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Alcohol Abuse and Domestic Violence: What’s the Connection?

Posted in Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol Abuse and Domestic Violence:  What’s the Connection?Walk into any shelter for battered women and sooner or later you’ll hear a similar refrain: “When he’s drinking, he beats me,” or “his alcohol problem makes him violent.” Or as one victim of domestic violence Jessica puts it, sharing her story online, “When he wasn’t drunk and abusive, he was the ideal lover, partner, and friend.” 

Jessica eventually had to leave the partner she once referred to as “the sexiest lead guitarist in Texas” after a string of drunken beatings that left her bruised, with bite marks and afraid for her life. “There’s no doubt in mind that this man would’ve never harmed me while of sober mind,” she says. But neither he nor she wanted to reign in their heavy drinking habits.

Does Alcohol Cause Partner Abuse?

Studies point to a clear link between the abuse of alcohol and domestic violence. A 1994 study by the Department of Justice found that over half the defendants accused of murdering their spouse had been drinking at the time of the murder. A fact sheet by the World Health Organization states that 55 percent of victims of “intimate partner violence” in the United States believed their partner to be drinking prior to a physical assault. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence reports that 75 percent of domestic violence happens when one or both partners are intoxicated.

Marjorie Lacy is hesitant to endorse these figures: She suspects they may be somewhat inflated, at least from her vantage point. As the director of Haven House, a Georgia-based shelter for victims of domestic violence, Lacy acknowledges the prevalence of alcohol use-related violence between partners. But she’s also quick to add what she deems an important qualification: that the alcohol itself is not the cause of domestic violence, but can exacerbate the tendencies of someone with a predisposition to violence.

Another study, this one undertaken by the University of Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions and reported in the February 2003 issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, suggests Lacy may have a point. The study found that men who are predisposed to physical violence towards their female partners are more likely to engage in domestic violence on the days they drink. And violent men are three times more likely to abuse alcohol in the first place, according to the Tennessee Association of Alcohol, Drug and Other Addiction.

Victims of Domestic Violence More Likely to Abuse Alcohol

But if alcohol use is recognized as a potential trigger of violent tendencies, a lesser-known reality is that victims of domestic violence are at significantly higher risk of developing an addition to alcohol and other substances — 15 times higher in fact — and this link is confirmed by a National Institutes of Health finding that women who abuse alcohol are more likely to have a history of physical and emotional abuse going back to childhood. At Haven House, the trend is similar: Lacy notes that a significant number of residents at Haven House struggle with addiction in the aftermath of violence perpetrated against them.

A Two-Way Association Between Alcoholism and Domestic Violence

The relationship between alcohol use disorder and domestic violence is thus a two-way one: Alcohol abuse can exacerbate violent tendencies, but it can also be the byproduct of surviving domestic violence. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism provides a detailed account of the relationship between alcohol consumption and violence and the ways in which the brain regulates these behaviors.

The potentially deadly cycle isn’t without recourse. The good news is that certain interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy and medications for those with predispositions towards violence (often manifested by low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, for example) can help. One study found lower levels of marital violence, for instance, in couples that completed behavioral therapy for alcoholism and remained sober during follow-up. In short, the complex, two-way relationship between domestic violence and alcohol abuse need not be a recipe for despair.

If you or someone you love is the victim of domestic violence, please call 1-800-799-SAFE. All calls are anonymous and confidential.