Stages of Alcoholism

What are the stages of alcoholism? What are the phases of alcoholic recovery? What are the stages of co-alcoholism?

The number and the definitions of the stages through which an alcoholic passes vary widely, depending on the source you reference. But they all agree that for most problem drinkers, alcoholism progresses in fairly predictable steps. The following table provides a summary of the stages that many alcoholics experience.

Stages of Alcoholism



Stage 0: Non-drinker. No alcoholic behavior or symptoms.

Stage 1: Social drinking. Up to one or two drinks per day routinely, depending on body mass, with no alcoholic behavior.

Stage 2: Non-social drinking to reduce stress or tension. The first signs of alcoholic behavior begin to appear: an urgent need for the first drink of the day, more than one or two drinks per day on a routine basis.

Stage 3: Frequent relief drinking to escape stress. More alcoholic behavior manifests: relief drinking most days to escape something, feelings of guilt about drinking, needing more drinks to get the desired result.

Stage 4: Routine daily drinking to excess. Significant alcoholic behavior and symptoms manifest: memory blackouts, hidden drinking.

Stage 5: Alcohol dependence. A wide range of additional alcoholic behaviors and symptoms manifest: more frequent memory blackouts, true dependence on alcohol, finding excuses to drink, unwilling to discuss the problem, dramatic mood and behavior changes, continues to drink when others have stopped, repeatedly fails to follow through on commitments, tells lies, avoids family and friends, finds non-drinkers boring, difficulty keeping a job or managing money.

Stage 6: End stage alcoholism. Obsessed with drinking, seldom eats, stays drunk for long periods of time, increasingly amoral behavior, health deteriorates, highly resentful of anything or anybody that interferes with their drinking, excessively emotional.

Stage 7: Death.


At any of the stages, the alcoholic can choose to take steps to deal with their problem. For each alcoholic, the stage at which they finally understand that they have problem is different. Some realize that a problem is developing as early as stage 2. Some never get it and eventually die as a result of their excessive drinking.

To my observation, my alcoholic was well into stage 5 before she finally realized that she had to do something about her drinking. And she was fully into stage 4 before I was willing to admit that there was a problem. I sometimes wonder what might have happened if I had admitted to myself that there was a problem earlier on in our relationship and started to take steps to take care of me. Might she have quit earlier? Or might we have not gotten together at all?


What are the stages of alcoholic recovery?

If your alcoholic does decide to make changes, there are stages for that as well. These seem to closely match the stages of grief and mourning. I guess that makes sense, as they are giving up an important part of their life – drinking.

Stages of Alcoholic Recovery

Stage 0: Does not recognize or admit that there is a problem. Often denies it outright. Alcoholic behavior continues and escalates.

Stage 1: Admits that there may be a problem but continues to drink. Sometimes the drinking gets worse as they try and hide from their recognition of the problem. Often beat up on themselves emotionally. Can result in bouts of anger.

Stage 2: Tries to cut back their alcohol consumption. Tries to emulate social drinkers. Sometimes strike a bargain with their family and friends to keep alcohol hidden for when the alcoholic “really” needs it. Frequently takes additional drinks when no one is looking, and feels bad for doing it. Sometimes will go for a day or two without drinking and uses that as proof that they are in control of their drinking.

Stage 3: Admits that their drinking is out of control. Often get depressed or sad about the state of their life and, at least unconsciously, about maybe having to give up alcohol. Drinking volume can fluctuate a lot.

Stage 4: Accepts that they are alcoholic. Begins looking for help. Starts to find out about options for dealing with the problem. Drinking continues.

Stage 5: Begins rehabilitation. Stops drinking. Gets involved in a group therapy program. Improves eating and exercise program. Works on spiritual and personal development.

Stage 6: In recovery. Reconnects with family and healthy friends. Gets involved in new interests that are not drinking related. Makes new friends. Improved relationship with employer. General contentment with non-drinking life.


Just as at any stage of alcoholism the alcoholic can decide to take charge of their messed up lives, at any stage of alcoholic recovery, the alcoholic can become stuck and make no further progress. Or they may relapse and quickly return to their former drinking behavior. This is quite common. It can mean that they still have not “hit bottom.”

Alcoholic recovery programs use the term “hitting bottom” to indicate that the alcoholic has reached the point where their life is so out of control and painful that they are willing to do anything, including quitting drinking, to get some relief. This is the point where the alcoholic gets serious about dealing with their problem.

Sometimes an alcoholic will stop drinking before he or she has reached that point of ultimate acceptance. For many, after a period of abstinence, the alcoholic begins to think that they are still in control. They begin to believe that they might be able to have a drink now and then without it being a problem. This is seldom successful. Even when they have changed the underlying causes of their drinking behavior, they are still likely to end up back where they left off.


What does it mean to me, the co-alcoholic?

The stages of alcoholism are simply a guide of what your alcoholic might experience, if they make no changes in their drinking behavior. However, these do not tell you, the co-alcoholic, what you might experience.

There is not a lot of research on the parallel stages of co-alcoholic experiences. The assumption seems to be that the non-alcoholic is a normal person leading an abnormal life due to the alcoholic in their life. I tend to disagree.

I believe that, to some degree, our long-term involvement with an alcoholic is indicative of our own personal problems that we are avoiding dealing with; just like the alcoholic. Rightly or wrongly, we tend to blame the alcoholic for much that is wrong in our lives and use their behavior as the excuse for doing nothing about it.

