Controlled Drinking: How Can You Tell If It’ll Work For You?

by pgh

pouring drink


Controlled drinking is an extremely controversial issue. Just to be clear, I’m not in any way suggesting that alcoholics and people who are heavy problem drinkers should look to controlled drinking as a realistic end goal.

Anyone with a severe, chronic alcohol dependence will ultimately need to pursue abstinence in order to achieve long term recovery. The bottom line is that for many long-term alcoholics, controlled drinking doesn’t work.

But for a lot of problem drinkers and, perhaps even a small subset of people who could be defined as “alcoholics”, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that controlled drinking can be a better end goal than complete abstinence, or at the very least, a “launching board” towards abstinence.

The problem here is that for a lot of people, its hard to figure out if you fall into the group that (a) needs to pursue abstinence, or (b) the group that can benefit from moderation. Everyone wants to think that they fall into group (a), but that can easily be a trap.

At the same time, there are those who have been told repeatedly that they belong in group (a), when they may benefit from the treatment strategies applied to those in group (b).

Who Should Aim For Controlled Drinking?

Those Who Aren’t Ready To Accept Abstinence

There are a lot of alcoholics who just plain aren’t ready for abstinence. While they will eventually need to learn to abstain in order to enjoy long term recovery, many times they will flat-out refuse abstinence until they have learned through their own experience that controlled drinking is not an attainable end-goal. However, these individuals might be willing to consider a moderation program.

Unfortunately, many of these alcoholics who reject abstinence won’t seek out any form of treatment unless they’re offered an alternative. For these people, going through a controlled drinking program under the guidance of a supervised professional is definitely a lot better than not receiving any treatment at all.

While alcoholics will almost certainly relapse at some point while engaging in controlled drinking, sometimes having this experience is what it takes to convince them that total abstinence is the only end goal that’s realistically attainable.

Problem Drinkers With Less Severe Dependency

A less controversial view is that for problem drinkers with less severe drinking problems, controlled drinking is an achievable goal. This has been backed up many times by scientific research.

Remember, not everyone with a drinking problem is an “alcoholic”. Rather, we recognize that there are many different ways one can struggle with alcohol, at varying levels of severity. The research has shown time and time again that for certain individuals, cutting back on their alcohol consumption through a professionally supervised moderation program can minimize or eliminate their problems with alcohol. Of course, this isn’t to say that one can just figure out how to control drinking alcohol on their own – these individuals still need to seek out professional treatment.

So how can you tell if you’re a problem drinker who might be able to make controlled drinking work? Ideally, you would meet with a qualified treatment specialist who is open to moderation-oriented treatment. They can help you assess the nature and severity of your drinking problem, and help you understand your of success with controlled drinking.

In general, anyone with physical dependency on alcohol is NOT someone who should pursue controlled drinking. Its also not something that should be pursued by former alcoholics who are currently abstaining (obviously). Controlled drinking is most likely to work for you if:

  • You have a relatively short drinking history
  • You have never experienced physical addiction to alcohol
  • You have never had a serious drug problem
  • You haven’t gotten into trouble with the law because of your drinking
  • You haven’t been fired from a job because of your drinking
  • You have never had a divorce or bankruptcy due to your drinking
  • You haven’t gone through rehab and relapsed multiple times
  • You’re not currently going through depression
  • You do not have psychiatric problems that are exacerbated when you drink


There are a great deal of people and groups who still see alcoholism as a a black and white issue – there are those who can’t handle alcohol (alcoholics), and the rest of the population (social drinkers).

However, the truth is that there is a broad spectrum of alcohol-related problems lying between casual social drinker to severe and chronic alcoholism. Not everyone who has problems with alcohol is an alcoholic, and not everyone who drinks on occasion is a social drinker with no problems with alcohol.

Even among alcoholics, no two individuals are at the exact stage in life. No two individuals have the exact same relationship with alcohol, the same life experiences, and the same attitudes. For those who reject treatment because they’re not ready for abstinence, a controlled drinking program could be preferable to no treatment at all. For those who fail repeatedly at controlled drinking, it could give them the eventual motivation to finally commit to pursuing abstinence and the personal investment required to make abstinence work for them.

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