Being in a relationship with someone who is a high functioning alcoholic (HFA) can feel lonely and confusing. You may feel that something is wrong but because there are so few outward signs of trouble, it is hard to both name the problem and know where to start to fix it. 

Identifying who might be a high functioning alcoholic can be difficult, particularly because many of the things we think about someone who struggles with alcohol use include an inability to keep a job, always intoxicated, and spending all their money on alcohol-  may not apply. HFA are certainly impacted by their use of alcohol, but because the negative consequences can be less obvious and less visible they likely will be in denial about those consequences and the need for treatment. If your partner seems unconcerned, you may worry you are overreacting or nagging. Additionally, because drinking alcohol is such an accepted part of may people’s social lives, it is easy to rationalize or justify using, making it hard for you to feel like you can speak up.

What specifically about your partner’s use is setting off alarm bells for you?

6 Signs of a High Functioning Alcoholic

  1. Is it because it seems they are using alcohol as a way to deal (or not deal) with problems and feelings?
  2. Drinking moderately most days of the week whether to relax or wind down?
  3. Are they usually drinking alone?
  4. Does it seem like they are having to drink more and more to get the same effect?
  5. Are they drinking more than 3 drinks a day or 7 a week for women or 4 drinks a day or 14 drinks a week?
  6. Does their drinking cause you to worry about their health and safety or your health and safety?

If so, you might be in a relationship with a high functioning alcoholic- someone who both struggles with alcohol, but is also able to fulfill work, social, and familial obligations most or all of the time. Though you may still doubt yourself, if you think there might be an issue, there is a good chance you are right. One in seven adults is believed to have an alcohol use disorder.

If you suspect your partner may be a HFA, it is important to create time and space for yourself to assess what your needs are in the relationship. This can be incredibly hard, especially when so much time is spent on the acute needs of your partner, but figuring out what your boundaries, fears, and non-negotiables are is necessary in order to determine what to do next. This also allows you to identify what supports you will need as you set out on whatever the path is to addressing your partner’s use. Those supports could be family, friends, a support group or connecting with a therapist. Because there is often so much silence and shame around addiction, knowing that you are not alone in this process and that you have places and people you can go to is vital.

Once you have figured out what your needs are and put your supports in place, you can move forward with implementing a plan. The plan could be talking with your partner about your concerns and discussing possible treatment options.  The plan could be staging an intervention for your partner where family and friends talk about the impact of their alcohol use with the goal of getting your partner to accept help. The plan could also include deciding that you do not feel able to remain in the relationship if your partner does not enter treatment, successfully reduce consumption or stop using.

No matter what you decide, knowing that decision was informed by a thoughtful process of engaging with yourself and what you need from your partner in order to feel healthy, happy, and whole will help you find peace with whatever the outcome is.

If you would like support in this process, many of our clinicians like, Alexandra Backis, at NSC successfully work with individuals and couples struggling with substance use or recovery.