verbal neglect. You don't see the huge amounts of money set aside for the addiction that could benefit financial security...and ultimately you do not see that they were more committed to the addiction than other personal and family relations as a parent, spouse, or lover.These innocent dependencies can escalate under pressure and become deadly. More importantly their enablers can spend a lifetime justifying their compromises to this dependence outside of their relationship. Do not fool yourself; this type of dependence will affect every aspect of their life and yours, it is a sleeping giant that can be easily aroused.Take back your power to empower yourself emotionally, physically and spiritually by seeking an alanon or similar group in your area and/ or a local counselor to listen and contribute a neutral ear so that you gan continue to make wise decisions for yourself and your loved ones

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answers from Tampa on

I went through something very similar.
The functioning alcoholic will become a non-functioning alcoholic. Sadly, the wife may be the last to know. No one wants to be the one to call the wife. Honestly, he may THINK he's doing a good job at work, but they may be planning his exit right now.

I know this may be tough, but can you talk to people close to him? They may actually be relieved that you open up. (Some won't) If his friends and family see his problem, and will support his recovery, that will help you more than you know. Then think about having an intervention? (I WISH I had done this.) However, before you do any of this, you need to decide that you will no longer tolerate this behavior. Even without intervention, that's what I has to happen. You can not change him, but you can take action for yourself and your children. You have to help yourself first.

You're not needy, selfish or sensitive. He's manipulating you into thinking that. Addicts are great at lying and manipulation. It's what they become with the addiction of choice...right now, he is no longer the sober person you knew. You can not push him into slowing down the drinking. He has to change his mind, you can't. He'll see it as nagging. The 'nagging' will probably be the thing that he uses to blame you for his problems. That's what they have to do to feel good about themselves. It could even cause him to get violent.

I did think my marriage was over. I thought there was absolutely no way we would ever work. My husband went into rehab a few months after I left. Somehow, with help, we made it. However, when you make your boundaries, you can't make them thinking that your actions will make him staighten up his life. When I left, I was leaving for good. You just need to live for yourself and your kids. Just live the best way for you and your children.

If you need information, feel free to contact me. I don't check the site every day, but I do check pretty often.

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answers from Los Angeles on

Please, please, please, please, please go to an Al-Anon meeting.

Please go to at least 3 meetings before you make any choices of how to act. By going to an Al-Anon you'll meet people who are learning and teaching each other how to live with or choose to not live with someone with drinking issues. By taking care of yourself you will teach your husband how you deserve to be treated and your children how to protect themselves. You can not change him and only you can change you and how you respond to your husband's choices. Go, listen, learn, grow, feel supported and understand that you are not alone.

Good luck.

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answers from San Francisco on

For years I have been trying to determine what amount of alcohol consumption constitutes an alcoholic. My husband would go through a large bottle of whiskey in a week or drink a bottle of wine in a night. I hated it because he was a jerk when he drank. He'd be more likely to pick a fight, become impatient with everyone, etc. I started ignoring him and did not talk to him when he dranks. I have complained about the drinking for years. I have attended Al-Anon, which was helpful. Recently, he lost his job and started drinking again. He (on his own) realized he was drinking too much and stopped buying alcohol. If we have alcohol in our house he will drink. So, we don't keep alcohol. I guess I would say that you need to think about how his drinking affects you. You do have to realize that he is showing your kids how to handle stress by his drinking. How do you feel about your children being heavy drinkers? I once called an attorney to get divorce info and she said what another poster said that the alcoholic will get worse and become less functional. Al-anon is all about focusing of what you can control (you) and realizing what you can't (your husband). You are not being selfish in asking him to give up his tool to cope - it's a crappy tool and it's toxic. If someone relieved stress by driving 150 miles per hour would you still not say anything? Your concern is legitimate and you might be shocked at how much more pleasant your life would be if you didn't have to think about whether or not your husband is drunk. I think if you were to attend an al-anon meeting you might be surprised about how much you do to accommodate his alcohol. Good-luck.

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answers from Boston on

If he called himself an alcoholic, he likely knows he has a problem but doesn't know how to stop. You can't make him stop, even if you were sure you wanted to. But my opinion is that if your husband is routinely doing something that is bad for his health and your budget, he's also routinely doing something that's harming your marriage. I'd think long and hard about how long you want to stay with someone who's hurting you and your family, even if it's not physically. You might want to check out Al-Anon. Best of luck.

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answers from Atlanta on

Again...check out an alanon meeting. I highly recommend it as well. The advice I'd propose is to try a few meetings to see which one works for you. I personally tried 4 different meetings before finding the one that was the right fit. Now I moved and am still trying to find the right meeting. Alanon is all about you and it will change your perspective on your "functional alcoholic".

Here is the link.

All the best.


answers from New York on

No, it is not o.k. It is interferring with your life and you are a co-dependent! You need to see a therapist of your own that way you will have the tools you need to deal with the issues you face.

