Dating a Functional Alcoholic: Is It Risky?

Dating a functional alcohol can be a tricky thing because, unless you pay attention to their drinking habits or they talk to you about it, it’s possible you might not even be able to tell, especially if they’ve gotten good at hiding it.

Generally speaking, a functional alcoholic is somebody who drinks often enough, in a way that may cause others to have a difficult time in their lives but isn’t necessarily seeing the problems of drinking too much in their own lives. They’re considered “functional” if they are staying in good health, if their career isn’t being negatively impacted, if their relationships aren’t suffering…

The problem is that functional alcoholics don’t always stay functional, and there are still downsides and negative aspects of drinking even if they aren’t reflected directly in someone’s life. This makes it very, very difficult for a functional alcoholic to get help, let alone acknowledge that they have a problem or are flirting with having a problem.

How Can You Tell If Your Partner Is a Functioning Alcoholic?

This can vary from person to person, but here are some signs that may sound familiar to you, as the partner of somebody who may have a drinking problem. Our job here isn’t to diagnose anybody, nor to provide medical guidance, but we will share some of the signs that may, in some cases, apply to someone who is struggling with alcohol while still maintaining their lifestyle, career, friendships, and so on.

They try to hide their drinking: This is a pretty tell-tale sign that something isn’t quite right if you catch them trying to hide their drinking habits. It suggests they know something’s off with what they’re doing, or they feel ashamed like they have to hide. People don’t hide when they’re drinking a glass of water or having a fresh salad, right? So, what does it say if they’re hiding their drinking habits?

They drink at unusual times: If someone works overnight shifts and has a drink after work, it’s not unusual for them to be “drinking in the morning”, but if somebody drinks first thing in the morning after waking up, that can be a sign that they’re dependent on alcohol, either physically or still just mentally. Either way, this is a bad habit. The same applies if they seem to need to drink at any type of event, even if other people aren’t drinking.

They lie about drinking: If someone lies about their drinking habits, this is a very concerning sign. Hiding vs lying is something you can differentiate between on your own depending on how you quantify the difference, but neither of those practices is good when it comes to alcohol.

They seem obsessed with alcohol: When someone lives a party lifestyle, the topic of drinking may come up often enough, but there’s a certain point where it’s not just a lifestyle phrase, a certain point where they start forming habits that could be very, very harmful and difficult to break.

The 4 Stages of High-Functioning Alcoholism in a Partner

If you’re dating someone and you’ve noticed their drinking habits changing or progressing, here’s a 4-step guide that can help you pinpoint which stage they may be at. This is just a rough guide, it can be different for everyone.

See also: The types of drunks.

Some people take their first sip and it immediately awakens something inside that quickly and dangerously sends them into alcoholism, whereas for other people it can be something that slowly builds over years, waiting for the right moment to manifest itself into the later stages. A trauma or a difficult life experience can also push someone towards using alcohol as a coping mechanism and progressing further into alcoholism.

1. Getting Started, Experimenting, Occasional Binging

This is when someone first starts to discover alcohol or first starts to discover it as a way to drown out their feelings or escape from a problem. They aren’t drinking all the time yet, but they’re drinking with the sole intention of getting drunk, which crosses over into self-medication territory.

Of course, anyone who drinks alcohol is doing it at least party for the effects of alcohol, but this is a bit different than just having a drink or two at dinner to loosen up a little bit and relax.

2. Using Drinking to Deal With Problems More Frequently

Next, somebody may start to use alcohol more and more as a way to cope with things in their life or things from their past. People drink for different reasons, but using it as a coping mechanism can slowly erode a person’s other coping skills until drinking is the only tool that they have left to deal with life and whatever life is throwing at them.

If the person you’re dating is a high-functioning alcoholic, you may not be noticing it at this point unless you’re aware of how often they drink. There will probably be various warning signs at different times, but it can be hard to confront them with since they’ll probably be able to rationalize it very well.

3. Negative Consequences Are More Apparent, More People Notice

At this stage, the negative things that occur from drinking are becoming more and more prominent in one’s life, and harder to hide. At this point, the “functional” part of the equation is starting to go out the window. They could still be on top of everything in their life, but at this point, the foundation is probably starting to crumble, if not worse.

4. Serious Changes are Happening

At this point, there are probably physical changes, and the negative effects of alcohol are noticeable and it’s past the point where someone can reasonably try to deny having any type of problem – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the alcohic in your life will see things that way.

This is often where things get to a tipping point, where it’s not only affecting the life of the person who is drinking, but it’s also having serious impacts on their partner.

Should You Leave an Alcohol Partner?

If your girlfriend or boyfriend drinks too much, whether or not you should leave them depends on several factors and your unique situation and relationship. There isn’t a one-fits-all answer to this. But something to ask yourself is whether or not they seem willing to get help for their drinking, or if they don’t even acknowledge it in the first place.

