I recently received an e-mail from a woman who believes her husband is a functioning alcoholic. Joan (alias) recently took the Alcoholism Test and then emailed me.

Although a few details are changed or left out for privacy reasons, Joan began with:
"I was researching functional alcoholism and came across your site. I took the Alcoholism Test to determine if my husband would be considered a functioning alcoholic. I have not yet spoken with anyone about this, but just researched Al-Anon and plan on attending a meeting . . . "

Joan went on to make the following points:
• Married for 19 years.
• Husband a drinker, mostly drinking alone.
• He has been drinking more during the last 5-6 years (now more than two liters/week of hard liquor.)
• He is not abusive and does not miss work.
• He seems to have trouble remembering.
• He just seems out of it at night.
• His personality is changing.
• He has no interest in sexual intimacy.
• He now looks at ‘adult' websites.
• He has never thought he had a drinking problem.
• She has become less tolerant of this behavior.
• She worries that she may seem non-caring.

Joan asked for some suggestions on how to approach him and ended with wanting my opinion on his condition.

I answered Joan's email and encouraged her to attend a few Al-Anon meetings to gain some perspective. I suggested that her becoming intolerant was a good thing, because it indicated she was not slipping into codependency. I said some other things too, but I couldn't really offer professional advice based on her email alone.

After I answered her I kept thinking about her situation and how similar it sounded to what I have heard so many times before. The long list of responses to the Alcoholism Test on my site was evidence enough.

So I prepared a more complete answer to all you "Joans" out there who are suffering relationship problems in the presence of alcohol abuse.

Of course, what follows is only a beginning. I go into much more detail in my book, Living with a Functioning Alcoholic - A Woman's Survival Guide.

Your Relationship Comes First

Relationships are the heart and soul of our society. If our relationships with others were to disappear, most of us would feel all meaning slipping away from our lives. Our husbands, our wives, our children, our parents and extended family, our co-workers and our friends help to create what we become in life. We are a social species.

Relationships unfortunately can falter. And when your relationship with your life partner is faltering, you need to act decisively.

There has been research showing that a majority of couples on the brink of separating who somehow manage to hold on--five years later will be getting along fine. Unfortunately, many couples allow the situation to become unbearable before they even think of getting help, and they often don't make it.

Joan wanted to know what she could do regarding her husband's drinking as the cause of the other problems they were having.

I prefer, however, to start with the assumption that alcohol abuse is the symptom of something. It is often much more productive to focus on your relationship and on yourself than on the alcohol problem. Your relationship is where the real urgency is.

If your relationship doesn't survive, your partner's drinking habits won't affect you anymore.


Find a psychologist or other counselor who works with individuals and couples on their relationships. If possible, find one with expertise in the substance abuse area as well.

If your partner has no interest in getting marriage counseling, it may not be a problem, at least at first. When you go for counseling without him:

You will get clear about what you want out of life.
You will gain insights into what you might do to improve your relationship.
You will gain some clarity and calm about your own contributions to your problems together.
You will gain perspective on why you react as you do to his behavior.

What I have often done when working with an individual whose relationship is in trouble, is ask my client to invite her spouse to come to a session with her to assist me in understanding her. This is extremely useful on its own, but more often than not the partner will begin to participate.

Other issues will emerge, including mid-life issues, self-esteem issues, spiritual issues, empty-nest issues, fears that neither of you were even aware of, unhappiness, shame and, yes, alcohol abuse.

The point is this: if your partner stopped drinking today, you would still need to do the relationship work to recover your marriage. So why not get to work on your relationship right away and save yourself a mountain of grief?

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Neill Neill, psychologist, author and columnist, maintains an active practice with a focus on healthy relationships and life after addictions. He is the author of Living with a Functioning Alcoholic - A Woman’s Survival Guide. From time to time life presents us all with issues. To find out what insights and guidance Neill shares about your particular questions, go to http://www.neillneill.com.