Domestic violence (domestic abuse) is an incredibly painful thing to experience and to witness. It is also known as “intimate partner violence” (or IPV) or “relationship abuse.” It refers to abusive behaviors used by one person in a romantic relationship to control the other. There are many ways a person may exert control over their partner, including physically, emotionally, sexually, and psychologically.
Substance abuse and domestic violence are closely linked. Although the use of drugs and alcohol isn’t present in all abusive relationships, it’s common. Either the abuser or the person suffering the abuse may abuse substances.
A common situation is one person becoming drunk or high and committing acts of violence. It’s estimated that between 40% and 60% of domestic violence incidents involve the use of substances. Rates of substance abuse are also high among victims of domestic violence. This may be because the person suffering abuse uses alcohol and drugs as a coping skill. It could also be because they’re forced or coerced into using substances.
Another way substance abuse connects to domestic violence is through the long-term effects of trauma. People who were exposed to domestic violence as children are more likely to develop substance abuse problems as they get older.
Who Does Domestic Violence Affect?
An “intimate relationship” refers to people who are dating, living together, or married. Domestic violence occurs in all types of relationships, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, racial and ethnic background, age, socioeconomic status, and education levels. Although more survivors are women, men suffer domestic violence too. Rates of domestic violence against men are likely to be under-reported.
Types of Domestic Violence
Domestic violence is not just about harming someone. It’s also about creating fear. The person committing the violence wants to gain control over their partner. This can be done through many means:
Relationships may include only one, several, or all types of abuse.
This is the most outwardly visible sign of abuse. Even so, some perpetrators may try to leave marks in places victims can easily hide, like the upper arms, back, or stomach.
Examples of physical abuse include:
- Punching, slapping, kicking, hair pulling, and choking
- Denying basic needs like food and sleep
- Preventing a partner from leaving an unsafe situation or exposing them to violence from others
- Forcing a partner to use drugs or alcohol
- Using or threatening the use of weapons
Emotional abuse causes emotional pain through words and/or actions. It can cause just as much suffering as physical abuse and leave a long-lasting impact.
Examples of emotional abuse include:
- Insults, name-calling, or other degrading language
- Extreme jealousy or provoking jealousy from their partner
- Threatening to harm children, pets, or other loved ones
- Embarrassing their partner in public
- Withholding affection
- Threatening self-harm if the partner doesn’t comply with their wishes
In abusive relationships, sex is often used as a tool for control through punishment. It can be used to break down a person’s spirit and self-confidence.
Examples of sexual abuse are:
- Forcing or manipulating their partner into having sex
- Forcing their partner to dress in a sexually provocative or demeaning way
- Being controlling during sex without consent
- Insisting sex is “owed”
- Ignoring their partner’s sexual boundaries and preferences
Psychological abuse involves manipulating someone with the goal of making them dependent. It’s usually done strategically, over time. This type of abuse can even happen without physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
Examples of psychological abuse are:
- Isolating the person from their family and friends
- Tracking where the partner goes and whom they interact with
- Demanding to know where the partner is at all times
- Confining the partner to the house
- Controlling how a partner dresses, styles their hair, etc.
Gaslighting is another type of psychological abuse. It’s a term for essentially brainwashing a victim into believing they cannot trust themselves and so must completely rely on their partner. Abusers cause victims to question their sanity by insisting what they see, hear, think, etc. is not real or valid. Victims come to believe they’re “crazy” and doubt their thoughts and experiences. Sufferers of gaslighting experience a total loss of confidence.
Effects of Domestic Violence
The negative effects of domestic violence can last a lifetime. Healing from intimate partner violence is possible, but it often requires therapy, a strong support system, and community resources.
Below is a list of some common effects of domestic abuse. Many of these can happen to children who witness domestic violence as well.
- Depression, including suicidal ideation and self-harm
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Substance abuse
- Unintended pregnancy
- Poor work or school performance
- Low self-confidence and self-worth
What Is the Relationship Between Domestic Violence and Substance Abuse?
