The relationship between alcohol or other substance abuse and domestic violence is complicated. A prevailing myth about domestic violence is that alcohol and drugs are the major causes of domestic abuse. In reality, some abusers rely on substance use (and abuse) as an excuse for becoming violent. Alcohol allows the abuser to justify his abusive behavior as a result of the alcohol. While an abuser’s use of alcohol may have an effect on the severity of the abuse or the ease with which the abuser can justify his actions, an abuser does not become violent “because” drinking causes him to lose control of his temper. As described more fully in the section on theories of violence, domestic violence is used to exert power and control over another; it does not represent a loss of control.

Understanding some of the theories that have been advanced to explain the substance-violence relationship can, however, help advocates design interventions that can increase women’s safety and help men choose non-violence. Most importantly, domestic violence and substance abuse should be understood and treated as independent problems: “[T]he reduction of one problem to the familiar language and interventions of the other problem is ill-advised.” At the same time, because the relationship between substance abuse and domestic violence is complex, institutions that address these problems together must be capable of managing their complexity.

Alcohol does affect the user’s ability to perceive, integrate and process information. This distortion in the user’s thinking does not cause violence, but may increase the risk that the user will misinterpret his partner or another’s behavior.

Some research indicates that a large quantity of alcohol, or any quantity for alcoholics, can increase the user’s sense of personal power and domination over others. An increased sense of power and control can, in turn, make it more likely that an abuser will attempt to exercise that power and control over another.

Violence may be triggered by conflict over alcohol use (or ending such use), or in the process of obtaining and using substances, particularly illegal drugs. Other research indicates that a battered woman may use substances with her abuser in order to attempt to manage the violence and increase her safety; her abuser may also force her to use substances with him.

Some research indicates that substance abuse may increase the aggressive response of individuals with low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin. There is, however, still “no evidence that batterers are ‘hard wired’ for (or predisposed to) violence, nor that their socialization or choice-making processes are not operational when using substances.”

Research indicates that there may be a correlation between the risk of domestic violence and certain personality characteristics. For example, alcohol abuse may increase the risk of violence in men who think abuse of women is appropriate and are also under socioeconomic hardship.

Some researchers have found that parental substance abuse and parental domestic violence increase the chances that a child will grow up to be an abuser and/or a substance abuser.

Finally, a 1991 study in the United States found that the average amount of alcohol consumed prior to the use of violence was only a few drinks, which “suggests that the act of drinking may be more related to woman abuse than the effect of alcohol.” Two other studies indicate that drug use is more strongly correlated to domestic violence than is alcohol.

From Larry W. Bennett, in Substance Abuse and Woman Abuse by Male Partners (1997).

Further discussion of the relationship between alcohol abuse and domestic violence is provided by the Women’s Rural Advocacy Programs.

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