Dr. Deb would love to answer your burning relationship questions.

Today’s Advice Highlights:

  • Are functional alcoholics a real thing?
  • Is a relationship doomed with an alcoholic partner?
  • What can you do when your alcoholic partner is in denial?
Dear Dr. Deb,

Rick and I started out as college sweethearts. We studied. We had conversations long into the wee hours of the morning. We had great sex. We did everything together, including drinking. And we drank. A lot.

Drinking was the “routine” every Friday and Saturday for seemingly everyone on campus. I actually remember worrying that I wouldn’t get drunk enough at pre-game football parties.

It’s been five years after graduation, and Rick and I are living together, engaged, and in the process of planning a huge wedding.  

I have no problem admitting I was a binge drinker in college, ever eager to get wasted.  But now that I’m a young professional, I’ve normalized my drinking. It doesn’t seem to disrupt my life or cause physical or personal problems for me.

For Rick, it’s much of the same at surface level. He doesn’t black out or wake up hungover anymore. But he still drinks. A lot. There are even times when I’ve noticed that his speech is slurred or he’s unsteady on his feet. More often than I’d like to admit, he acts aggressively towards me.

I’ve cried to him about this and begged him to cut back his drinking. He doesn’t take it too well when I try to monitor his drinking. And even though he acknowledges that sometimes he drinks too much, he would deny the possibility that he could have an alcohol problem.

The thing is, he seems to function very well, pays his bills on time, routinely gets promoted at work, and is well-respected by his colleagues and friends. 

But something really doesn’t feel right, and I’m worried about our future together.

Dr. Deb, is it possible to have a healthy marriage with someone who is dependent on alcohol?

In Love and The Bottle

Dear In Love and the Bottle,

Your fiancé may appear normal and high functioning and he doesn’t seem to fit the stereotype of a severe alcoholic, but two things can be true at once.

As much as I understand that you’re confused and want desperately to believe him, your gut is telling you the true story: Rick may be a functional alcoholic

Yes, there is such a thing. Functional alcoholics can maintain their work and family commitments while gradually destroying their bodies and minds at the same time with alcohol abuse. 

Like Rick, they’re quite skilled at hiding their alcohol use and not avoiding alcoholic stereotypes. They may acknowledge they drink more alcohol than they should but will deny that they need to stop drinking. Only people who are very close to them (like you) will recognize that something is wrong.

You might be hoping that you can both just leave it at that, and he can continue as he is, and life will be fine. 

But there’s really no good outcome on that end. Alcohol addiction is a chronic progressive disease. While Rick may never get fired for it or never get a DUI arrest, over the long-haul heavy drinking will catch up to his body and mind in a multitude of ways.

Another thing I’ve noticed in my practice is that the wives of functional alcoholics aren’t spared from the emotional, physical, and social fallout of their spouse’s alcoholism.

Repeated spousal insults and aggressive behavior, like you mentioned, eventually impair their self-worth, they often have trouble with sleep, and they’re hounded by constant feelings of shame in social settings.

You asked if it’s possible to have a healthy marriage with someone who is dependent on alcohol…

No, it’s not.

The hard truth is that it is impossible to have a healthy relationship with an alcoholic (functional or not). Alcohol is a love buster!

Unless Rick gets professional help, his focus will always be on his drinking, and not on a positive and healthy relationship with you. Alcohol is a love buster.

Should you marry your highly functional alcoholic fiancé? 

If you must ask, then you probably already know the answer.

My advice is for both of you to try and face the issue. Stop the impulse to ignore, deny, escape, or try to tolerantly cope with the problems you’re facing. Those attempts will only exhaust you. Take care of yourself and get support. Alanon for you and AA for Rick are great places to start.

Most of all, for the love of Rick, keep encouraging him to get professional help. If he’s unwilling to get help now, that doesn’t mean he will never be open to it.

It’s your call. If you choose marriage, then you better get ready for an emotional roller-coaster life together.

Whatever you may decide, I wish you well.

Sincerely yours,
Dr. Deb

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