There’s a difference between an alcoholic partner who is willing to get help or is already getting help, and one who isn’t ready to acknowledge their problem yet. That may play a role in your decision, but something to ask yourself: Would you be happy staying with a functioning alcohol partner if they never stop drinking? If the relationship and your happiness rely on them turning things around, they may be among the people who can do that, but only if they’re willing to recognize that they have a problem and to work on fixing it.

Your Responsibility When Dating a Functional Alcoholic

If you decide to keep dating someone who is an alcoholic, it’s important to remember two things that can feel somewhat contradictory to one another. The first thing is that it’s not your responsibility to fix someone. You alone can’t stop them from drinking, and if you try to help them and it doesn’t work, this can be a huge cause of tension and issues since you may take it personally like they don’t care about you enough or that they’re choosing alcohol over you.

This is a normal feeling, but it’s not necessarily productive. The second thing is that by choosing to be with an alcoholic, it’s good to put in some effort to learn the best ways that you can help them. Helping a loved one stop drinking can be a very tall order, and it can have several side effects on your own life and well-being.

If someone is abusive when they drink, or generally just unpleasant to be around, just remember that you’re under no obligation to “save them”. Even if they aren’t abusive or anything when they’re drinking, it’s still something they need to do, you can’t stop drinking for them but you can try to be supportive in so much as it’s not taking too big of a toll on yourself.

When you’re dating a functional alcoholic, it can be tricky because they could be in denial about their alcoholism, or simply not interested in quitting until they start to notice more severe negatives from their drinking.

Some Extra Words From My Own Experience

I used to be a highly functioning alcoholic myself which also gave me the research to get Alcohol no matter what, there was always a way from 24/7 deliveries, convincing a friend that might have some bottles left to straight up hiding bottles all over the place so there would always be something even if my girlfriend managed to find a few bottles here and there.

It didn’t matter how much I loved my girlfriend and I truly did but it was a battle with myself and if you want my honest opinion looking back now it’s just best to leave the situation. You can still be nice about it but at some point, it’s their battle and their battle alone in my experience, my girlfriend became an annoyance that was in the way and this resulted and you might have experienced this in random “fights” over nothing just to have an excuse to get away to a bar nearby or a couple of days and sometimes weeks apart.

It’s a different story when you have kids involved and on this subject, I wouldn’t dare to give my own opinion as I have no experience with it but if harm and abuse or even slight danger comes into play it’s always best to remove yourself out of the situation, even calling for help is nothing to be ashamed of.

I do want to point that out, as an ex-alcoholic myself I certainly learned that I rather get “taken away” or help is called than wake up the next day and live life with the thought I harmed someone in that situation. Updating this in 2024 and love asking AI for some science to back things up, by nature I don’t see myself as someone aggressive or abusive in any shape or form but when I asked AI the question here is what you should know.

Alcohol can contribute to aggression even in people who aren’t naturally aggressive due to how it affects the brain.

  1. Alcohol affects the brain: When someone drinks alcohol, it affects their brain by altering the way neurons communicate with each other. Alcohol can impair judgment, reasoning, and self-control.
  2. Lowered inhibitions: Alcohol reduces inhibitions, which are like mental breaks that help us control our impulses and behaviors. When inhibitions are lowered, people may be more likely to act on aggressive impulses they would normally suppress.
  3. Distorted perceptions: Alcohol can also distort perceptions of situations and intentions. Someone who has been drinking may misinterpret neutral or ambiguous cues as hostile, leading to an aggressive response.
  4. Increased risk-taking: Alcohol can make people more prone to taking risks they wouldn’t normally consider. This can include engaging in confrontational or aggressive behaviors they might otherwise avoid.
  5. Social and environmental factors: The social and environmental context in which drinking occurs can also influence aggressive behavior. For example, if someone is in a noisy or crowded environment where conflicts are more likely to arise, alcohol can amplify these tendencies.

In summary, even if someone is not naturally aggressive, alcohol can still contribute to aggressive behavior by impairing judgment, reducing inhibitions, distorting perceptions, and increasing the likelihood of risky behaviors.

There is a reason a drunk cell was invented and is still being used, it often takes a good rest in a controlled environment for the person to calm down and reset, but if this becomes a pattern, in my opinion, the ultimate choice is to get yourself out of the situation and be clear to your drunk loved one that you deserve his or hers sober version, and enough is enough no matter how hard this decision can be.

Martijn van Eijk
Martijn is a passionate creator and the driving force behind He created this website to assist individuals and their families in conquering alcohol addiction and finding a joyful, fulfilling life after alcohol. With a deep understanding of the challenges they face, he empowers readers with valuable insights and practical guidance on their journey towards recovery. Author of the Stop Shaking Book.