How to Identify if Your Partner Is an Alcoholic

Identifying alcoholism can be tricky. You may not want to see it, or may not realize the signs that suggest it. You might even use certain strategies to normalize the kinds of behaviors that are actually abnormal.
How to Identify if Your Partner Is an Alcoholic
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 20 October, 2022

Alcohol consumption is widespread and normalized in our society. It’s the main protagonist at many parties and meetings and is used to celebrate and share, often even accompanying main meals. Therefore, it can be difficult to identify if your partner is an alcoholic and if they need help in this regard.

The question becomes even more complex if we take into account that alcoholism has several faces. In fact, Jellinek described five groups of alcoholics with different characteristics and consumption patterns. For example, the individual doesn’t necessarily have to drink daily or do so in large quantities to present alcohol dependence. So how can you determine if they have a drinking problem? We address this issue below.

Identifying that your partner has a problem with alcohol

As we mentioned earlier, the key to determining whether an individual is an alcoholic isn’t so much the frequency or intensity of consumption. We have to look at how the person drinks. Do they do it to enjoy themselves? Do they do it so as not to feel bad? Or, do they do it because they’re unable to have fun without alcohol?

The following may be warning signs:

1. Loss of control

Having a beer at a meeting with friends or having a glass of wine with a meal may not have much relevance. The problem appears when the individual doesn’t really have control over their consumption and drinks more or for a longer time than planned. Somehow, they can’t stop drinking once they’ve started. This is known as compulsive consumption.

Woman worried about her partner with alcohol problems
Compulsive alcohol consumption is one of the clearest characteristics of people who have problems with alcohol.

2. Salience

Salience is one of the most distinctive characteristics of dependence and refers to the fact that alcohol becomes the center of an individual’s life. It occupies a large part of their time, either in consuming it, thinking about it, or spending time obtaining it.

In fact, drinking becomes the center of their attention, thoughts, and behaviors. It takes first place on their list of priorities. 

3. Tolerance and abstinence

In many cases, as alcohol addiction progresses, the individual needs to drink increasingly more to get the same feeling they used to achieve with less. This is either to achieve the pleasant effects of alcohol or to simply feel good.

On the other hand, when consumption is stopped, symptoms of withdrawal syndrome may appear. Their body and mind feel the absence of alcohol and they react by generating unpleasant emotional states. For instance, anxiety and restlessness or physical signs such as sweating, tremors, nausea, or sleep problems.

4. Abandonment of roles and activities due to consumption

To identify if your partner is an alcoholic, take note of whether they’ve made changes to their daily routines and behaviors. Addiction may have led them to abandon or neglect their responsibilities that, up until now, they’ve assumed without any problem.

Alcoholism often takes time to become evident to the people around the alcoholic, because changes occur gradually. After all, there aren’t really that many obvious differences between one day and the next. However, small anomalies can be extremely salient if you see the person over widely spaced periods of time.

5. Emotional, cognitive, and behavioral affectation

Alcohol intoxication can affect their state of mind, causing irritability and unstable moods. At a cognitive level, their ability to judge and make decisions might be altered and their memory may be affected. Later on, gaps in their memory may start to appear and their speech and coordination might be difficult. In addition, it’s common for inappropriate behavior, aggressiveness, and risk behaviors to appear.

If your partner is an alcoholic, sexual dysfunctions might also appear. Furthermore, their behavior may become erratic and unpredictable, and constant and unsubstantiated arguments will arise due to their irritability.

6. Interference in daily life

In short, the biggest sign that your partner is an alcoholic can be found in their inability to stop drinking, even if the consumption is affecting their health, mood, work, and relationships.

Depressed man and an alcoholic drink, representing how to identify an alcoholic
The inability to drink can lead a person to lose everything they have.

How to help an alcoholic partner

Alcoholism not only causes serious damage to the life of the sufferer, but it can also profoundly affect those close to them. As their partner, you can serve as support and motivation for them. However, if you don’t take appropriate action, you can also perpetuate the addiction and cause great emotional suffering.

Some important recommendations

  • Help them become aware that their use of alcohol is problematic and that they may have an addiction. This won’t be easy for them to accept, so you’ll have to try to be cautious and not accusatory. Bring up the subject when they’re sober and offer concrete examples of why you think they have a problem.
  • Don’t help them hide their addiction or avoid the consequences. To avoid social embarrassment or thinking that you’re doing them a favor, you might be tempted to help hide or minimize their problem, or even take charge of certain situations to prevent them from suffering the consequences of their actions. However, this is counterproductive and can make it more difficult for you to be aware of what’s going on.
  • Be understanding and offer listening and support. Alcoholism is serious. It’s a disease that can hide various problems and suffering. Avoid blaming your partner and adopt an empathic position. Offer to listen to them and try to understand the reason for their alcohol use. Also, assure them that you’ll be with them throughout their recovery.
  • Take care of yourself. Your support can be of great help to your partner when it comes to overcoming their addiction, but it’s important that you take care that this process doesn’t harm your own physical or mental health. It’s not your job to be their doctor or therapist, abandon your life for theirs, or endure any kind of abuse. Make sure you set healthy boundaries to protect your well-being.
  • Seek professional help. At the end of the day, it’s the professionals who can help your partner to overcome their addiction, mainly through medication, psychotherapy, and support groups. Therefore, make sure you motivate them to seek help and try to be by their side as much as possible.

If your partner is an alcoholic, be aware of what you’re facing

If your partner has an addiction to alcohol, they face a long and complex process of recovery. They’ll likely suffer frequent relapses, certain habits and routines will need to be modified, and there may be some difficult moments. For this reason, it might be helpful to get informed yourself. There are plenty of reliable sources concerning addictions and their treatment. You can also attend psychotherapy yourself.

Accompanying a person in recovery is exhausting and might lead you to neglect yourself or you might feel totally overwhelmed. Therefore, don’t hesitate to lean on your environment and ask for professional help if you need it.

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The Stages of Alcoholism According to Jellinek
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The Stages of Alcoholism According to Jellinek

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  • American Psychiatric Association. (2013) Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
  • Irles, D. L. (2001). Alcoholismo: Una visión familiar. Salud y drogas1(1), 113-128.
  • Leggio, L., Kenna, G. A., Fenton, M., Bonenfant, E., & Swift, R. M. (2009). Typologies of alcohol dependence. From Jellinek to genetics and beyond. Neuropsychology review19(1), 115-129.

The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.