The connection between substance use and family violence, also known as domestic violence, has been well-known for many years. But the connection is not straightforward, and alcohol and drug use affects individuals, families and relationships in many complex ways.
Some of the major ways that substance use and family violence are related are outlined here.
There are many types of family violence, and one of the most common is childhood abuse. There is a high incidence of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse in childhood among people who have problems with alcohol and drugs. One of the great ironies of childhood abuse is that people who become abusers in adulthood, and those who are victims in abusive relationships in adulthood, are more likely to have been abused as children.
Using Substances to Cope With Abuse
Use of alcohol, medications, and calming drugs can help people who are victimized by family violence or are in other abusive relationships. Alcohol and many other drugs, such as opiates, have a temporary pain-relieving effect. People who have been injured through family violence often do not seek medical help, and may use alcohol and drugs to cope.
These drugs are also effective in temporarily relieving emotional pain. The temporary nature of the drug effect feeds the cycle of addiction, as the user will often experience a rebound effect after the drug wears off, resulting in greater physical and emotional pain.
Drugs Lower Inhibition and Impulse Control
People who are under the influence of alcohol and other drugs are more likely to abuse their partners and children, whether they are aware of the violence they are inflicting on their family members or not. The disinhibiting effects of alcohol and other drugs may make it more likely that someone who is already experiencing frustration or anger will lash out. Also, because alcohol and other drugs affect people's abilities to think clearly about what they are doing, they are more likely to make errors in judgement when under the influence.
Some Important Considerations
- Alcohol and drug use do not cause family violence.
- Many people use alcohol and drugs and are never violent, and many are protective of their families.
- Many people who have been abused in childhood do not use alcohol or drugs.
If You Have Experienced Family Violence, Get Help
Professionals who work with victims of family violence are well aware of the link between substance abuse and family violence. Particularly if you are in a long-term abusive relationship, you may feel alone and that no one will understand or help you. But there is help available, which can be accessed through many sources. If you are not sure who to turn to for help, here are some ideas:
- Your local police station
- Your family doctor
- The emergency room at your local hospital, particularly if you think you may have been injured
- A hotline, such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233; 800-787-3224 (TTY for the deaf)
Many places also have a range of services for people in abusive relationships and those experiencing family violence. These may include:
- Shelters -- often for women and children fleeing abuse
- Social Services -- social workers can help you access safety and resources
- Family counseling services
- Family resource centers, which can help with all aspects of parenting and family support
Barriers to Getting Help
In rare cases, people in abusive relationships are physically prevented from accessing help from the outside world. Much more often, the barriers to getting help are in the minds of the victims of family violence. These barriers feel real and are understandable, but you owe it to yourself and your children to overcome them:
- Shame and embarrassment
- Fear of getting into trouble, getting your partner into trouble, or your partner coming after you. The best way to protect yourself and your children is to get away from an abuser and to tell the full story to people who can help you.
- Financial dependence on an abusive partner. Your partner may well have financial responsibilities to you and your children, whether or not you stay in the relationship.
- Love of, or fear of losing your partner. Abuse is not based on love. Your best chance of a loving relationship with your partner is for him or her to get help and for the victim to find a way to be safe.
- Denial that the abuse is serious, that it will happen again, or that you or your partner has a problem with alcohol, drugs or an addiction.
- Enabling your partner -- both to continue with their addictive behavior, and to continue with the abuse.
If you or a child or another person has been injured by a violent family member, call 911.
Addiction Research Foundation. Violence Against Women and Children in Relationships and the Use of Alcohol and Drugs - Searching For Solutions. 1995.
Orford, J. et al. Coping With Alcohol and Drug Problems: The Experiences of Family Members in Three Contrasting Cultures. East Sussex: Routledge. 2005.