Good luck



answers from Washington DC on

Get yourself to Al-Anon ASAP!! Encourage your husband to attend AA. All of you need help.



answers from New York on

Ummmmm, yea it's bad. He needs to find another stress reliever. He might be "functional" but after he drinks his whole bottle of vodka I assume he passes out or sleeps heavy. What if there was an emergency, fire or an issue with your kids, could he help? Drive? understand what is happening? You unfortuatly are an enabler if you don't want to take away his alcohol becasue he depends on it. Why don't you schedule a physical with his dr, tell the dr you want his liver and brain scan checked and see where he is on the health spectrum, that alone could wake him up. But long term alocoholism is devestating to the body, skin, brain internal organs and quality of life. Honey not to be harsh but just because your hubs is not a mean drunk does not mean he isn't a drunk. Your hubs is full on alcoholic and needs intervention, pronto.


answers from Washington DC on


I am sorry you are going through this.

One thing you need to know is that YOU CANNOT change an alcoholic. They have to want the change.

You are not being selfish by asking him to give it up. He needs to hit rock bottom before he can change. But HE HAS TO WANT IT.

He is setting a poor example for kids and he's hurting himself. I would suggest he go to the Dr and have his blood tested - what will end up happening is he will destroy his liver and then his kidneys.

You are enabling him by allowing him to drink in the house - but putting him a bar to drink is making him a danger to society as he will think he's fine to drive and someone (not him as 95% of drunk drivers ever get hurt in accidents) will pay for his "habit".

If he holds a security clearance he is jeopardizing his job. Alcoholics can hold clearances - but one mistake can and will lead to disaster.

He needs to find another way to deal with his stress. - but again - you CANNOT do it for him - you have to tell him your expectations and your desires. Then you need to make the decision if you are better off with or without him.

Best regards,




answers from Las Vegas on

I guess you'd have to ask this question, what do you consider functional??
I mean sure getting up and going to work is somewhat functional, right? and often, when a drunk isn't abusive, people will tolerate the drinker even more so and in some cases, not even consider that person a drunk.... it's only the mean drunk that gets the bad wrap, when in fact.. a drunk is a drunk is a drunk........
I see it this way,IF you have to use any substance to constantly get yourself through a situation and or release stress, then perhaps YES, there is a problem.... Can he go without drinking for long periods?? probably not...
Both my aunt and mother were "functional" drunks, esp my aunt, she'd down her pint of bourbon every night, then get up and go to work the next morning.... all the while rotting her liver... while she might have been as you say "functional" in the beginning..when it came to emotions, she never dealt with anything but instead drank away all her problems... You see, the problem is far bigger than just the OVER use of alcohol but the means in which a person uses it....... that said, an addict's addiction not only affects his/her but also the ENTIRE family.... everyone has to walk in eggshells around that person to help keep his/her fantasy alive about what is considered too much drinking or not... people buy into the lie until one day someone wakes up............ and begins to question such behavior... such as what you are doing....
Remember you can't change him but you can work on you.. why not check out an Alanon meeting somewhere nearby and see what those people have to say... I think you will be surprised to learn that even alcoholics can function but it's just a matter of what you consider functioning.. again, back to my first question...
It's great that you are beginning to question these things..... :)
best of luck on your journey..



answers from Chicago on

I've known a few functional alcoholics. As long as they aren't harming anyone else, I don't really see a problem.

Now, he is indirectly hurting you by destroying his health. Over-eaters indirectly hurt their spouses in the same way. In both cases, you cannot change the other person's behavior, only they can.

My hubby drinks a lot. Not a bottle a whiskey a night, but he will drink a bottle of gin in a week. I worry about his health sometimes, but he hasn't been drinking as much as of late because he too is worried about his health.


answers from Dallas on

If your husband had diabetes you would worry for his health and push him to eat properly, right? Alcoholism is no different. It is a disease and you would like your husband to be cured or under control to enable him to live a longer life. It's okay to be on his case for this.

Ask him to go to AA. Whether he does or not I encourage you to go to Alanon.



answers from Washington DC on

No its not ever ok, especially if you have children in the house. It is hard for them to understand what is happening plus they will learn the negative coping skills. Even if the person is a "functional" alchoholic they are still an alcoholic. My adopted daughter was almost destroyed by her functional alcoholic biological father due to his neglect. They can't function as a parent which is a full time job if they are drunk. Also I guarentee that this is having an impact on you. I dont think that there is a way you can make your husband change his ways. No one can really change another person and if he is truly an alcoholic giving up alcohol will be one of the hardest things he will ever do. But you can get help for yourself. I would suggest finding an al-anon group, which is for family members and friends of alcoholics and gain some perspective on how this is affecting your life and those around you.



answers from Richmond on

You don't say whether or not you have children but I am going to assume you do since you are on this site. I think letting your children see this behavior and assume it's okay is the most devastating effect this is having. Also, this will ruin his health. It may take years but it will. How angry will you be if you spend your golden years caring for a disabled man instead of enjoying them! Lastly, if your husband is now referring to himself as an "alcoholic" (functional or not) then that is a cry for help. He may be resistant and it will HARD but he needs to stop for all your sakes.


