Excuse #2: Alcohol or Drugs
Substance abuse and domestic abuse
Most people who abuse substances don’t abuse their partners, but a substantial proportion of people who abuse their partners also abuse substances. In looking at the statistics below, bear in mind that whether substance-related IPV constitutes domestic abuse in an individual case is an open question. In various studies of the relationship between substance abuse and IPV:
- IPV against female partners was 2-4 times higher among men with alcohol problems than among other men.27
- Substance use preceded 47% of domestic assaults, but only 31% of non-domestic assaults.28
- Among men arrested for domestic violence, those who abused substances were more likely to later be incarcerated, and their partners were more likely to request an order of protection.31
Studies have found that serious alcohol use by male abusers increases the risk of their violence causing the death of their female partner, particularly if the man is a frequent binge drinker or a drug user.
- Over 80% of men who killed or abused a female partner were problem drinkers in the year before the incident.32
- Over 2/3 of men who killed or attempted to kill their partner were intoxicated at the time. More than 1/4 of lethal offenders used both alcohol and drugs during the incident.33
Abusers who use substances
Substance abuse interacts with coercive behavior in many complex ways34 - the relationship is not just a physiological one.
- Substances often make people more likely to misperceive other people’s behavior and interpret their motives in a negative light. With abusers, this can increase their feeling that their violence is justified.
- Many abusers intentionally get high to give themselves an excuse for violence, or to numb any guilt they feel about it.
- Many use their substance abuse itself as a weapon. For instance:
- Jerry blames Ann for problems that were actually caused by his drinking – traffic tickets, losing his job, etc.
- Joanne will not allow Darla to talk about her drinking.
- Sam forces Ellen to give him money to buy cocaine. Their marriage counselor, who doesn’t know about the domestic abuse, thinks she is an “enabler.”
- Once in a while, George throws things and hits Ed or their daughter when he is drunk. He does it just often enough to make them very cautious whenever he begins drinking.
How does looking at gender help us understand what’s going on?
A man’s substance abuse is more likely to lead to violence against his partner if he holds certain beliefs. When these beliefs are taken into account, the apparent relationship between alcohol use and domestic abuse actually almost disappears.35
- Violence is legitimate.36
- Alcohol increases aggressiveness.37
- I am entitled to be violent when I’m intoxicated.
- I have the right to dominate my partner.
Unfortunately, these beliefs receive support from people who see violence as normal and predictable behavior for men who are intoxicated, and hold intoxicated men less responsible for their physical violence. Abusers know this, and rely on it to get out of being held responsible for their behavior when intoxicated.
Women don’t typically believe that intoxication will make them violent, though they often believe that it will make men violent. As a result, women often think they “should have known better” if they get assaulted when they’re intoxicated. Others may blame women for getting into situations in which they are assaulted by intoxicated men.
Implications for Intervention
As Klein points out, “The presence of drug and/or alcohol abuse makes continued offending more likely. Although sobriety may not eliminate the risk for reabuse, research suggests it may be a necessary ingredient.”38 However, substance abuse treatment is usually not effective in reducing domestic abuse over the long term. There are four main reasons for this:
- Abusers who use substances are violent and controlling both when they are intoxicated and when they’re not.
- People who want to quit drinking or drugging do not necessarily want to treat their partner better or give up control of them. Most domestic abusers do not choose to examine and change their entitlement attitudes during substance abuse treatment.
- Substance abuse treatment can’t overcome the social context that supports the control of women by men.
- Substance abuse does not cause domestic abuse in the first place.
Some abusers find ways to use their involvement in substance abuse treatment, and what they learn there, to extend their control. For instance:
- Mike promises that his violence will end once he gets sober, in order to manipulate Jane into staying in the relationship.
- Rob demands that Sharon stop bringing up the issue of abuse now that he has stopped drinking. He is willing to admit that what he did while he was drunk was abusive, but not what he does the rest of the time. Others in his treatment program support the idea that he is an addict, not a abuser.
- Stan claims to be powerless over his violence because of his drinking.
- Alan demands that Maggie take a “searching moral inventory,” to examine what she did to hurt him. If Maggie brings up his abuse, Alan says she’s “taking his inventory,” and denies that his abuse has caused many of her problems.
- Sherry makes Elise feel guilty for bringing up her abusiveness, because she’s “made amends” by quitting drinking.
- Gerald accuses Dan of being an alcoholic whenever he has a beer, and says he needs treatment.
Questions to ask yourself about your partner’s substance use
- Which came first – his violence or his substance use?
- Does he get high to have an excuse for beating you, or to make himself feel less guilty about it?
- Does he blame you for his violence, for his drinking and for other problems caused by his drinking?
- Does she insist that only what she does while she’s drunk counts as abusive?
- How does he treat you when he’s not intoxicated? Is he still nasty, controlling, and cruel, even if he’s only physically violent when he’s drunk?
- Does her drinking or drugging make you afraid for your own safety?
If you answered “yes” to many of these questions…
- Seeing your partner’s behavior accurately could help you stop thinking he/she is abusive only because of substances.
- You may want to talk over your situation with an advocate at a local domestic violence program, or with your counselor, if you have one.
- Do not assume that substance abuse treatment will make your partner treat you better. It may be necessary, but it won’t be enough to end the violence.
- If you want to know more about the relationship between domestic abuse and drugs and alcohol, scroll up to read this section.
- Caetano, R., Schafer, J., & Cunradi, C. (2001). Alcohol-related intimate partner violence among white, black, and Hispanic couples in the United States, Alcohol Research and Health, 25 (1). NOTE: In reports of research results, all percentages are rounded to the nearest whole percent.
- Rand, M.R., Sabol, W.J., Sinclair, M., & Snyder, H.N. (2010). Alcohol and Crime: Data from 2002 to 2008, Bureau of Justice Statistics, citing data from the National Incident-Based Reporting System.
- Brookoff, D. (1997). Drugs, Alcohol, and Domestic Violence in Memphis, NIJ Research Preview, National Institute of Justice.
- Caetano et al (2001).
- Wilson, D. & Klein, A. (2006). Longitudinal Study of a Cohort of Batterers Arraigned in a Massachusetts District Court 1995 to 2004, National Institute of Justice, p 31.
- Sharps, P., Campbell, J.C., Campbell, D., Gary, F., & Webster, D. (2003). Risky mix: Drinking, drug use, and homicide, NIJ Journal, Issue 250 (November), National Institute of Justice, p 11.
- Sharps et al (2003).
- Went, J. (2002). Substance abuse, control and abusive men, Issues in Family Violence Newsletter.
- Bennett, L. Personal communication.
- Bennett, L. Personal communication.
- Field, C.A., Caetano, R. & Nelson, S. (2004). Alcohol and violence related cognitive risk factors associated with the perpetration of intimate partner violence. Journal of Family Violence, 19, 249-253.
- Klein, A. (2009). Practical Implications of Current Domestic Violence Research: For Law Enforcement, Prosecutors and Judges, National Institute of Justice.