Silent Marriage Killer: The Functional Alcoholic

This is part one of a three-part series of blogs about some of the common causes of divorce. For the purposes of this blog about marriage to the functional alcoholic, we’ll refer to the drinker as “he” and the spouse as “she” or “the spouse”. We fully realize that although in the past more functional alcoholics were men, research shows the gender gap is closing. So we recognize that the drinking spouse in this scenario is almost as likely to be a woman, but for the sake of editorial clarity, please forgive the gender-specific pronouns. 

Functional AlcoholicIn our busy Michigan law practice we see countless different reasons for divorce. There are certain silent marriage killers like functional alcoholism and undiagnosed mental illness that can be somewhat more common than others. This first blog (of a three-part series) is about the ways that alcoholism impacts a marriage.

A look at the Functional Alcoholic marriage

The Functional Alcoholic may be highly-skilled, dependably-employed and well-regarded at the office. He probably fits in with the neighbors, enjoys hobbies and looks forward to the future. Physically, besides the perpetual beer can in hand and occasionally red-rimmed eyes, he probably shows no outward signs of addiction. The Functional Alcoholic is probably aware that he drinks more than the average person, but not aware that it’s a problem. Typically the functional alcoholic is cognizant enough not to get caught driving under the influence or compromising his livelihood. The Functional Alcoholic may have started drinking to fit in with a social group or erase job stress. Whatever the reason, the Functional Alcoholic has crossed the line from wanting to drink to needing to drink.

Functional tends to refer to someone’s ability to survive in our culture but perhaps not thrive. The functional alcoholic may drive; run the occasional load of laundry; and hold a job. The functional person probably keeps the refrigerator stocked but may not be able to get out of bed in the mornings to make breakfast for the kids. As long as there are good days, income and effort, the functional label persists.

To the outside world, the Functional Alcoholic is just that – functional. It’s the spouse and children that see the other half of the label – alcoholic. Someone who is maintaining appearances in public in spite of vice, may not have the energy to do the same at home. After keeping it together for an eight-hour workday, the functional alcoholic needs to get home and crack a beer. He may ignore spouse and children while downing the first drink. After the second and third he’s fun and spontaneous. Beers number four through six bring sullen dad and by the seventh and beyond he may retire to the recliner oblivious to the other occupants of the house. But besides that, sure, he’s perfectly functional.

Mere functionality is nothing to be celebrated at home. Sober work success does not translate to successful under-the-influence parenting or marriage. Some wives live for the short window between the first and fourth drinks when their husband reminds them of the person they married – fun-loving, spontaneous, passionate. But those fleeting moments may not make up for the limbo of neglect and unpredictability that comprise the rest of the relationship. In the spouse’s mixed-up world, standards are lowered to the point that the phrases “at least he doesn’t hit me” or “he almost never passes out” are good-enough reasons to stay. If in the plus column the spouse can list, “usually doesn’t drive under the influence with kids in the backseat” she may be living in a functional marriage.

When standards get reduced to that level, outsiders start to wonder why the spouse doesn’t just leave. They may even judge from afar saying, “If that was my husband, I’d be gone in a second.”

That’s the insidious thing about functional alcoholics, they can still function. They may be able to sense when the spouse has had enough and do whatever it takes to win her over again. Sometimes he vows to quit drinking. Sometimes he makes a grand romantic gesture or commits to helping around the house.

Co-Dependency with the Functional Alcoholic

Some spouses of functional alcoholics may display co-dependent behaviors. By continuing to work, the functional alcoholic provides income that sometimes makes the tradeoffs seem worth it. Some spouses are embarrassed so they cover for their partner. Some functional alcoholics actually have a better personality when they are consistently, mildly inebriated. In that sense the alcohol may act as an anti-anxiety serum producing an easy-going, affectionate spouse. When sober, the same person may be introverted, nervous or angry.

“Compounding the problem is that functional alcoholics’ friends and family may encourage their dependence by ignoring, or coping with, the repercussions. “There is a certain amount of enabling that goes on,” said Dr. [Stephen Ross, MD, director of substance abuse in the department of psychiatry at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. “Mom may drag dad up to bed every night, and the kids grow up thinking it’s okay for dad to pass out every night.” From the Everyday Health article, “Are you a functioning alcoholic?

Divorcing a Functional Alcoholic

Unfortunately, spouses can only do so much to help an addicted partner. A functional alcoholic may be even less likely to seek help because he may not acknowledge the problem as long as he’s still bringing in income. Without treatment, it’s unlikely the addiction would just go away. Living with an addict may not be a healthy situation for the spouse in the long run. For those who choose to separate, check out the third blog in this series regarding special considerations for divorces involving addiction or contact the law office of Kathryn Wayne-Spindler & Associates at 248-676-1000. The experienced attorneys handle cases throughout Southeastern Michigan including Oakland, Washtenaw, Genesee, Wayne and Livingston. We handle cases in Milford, Michigan; Hartland; Highland; White Lake; Wixom; Commerce; Walled Lake; Waterford; West Bloomfield; Grand Blanc; Holly; Linden; Fenton; Howell; Brighton; South Lyon; andNew Hudson. Kathryn also practices family law in Clare, Gladwin, Ogemaw and Roscommon counties in communities like Clare, Houghton Lake, Higgins Lake, and many more.

Written and Posted by Christine Donlon Long, Communications’ Specialist for Kathryn WayneSpindler & Associates