Alcohol and Domestic Violence: Adding Fuel to a Fire?
On the surface, it seems obvious that alcohol and domestic violence are correlated – or at least occur together often. The recent news story about Johnny Depp, his wife Amber Heard, and alleged spousal abuse has brought this problem to the forefront of the media.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2/3 of domestic violence victims say that the assailant was drinking during the abuse. That’s compared to less than 1/3 of stranger assaults. Among victims of spouses, 75% report that the offender had been drinking alcohol.
According to a study (1999) women who were assaulted by relationship partners during the past year reported a much higher incidence of substance abuse and health-related problems. Of women who experienced physical violence, 33% reported having alcohol or drug problems – compared to just 16% of those who did not.
Among domestic violence victims, around 55% of the cases involved alcohol. Drugs accounted for 9%. In spousal violence, 65% involved alcohol – compared to just 5% for drugs.
And certainly, alcohol is known to impair judgment, reduce inhibitions, and increase aggression. Yes, these two plagues of society often appear together – but is there really a cause and effect relationship between alcohol and domestic violence, or is there something else going on?
A Complex Relationship
Many experts who study the effects of alcohol and domestic violence believe it is more complicated that just “alcohol causes violence”. Many people believe that the abuser uses substance abuse as an excuse, as well as a justification for their violent behavior.
Prevailing theories of violence contend that domestic violence is a tool in which power is exerted over another. Moreover, it does not necessarily represent a loss of control, as alcohol or drug use may imply. Some research, however, does indicate that a large amounts of alcohol can exacerbate the abuser’s sense of personal power and domination over another. And yet, a study (1991) revealed that the average amount of alcohol consumed prior to violence was just a few drinks.
But yes, alcohol does impair the ability to perceive and process information – this may increase the possibility that in a dispute, a partner’s words or behavior may be misinterpreted.
Still, this does not need lead to violence. Substance abuse commonly has this effect – but most alcoholics and drug users are not abusive or violent. Also, domestic violence and substance abuse are problems highly independent of each other. While they commonly occur together, they more often occur apart from one another.
Some research shows that substance use may increase aggression in persons with low levels of serotonin (a brain neurotransmitter associated with mood). Low levels of this chemical may also contribute to depression and anxiety. But again, these two mental conditions do not necessarily lead to abuse or violence.
Also, there may be a connection between domestic violence and personality. For example, alcohol use may increase the risk for abuse in men who think violence toward women is appropriate.
So is There a Cause and Effect?
Overall, research shows that among men who are heavy drinkers, there is a higher rate of assault and injury. However, most heavy-drinking men do not engage in domestic violence. In fact, the majority (76%) of physically abusive events do not involve alcohol.
According to the Women’s Rural Advocacy Program, there is no evidence to support a cause-and-effect relationship between alcohol and domestic violence. Is is contended that the high incidence of alcoholism among men who abuse is merely an overlap of two different social problems. Also, The Safety Zone claims that there is no evidence that alcoholism is correlated to behaviors associated with domestic violence.
A Learned Behavior?
Domestic abuse occurs during sobriety, and alcoholism occurs without abuse. But for some, it might be easier to believe that you or your partner may not engage in abuse without substances involved.
I do want to say that I have seen normally non-violent people become aggressive, abusive, or violent during periods of heavy drinking. That is not to say that it is an excuse, but that it may have some effect on normally placid people.
That said, I do think that most chronic batterers would be violent with or without alcohol or drugs. It is a behavior that is learned and internalized, despite the fact that society says it’s not okay. There’s also a heavy association between abuse as a child, and that child growing up to be an abuser. It’s part of the culture.
I also know as a recovering alcoholic, I have never touched my son or anyone else in a violent way when drunk. But then again, that was not how I was raised to behave.
I do think that alcohol and domestic violence are two social problems that exist together due to socioeconomics and the family culture in which they are fostered.
If you think you might be in an abusive relationship, you can take the Domestic Abuse Screen Quiz here.
If you think you are an alcoholic, you can take a self-test here.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology
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