Based on my personal experiences, the stories of other co-alcoholics and the little research that I could find, I have constructed the following, completely subjective table of the stages of co-alcoholism.


Stages of Co-Alcoholism

Stage 0:

    Alcoholic Characteristics: Non-drinker. No alcoholic behavior or symptoms.
    Co-Alcoholic Characteristics: No co-alcoholic behavior or symptoms.

Stage 1:

    Alcoholic Characteristics: Social drinking. Up to one or two drinks per day routinely, depending on body mass, with no alcoholic behavior.
    Co-Alcoholic Characteristics: No co-alcoholic behavior or symptoms.

Stage 2:

    Alcoholic Characteristics: Non-social drinking to reduce stress or tension. The first signs of alcoholic behavior begin to appear: an urgent need for the first drink of the day, more than one or two drinks per day on a routine basis.
    Co-Alcoholic Characteristics: Denial. Little recognition of any potential problems. Tells lies to self an others about their loved ones drinking. Early stages of co-dependency manifest.

Stage 3:

    Alcoholic Characteristics: Frequent relief drinking to escape stress. More alcoholic behavior manifests: relief drinking most days to escape something, feelings of guilt about drinking, needing more drinks to get the desired result.
    Co-Alcoholic Characteristics: Denies feelings. Beginning to enable drinking behavior by taking on some of the alcoholic’s responsibilities. Tries to control the alcoholic’s drinking. Becomes more judgmental.

Stage 4:

    Alcoholic Characteristics: Routine daily drinking to excess. Significant alcoholic behavior and symptoms manifest: memory blackouts, hidden drinking.
    Co-Alcoholic Characteristics: Recognition that there may be a problem. Taking on more of the alcoholic’s responsibilities. Enabling behavior escalates. Making amends to others for the alcoholic’s behavior.

Stage 5:

    Alcoholic Characteristics: Alcohol dependence. A wide range of additional alcoholic behaviors and symptoms manifest: more frequent memory blackouts, true dependence on alcohol, finding excuses to drink, unwilling to discuss the problem, dramatic mood and behavior changes, continues to drink when others have stopped, repeatedly fails to follow through on commitments, tells lies, avoids family and friends, finds non-drinkers boring, difficulty keeping a job or managing money.
    Co-Alcoholic Characteristics: Acceptance that there is a problem. Family life is strained. Unable to handle all of the alcoholic’s responsibilities. Feelings of inferiority, depression, anger and sadness. Becoming very negative about their life. Money problems.

Stage 6:

    Alcoholic Characteristics: End stage alcoholism. Obsessed with drinking, seldom eats, stays drunk for long periods of time, increasingly amoral behavior, health deteriorates, highly resentful of anything or anybody that interferes with their drinking, excessively emotional.
    Co-Alcoholic Characteristics: Hopelessness; depression; fear; anger; emotional storms; surrender.

Stage 7:

    Alcoholic Characteristics: Death.
    Co-Alcoholic Characteristics: Sadness; anger; relief.

As I said, this is unscientific and not meant to be a roadmap but might be useful to understand that you are not alone in your experience or feelings.

At any stage, the co-alcoholic has the opportunity to begin their own co-alcoholic / co-dependency recovery. The experience of the co-alcoholic has some parallels to the alcoholic recovery process, but has it’s own characteristics as well. The following table outlines my observations of the stages of co-alcoholic recovery.

If at any point in this process your alcoholic also begins their recovery, your own recovery work can be overwhelmed by the temporary euphoria of the alcoholic having quit drinking. However, once the real problems in the relationship begin to manifest, that euphoria quickly fades and you are back to dealing with your own recovery.


Stages of Co-Alcoholic Recovery

Stage 0: Does not recognize or admit that there is a problem. Often denies it outright. Enables alcoholic’s behavior.

Stage 1: Admits that there may be a problem but does not admit the degree to which it affects them. Often blames themselves for the alcoholic’s drinking, especially when the alcoholic gets angry. Fixes problems caused by their alcoholic’s drinking. Sometimes gets angry with their alcoholic. Continues to enable alcoholic’s behavior.

Stage 2: Truly accepts there is a problem. Starts to confront or challenge the alcoholic’s drinking. Tries to control the alcoholic’s drinking. Makes bargains with them to cut back on their drinking. Often gets angry with their alcoholic. Often without realizing it, they are still enabling the alcoholic’s drinking behavior.

Stage 3: Realizes that they do not know how to control the alcoholic’s drinking. Looks for outside help, generally not for themselves but for their alcoholic. Anger can increase along with sadness and depression. Still enables alcoholic’s drinking.

Stage 4: Realizes that, regardless what their alcoholic does, they need help to deal with their own life problems. Begins looking for help for themselves; has not yet stopped trying to control the alcoholic. Starts to find out about options for dealing with the problem. Still enabling their alcoholic. Still expresses anger, sadness and depression.

Stage 5: Accepts that there is nothing they can do about their alcoholic’s drinking behavior; that all they can deal with is the things over which they have control. Begins to learn about acceptance and detachment. Begins to recognize and quit their enabling behavior. Gets involved in a group therapy program. Works on personal and spiritual development. Works on improving financial situation.

Stage 6: In recovery. Reconnects with family and healthy friends. Gets involved in new interests that are not drinking related. Makes new friends. Improved financial situation. General contentment with their life in spite of their alcoholic’s behavior.


You will note that Stage 6 recovery is essentially the same for both the alcoholic and the co-alcoholic. Learning and implementing emotionally healthy living practices is the key to contentment with life no matter where you start.

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