Substance Abuse and Domestic Violence: A Toxic Duo

Last Updated on January 25, 2023

woman suffering from domestic abuseDomestic violence occurs in several different ways and can have negative consequences to both the victim and the abuser. Many victims of domestic violence also struggle with substance abuse issues and addiction, which can complicate their ability and willingness to get help.

Substance abuse is a complex issue on its own, but when it’s paired with domestic violence, victims face additional barriers to treatment. In this guide, we’ll provide information about the causes and consequences of domestic violence, its relationship to substance abuse and addiction, and how domestic violence should be addressed in addiction treatment.

Domestic Violence: What it Is and How it Happens

Domestic violence is defined as a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship.1 Although physical abuse is often what comes to mind when we think of domestic violence, there are several different types of domestic abuse, such as:

  • Controlling behavior
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse and intimidation
  • Isolation
  • Verbal abuse (coercion, threats, and blame)
  • Using male privilege
  • Economic abuse2

Men and women can both be victims of domestic violence, as well as people of all races, ages, socioeconomic status, or gender identity.

Although there is never an acceptable reason to treat someone in any of the ways described above, abusers may justify their aggressive behaviors by blaming external factors like abuse they experienced in their own childhood, drug and alcohol use, stress, or losing self-control.

In reality, the abuser’s behaviors often stem from a desire to control their partner. Or, they simply enjoy the feeling they get from controlling and restricting their partner’s behaviors. Many abusers may also falsely believe that their own needs and emotions are the sole priority in their relationship, and as a result, they manipulate, neglect, or hurt their partner to make them feel “lesser than” in the relationship.

Although substance abuse and addiction can fuel instances of domestic violence and increase the likelihood of physically or emotionally abusive behaviors, domestic violence is a choice and the abuser is solely responsible for his or her actions.

Why Do Victims of Domestic Violence Stay?

From an outsider’s perspective, it’s not always clear why victims of domestic violence stay in abusive relationships, but in many instances, it comes down to safety. If the victim chooses to leave, they are taking control of the situation and stepping out from under the power of their abusive partner. This can prompt the abuser to lash out in extreme violence, which can be very dangerous for the victim or any children involved.

Other reasons people choose to stay in an abusive relationship are:

  • They are afraid of what will happen if they leave.
  • They don’t recognize their relationship is unhealthy.
  • They are embarrassed or ashamed to admit they are being abused.
  • They are in love with their abusive partner.
  • They are influenced by their cultural or religious beliefs.
  • They are financially dependent on their abusive partner.
  • They are afraid their partner will reveal secrets about them in retaliation (such as LGBTQ status).
  • They are physically dependent on their abusive partner.3

Risk Factors Associated with Domestic Violence

Domestic violence can happen to anyone, but there are certain risk factors that increase a person’s risk of being abused or becoming an abuser. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these are some of the most common risk factors that can contribute to the likelihood of someone becoming a domestic abuser or a victim of domestic abuse.4

Risk Factors for Domestic Violence
Individual Risk Factors
  • Low self-esteem and insecurity
  • Low income/unemployment
  • Low academic achievement
  • Youth
  • Heavy drug and alcohol use
  • Depression and suicide attempts
  • Anger and hostility
  • Lack of non-violent problem-solving skills
  • Conduct problems
  • Antisocial personality and borderline personality traits
  • Isolation
  • A desire for relational power and control
  • Hostility toward women
  • Being a victim of physical or psychological abuse
  • Childhood exposure to domestic violence
  • Unplanned pregnancy
Relationship Risk Factors
  • Marital problems
  • Jealousy, possessiveness, and negativity
  • Divorce or separation
  • One partner dominating or controlling the relationship
  • Economic/financial stress
  • Association with antisocial and aggressive peers
  • Parents with less than a high school education
  • Lack of support and social isolation
Community Risk Factors
  • Poverty
  • Lack of outlets that shape social interaction within a community
  • Lack of neighborhood support
  • Lack of intervention and sanctions against domestic violence
  • A high rate of alcohol abuse
Societal Risk Factors
  • Traditional gender norms and gender inequality
  • Cultural norms that support aggression toward others
  • Income inequality
  • Weak health, educational, economic, and social policies
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The Connection Between Substance Abuse and Domestic Violence

Substance abuse and domestic violence have a strong connection for several reasons. Although drug and alcohol abuse is never an excuse for abusive behavior, substance abuse does increase the likelihood that a person will behave aggressively toward a partner or spouse. Conversely, when a person experiences prolonged domestic violence and abuse, he or she can develop serious lasting health problems, such as mental health disorders or physical injuries.

