The relationship between alcohol or drug abuse and domestic violence is a complicated one. Many people believe that substance abuse causes people to be violent, but research does not support this. Many people who become addicted to alcohol or drugs never become violent or abusive. Obviously, if an abusive person is using alcohol or drugs, becoming sober is a critical step in addressing their abusive behavior; however, an abusive person may stop using alcohol or drugs, but without counseling and a long-term commitment to change, they will continue to be abusive. When considering this information, it is important to remember that domestic violence is a choice, regardless of whether or not a person uses alcohol or drugs.
Batterers with severe alcohol problems abuse their partners both when they are drunk and when they are sober. Treating an underlying alcohol or drug problem may help reduce the incidence and severity of the violence, but it will not end the violence. Alcohol and drug abuse merely exacerbate pre-existing tendencies toward violence. The social expectations around drinking in our society teach people that if they want to avoid being held responsible for their violence, they can either drink before they are violent, or at least say they were drunk.
The following statistics highlight the relationship between substance abuse and domestic violence:
• 40 percent of children from violent homes believe a parent had a drinking problem and were more abusive when drinking.
• 80 percent of child abuse cases are associated with the use of alcohol or drugs.
• Childhood physical abuse is associated with substance abuse during adolescence.
• Substance abuse by one parent decreases the likelihood that this parent will be able to protect their children if the other parent is violent. Staying safe depends on thinking clearly and acting quickly. Sometimes people use alcohol or drugs to try to cope with domestic violence, yet substances can make it harder to stay safe and/or protect children.
• Women in recovery are likely to have a history of violent trauma.
• A Department of Justice study of murder in families found that more than half of the defendants accused of murdering their spouse and almost half of the victims had been drinking at the time of the incident.
• 25 percent of men who abuse do not use alcohol. Another 25 percent batter whether they have been drinking or not.
One of the easiest ways to think about the relationship between substance abuse and domestic violence is to imagine domestic violence as a fire and substance abuse as a can of gasoline. If you pour gasoline onto a fire, it will get much worse, but if you pour gasoline onto the ground, nothing will happen. If you take away the gasoline, you still have fire. For substance abuse to make domestic violence worse, there has to be something to ignite it such as a strong desire to control and dominate, a family history of abuse, or extreme jealousy.
It's important to remember that alcohol or drug abuse (as well as circumstances such as job stress, unemployment, the kids, holidays, etc.) do not cause domestic violence. The bottom line: Abusive men batter because they choose to do so.
For more information on Domestic Violence Awareness Month, call the SMRC office at 728-5842. To get help, call the SMRC hotline at 728-5660.
Pam Stewart is the executive director of the San Miguel Resource Center.