answers from Houston on

I feel like you are talking about my husband, only he only drinks like 3 days out of a month, but he does entirely too much, doesnt get violent, and is quite love able as well. but anything is a problem if you cant live without it, thats the line i think, does he HAVE to have it on hand all the time?


answers from Houston on

Well I think you answered your own question in the health area, I mean his poor liver!! Plus when he is doing all this putting it away, how plugged into life with you and the family can he really be? It is still an escape from life and not good for anybody. Now having said that, you pushing will not change things. Telling him how you feel about all of this when he is sober is fine, but he needs to see that he has an issue and is missing out on dealing with life. If it were me I would probably have a heart to heart about how I missed him engaging in life with me and that I felt he was missing out on our kids growing up and that I was worried for his health and that seeing him do this to himself didn't do anything for me in the respect department. You married more than a provider, you also need a partner to share life with. I mean you could have made enough money to support yourself without him, that is not why you chose to say "I do" for life. Then I would pray and ask God what to do and how to be. Lord knows you can't change him and living with someone who is not doing what they need to is hard. So I would focus on not making the house revolve around his drinking schedule, no waiting to set the tone of the house to his mood. Alcoholism has this nasty way of sucking everything else into itself. If the alcoholic is happy, everyone can be, if the alcoholic isn't in a good place life should stop so that any and all needs of the alcoholic can be anticipated and met. It is a selfish little cancer and no matter how innocent it seems, it is not something that is helping anybody for sure. So I say love him the best you can, choose your moment to talk truth and the live your life to the fullest possible without catering things to his problem. Try not to make it your problem, just say your peace and move on. There is nothing more irritating to a drunk than realizing they are not the center of the universe. I am really sorry you are in this spot and I wish you the best bc it isn't easy. Above all love him and give him praise and encouragement when you can and when it's honest bc most people who drink do have some self esteem things going on. Hang in there!!



answers from Boise on

When you get married, the Bible says you become ONE FLESH. What he does to his body will in some way affect you, and it will affect your children.
My father was an everyday fuinctioning, sweet alcoholic. But my parents fought every day. Mostly because my mom thought throwing a fit would make him "think about it" and change. It never did. He is now an alzheimers patient.

One thing is that it doesn't just affect the liver. It can also affect the endocrine system- and if that shuts down, your in a heap of trouble. All kinds of symptoms start occuring that usually never get diagnosed correctly because most docotrs know so little about it. That system controls almost every function it the body.

Beer has a huge amount of aluminum, which is a heavy metal. Heavy metals destroy the central nervous system/endocrine system. Aluminum has been implicated in alzheimers. ALZ used to be an old person's disease. People in their 40's and 50's are now getting it.

Further, as his 6 children came into adolecence,we started mimicing his behaviors. All of us 6 kids had NO PROBLEMS drinking alcohol and it was a party life for all of us. Thankfully I do not do that anymore , as I have found the Lord. That doesnt mean I NEVER drink, but I do have a glass on special occassions, and not in excess. The Bible says all things are permissible but not all things are benificial. Meaning you wont be sent to hell for being a lush, but you will pay the natural penalty that comes with it- bad health and possibly early death.

4 of my siblings are alcoholics. And all 4 have a lot of health issues.



answers from Pittsburgh on

No--it's not "OK". He has a problem. If he continues to live as a "functional" alcoholic, it is only a matter of time before the disease progresses to the point where it has more (and more devastating) effects on all of your lives. This could take a month, a year, 5 years or a decade, but it WILL progress. Alcoholism is a progressive, destructive disease.

Go to an Alanon meeting and your eyes will be open to how many ways you enable him to be an alcoholic in a safe environment. There are only three outcomes for a life dominated by alcoholism: death, institutions and death. The sooner HE realizes he has a real problem and seeks help and recovery, the less pain your family will experience. Good luck!



answers from Boise on

NO!!! He could get cirrhosis of the liver. He could get in a bad car accident. I think that is great that he is not mean, but alcoholism is still going to harm his body. I think it is sad that you are putting yourself down for being too sensitive or needy or selfish. If he has said these things to you, then that is the alcoholism talking. I would get really serious about AA. Or maybe you could go to the AA meetings. They teach alcoholics better ways to cope with stress.



answers from Washington DC on

You have gotten excellent answers to your difficult question. I'm a licensed clinical social worker. You don't mention if you have children, but if you do the statistics show that your children are at risk to be or marry an alcoholic when raised in an alcoholic home. Please go to Alanon...check it out on-line. Get support for yourself and your children.

Your husband is at serious risk for his health as mentioned below. Also, alcohol is very dangerous...if he is truly drinking that much then he can't just stop...he needs medical help. The risk of stopping is seizures and other bad things. You need support so you can make good decisions for you and the kids and then decide where you are at. Your primary care doctor can assist also with treatment choices.

I wish you the best!

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