Both domestic violence and substance abuse are community issues. They can affect anyone regardless of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, marital status, socioeconomic status, education level, and profession. While substance abuse DOES NOT CAUSE domestic violence, the two often co-occur and may exacerbate each other.
Drugs, Alcohol and Domestic Abuse: The intersection
Substance use does NOT cause domestic violence (DV) but may be present in abusive relationships.
- Abusers believe it is their right to exert power & control over their partners – substance use does not cause a person to feel this way but may increase the risk that he/she will assault his/her partner.
- Abusers often use substance abuse as an excuse to justify their abusive behavior.
- Abusers may force their partner to use drugs or alcohol – the victim’s sobriety may threaten the abuser’s power and control. Victims may also be encouraged to engage in drug or alcohol use to please the abusive partner.
Substance use and DV often exacerbate each other, making it increasingly difficult for the victim to address either one of the issues.
- Victims who are using drugs and/or alcohol may not be able to accurately assess their own level of danger, their ability to defend themselves, and their ability to safety plan.
- Victims with substance use issues may be reluctant to call the police – or even DV programs – for fear that they will face repercussions for their drug or alcohol use.
- Victims of DV may turn to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism or may become addicted to medicine prescribed to treat injuries caused by the abuse (e.g., painkillers or sedatives). Additionally, the outcomes of victimization (feelings of guilt, shame, powerlessness, depression) can set a victim up to fall further into a cycle of substance abuse.
Substance use and domestic violence are separate problems that often go hand-in-hand but treating one does not treat both.
- Abstinence from drugs or alcohol does not mean that the violence (verbal, emotional, sexual, and/or physical) will end.
- Use of drugs or alcohol – on the part of the abuser, the victim, or both – does not mean that violence will automatically ensue.
For many people, the decision to seek help for an abusive relationship, for substance use treatment, or both is a complicated one. Victims of abuse and substance users often face similar barriers when trying to access help. Below are just some of the challenges people may face.
Barriers for Ending an Abusive Relationship
FEAR… Of death or serious injury, of the abuser hurting him/herself or others, of not being believed about the abuse, of exposing one’s substance use or addiction, of being stalked by the abuser.
ISOLATION… Abusive relationships often result in the deterioration of the victim’s support systems including friends and family members, access to money, transportation, childcare, housing, and social services. Soon, the abuser’s voice is the only one the victim can hear.
ECONOMIC REALITY… Victims may not be able to support themselves (and often children) on their own. She/he may not have marketable skills, may have limited access to economic assistance, and may have no access to important documents due to the abuser’s economic abuse.
CHILDREN… The abuser may threaten to take custody of the children. The victim may not want to further disrupt a child’s life by moving him/her away from friends, family and school. The children may also resent the parent for taking them away from their father or mother figure.
SOCIAL PRESSURES OR EXPECTATIONS… It can be a heart-breaking decision to leave any relationship, especially when the consequences can mean losing the support of family, friends or other social relationships. Cultural and religious values may limit a victim’s options within the relationship.
HOPE & LOVE…Abusive relationships are not abusive 100% of the time. They may still have many happy moments. Abusers often apologize for their actions, making empty promises not to do it again. This gives the victim false hope for the future. Many just want the abuse to end, not the relationship.
Barriers to Accessing Substance Abuse Treatment
An abusive partner may be threatened by the victim’s attempts to stop using and may undermine her/his efforts to get clean or sober. Victims of domestic violence may turn to substance use as a way of coping with the abuse – without an alternative coping mechanism it is difficult for the victim to address her/his substance use. Additionally, outcomes of victimization such as feelings of shame, guilt, powerlessness, depression can contribute to substance use and an inability to seek help.
Lack of resources, lack of coverage for treatment – few inpatient facilities that can take children; few facilities that can accommodate pregnant women; lack of child care to make outpatient appointments; may be denied access to emergency shelters due to substance use; many insurance policies do not cover the cost of substance use treatment programs, which may discourage people from seeking help
Social pressures – oftentimes getting treatment for substance use can mean the loss of a shared activity between friends, family members, and other support systems; many also worry about the stigma of labeling themselves “users” or “addicts”.
Substance Abuse and Domestic Violence: Myths vs. Facts
Substance use and domestic violence are two separate problems that do not impact each other.
Although substance use and DV are separate problems, both often occur at the same time and exacerbate each other. This can make it increasingly difficult for someone to effectively address either of these issues. For example, victims may be encouraged to engage in drug or alcohol use to please or appease the abusive partner. Abusers may also force their victims to use drugs or alcohol as a means of gaining or maintaining power over their partner – in fact, the victim’s sobriety may be seen as a direct threat to the abuser’s control in the relationship. Furthermore, a victim may be reluctant to call the police or a DV agency for fear of being blamed or punished if her/his substance use is discovered. A victim may also hesitate to access help because the substance use has affected her/his ability to make safe, logical decisions.
Most women in substance abuse treatment have no history of trauma (such as domestic violence).
A large proportion of women in substance abuse treatment programs have extensive histories of trauma, including physical, sexual, and emotional abuse in their childhood and adult lives.
Use of drugs and/or alcohol directly causes someone to abuse his/her partner.
Drugs and alcohol DO NOT cause anyone to become abusive toward his/her partner but may intensify an abusive situation. As many as 25-50% of men who commit DV also have identified substance abuse problems. This also means that between 50-75% of men who commit domestic violence DO NOT have an identified substance abuse problem. Drug and alcohol use is often used as an excuse for the abusive behavior. Also, substance use by the victim DOES NOT cause her/his victimization. It may, however, reduce one’s ability to accurately assess her/his own danger and defend her/himself.
Leaving an abusive relationship is always the best and safest option for a victim.
Research continues to show that leaving is the most dangerous time for a victim in an abusive relationship. From the 2 weeks prior to leaving to the 2 weeks after leaving, domestic violence victims are most at risk for serious injury and even death. According to a study conducted by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, leaving puts the victim at a 75% greater risk of being seriously injured or killed by their partner. Moreover, there are many barriers to accessing help or leaving an abusive relationship, including fear (of retaliation from the abuser, of losing children, of not being believed about the abuse, of exposing a drug or alcohol addiction, etc), financial limitations, medical concerns, generational and cultural values, concerns for the wellbeing of children, social pressures and expectations, hope that things will change, and love for the abusive partner.
Choosing to stay in an abusive relationship is an example of co-dependent behavior.
Many times, a domestic violence victim’s survival strategies are mistaken for codependent behaviors. Choosing to stay in an abusive relationship may be the best way for a victim to protect her/himself from serious injury or death.
Service providers, including drug and alcohol treatment counselors, are required to report to the police when a client says that she/he is being abused by her/his partner.
Domestic violence is NOT a reportable crime. Clients that disclose domestic abuse are entitled to confidentiality, and it is the role of the service provider to uphold that confidentiality. Service providers should not report incidents to the police, or even to other local service agencies – including domestic violence organizations. The victim is the expert in her/his situation, and it is her/his right to choose whether or not to access help.