Victims of domestic violence often also self-medicate with drugs and alcohol to cope with the physical and emotional pain of the abuse. They may experience high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression due to domestic violence, and therefore take prescription sedatives like Xanax or Valium to reduce those symptoms. While the use of these drugs usually begins responsibly, it can quickly spiral out of control and turn into full-blown prescription drug abuse or addiction as the person struggles to cope with the trauma of their abusive relationship.

In relationships that involve sexual abuse, the victim may also abuse drugs or alcohol to escape the reality of their situation and submit to certain behaviors they would otherwise be unwilling to do. In circumstances like this, the victim may prefer to be intoxicated rather than face anger and violence from the abuser.

A domestic abuser may also force a victim to do the following things, which can increase a person’s risk for developing an addiction:

  • Use alcohol or drugs
  • Illegally sell or purchase drugs
  • Engage in sexual behaviors in exchange for drugs or money
  • Avoid seeking help via an addiction treatment center or a community support group like A.A. or N.A.
Why do victims of domestic violence abuse drugs and alcohol?
  • To cope with stress and trauma
  • To mask physical pain
  • To reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • To escape from reality

Statistics on Substance Abuse and Co-Occurring Domestic Violence

To further illustrate the connection between addiction, substance abuse, and intimate partner violence, here are some recent statistics about substance abuse and co-occurring domestic violence:

  • 40 to 60 percent of domestic violence incidents involve substance abuse.5
  • More than 20 percent of male abusers report using drugs or alcohol immediately before the most recent and severe acts of violence.5
  • Female domestic abuse survivors are 70 percent more likely to drink in excess than those in non-abusive relationships.6
  • Physical violence was 11 times more likely among abusers and victims on days of heavy substance use.7
  • Half of all men in domestic abuse counseling programs are also substance abusers.8
  • Before seeking treatment for substance abuse, the rate of violent acts was as high as 72 percent among men and 50 percent among women.9
  • 85 percent of domestic violence victims are women and substance abuse is more prevalent among women who suffer domestic violence, even among pregnant women who were victims of violence.10,11

Additional Consequences of Domestic Violence

Domestic violence doesn’t just contribute to the likelihood that someone will develop an addiction. It has an impact on their overall well-being, health, and quality of life. Additional negative consequences of domestic violence include:

  • Psychiatric problems
  • Unhealthy eating behaviors/eating disorders
  • Exposure to constant and extreme stress
  • PTSD
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Physical pain and injury
  • STDs
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Suicidal ideation/behaviors
  • Legal problems
  • Unsafe environments for children12

Barriers to Addiction Treatment

Substance abusers who are also victims of domestic violence may face additional individual and social challenges that increase their vulnerability to victimization and limit the likelihood of successful outcomes in substance abuse treatment.

Here are some of the most common treatment barriers that prevent victims of domestic violence from getting help for their substance abuse problems:

  • Being isolated from friends, family members, and other loved ones
  • Experiencing overwhelming shame and guilt
  • Experiencing discrimination due to social stigma and prejudice
  • Refusing to admit that they have a substance abuse problem
  • Being afraid of losing their children if they admit to substance abuse
  • Lacking access to money and resources
  • Believing the problem will just go away on its own13

Addressing Domestic Violence in Substance Abuse Treatment

The addiction treatment needs of men and women vary greatly since men and women experience addiction differently, but a history of domestic violence magnifies those differences even more. As a result, addiction treatment for both male and female victims of domestic abuse must address both the substance abuse and the trauma of abuse for it to be effective. Treatment must also address other psychiatric and medical co-occurring disorders to provide well-rounded care.

To provide comprehensive care during a drug and alcohol rehab program, treatment professionals should screen for domestic violence issues and, if any evidence is found, convey empathy and understanding regarding the abuse and trauma. If the person is experiencing an ongoing crisis, it should be addressed immediately. Otherwise, the occurrence of domestic violence should be considered in the development of a treatment plan.13

An addiction treatment program that addresses substance abuse problems and the history of abuse or ongoing abuse is essential for clients to be able to move forward and establish safe, healthy, and supportive relationships away from their abuser.

An addiction treatment process that provides therapeutic interventions and trauma-informed practices to address the client’s abuse early on in treatment will help pave the way for continued healing, personal growth, and the development of healthy coping strategies in recovery.

Resources for Survivors of Domestic Violence

In addition to addiction treatment, other resources are available for victims of domestic violence who are seeking safety and help. The following resources are available to help those who are experiencing domestic abuse.

If you are suffering from substance abuse problems or addiction and you are a victim of domestic violence, there is help available for you. Call Nova Recovery Center today to learn more about our individualized addiction treatment programs and comprehensive continuum of care.

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