Both offenders and victims of domestic violence can abuse substances. In either case, they make worse what is already a heartbreaking situation. Drugs and alcohol can make abusers more violent and reckless, and they decrease survivors’ abilities to heal effectively.
Why Abusers Use Substances
Domestic abuse is 11 times more likely to occur on days of heavy substance abuse. Alcohol and drugs can facilitate intimate partner violence by leading someone to commit violence while under the influence. In some situations, a partner only commits violence when they’re under the influence. Many other times, abuse happens regardless of whether the partner has substances in their system.
There are many reasons that people who abuse their partners are more likely to use drugs or alcohol. They could be dealing with their own mental health struggles. Conditions like PTSD and anxiety are commonly numbed through substance abuse. They’re also likely to lead to aggression. Intensely distressing emotions tend to build and turn into anger when not coped with appropriately. That anger can then get taken out on the people closest to them, especially when inhibitions are lowered through drugs and alcohol. For survivors of trauma, it’s common to reenact one’s past, including what was done to them, on people close to them.
Substances also make it harder to cope with emotions in a healthy way. Examples of healthy coping skills include:
- Talking to a loved one or therapist
- Engaging in a confidence-building task
When inhibitions are lowered and it’s harder to think clearly, these healthy coping skills become difficult, if not impossible.
Why Survivors Use Substances
There are two main reasons survivors of intimate partner violence use substances
- They use them to cope with the abuse or memories of the abuse.
- They have been forced or coerced into using substances – Sometimes abusers will force drugs or alcohol onto victims as a way to control them. They might disguise this as an attempt to help. What actually happens is victims become addicted to the substances and have to rely even more on their partners.
Women experiencing domestic violence may not have healthy coping skills. Alcohol or drugs could be easily accessible and, like so many unhealthy ways of coping, they work immediately to dull the pain.
Survivors are also likely to suffer post-traumatic stress, which comes with a much higher chance of developing substance abuse problems. People with PTSD have a 21% to 43% chance of developing a substance abuse disorder at some point in their lives.
How to Help a Loved One Facing Domestic Violence
If you know or suspect someone you love is in an abusive relationship, there are steps you can take. Let them know you believe them and want to help. Reaching out can make a life-changing difference. But do it carefully. Intervening too soon or too forcefully could put them or you at risk from their partner.
Understandably, many survivors of intimate partner violence won’t know how to start talking about their experiences. You can help by saying you’re worried about them and concerned for their safety. Be sensitive and gentle, and don’t force the survivor to tell you what’s going on. That might drive them further away. Let them know you care and that you will always listen to them and believe them.
It’s also important not to judge. Don’t offer advice or solutions at this point. The temptation might be to go to the police, but acting hastily can put the survivor in even more danger. Give them the opportunity to tell their story and understand where they’re coming from. You might be the first person to actually listen to a survivor’s story, and that’s a huge responsibility.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline is a great resource for people suffering from intimate partner violence and the people who want to support them. You can call 1-800-799-SAFE anytime.
How Trauma and Substance Abuse are Treated
Treating trauma and addiction can better a situation of domestic violence for both the perpetrator and the survivors. They’re most effectively treated with an approach known as “trauma–informed care.” This involves being sensitive to and respecting a person’s painful past. Trauma-informed care doesn’t aim to treat the trauma itself. Instead, it addresses the symptoms of trauma, such as substance abuse. It helps people understand what happened to them and how it led to their current problems.
Trauma-informed care involves communicating compassion, understanding, and patience. Survivors are allowed to empower themselves during treatment. This is a critical part of rebuilding self-esteem and self-worth.
In cases of addiction, trauma-informed care understands that survivors have understandable reasons for using drugs or alcohol to cope with the trauma. But it still acknowledges these coping mechanisms are unhealthy and need to change before true healing can take place.
Ultimately, trauma-informed care is about empathy and tolerance. These responses are critical, from the first moment of contact with a survivor through every step of the recovery process.
Perhaps you do things you aren’t proud of under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Maybe you have an abusive partner and turn to substances to cope or escape. Or, perhaps, you know someone who is abusive or abused. Footprints to Recovery helps people confront and tackle their reliance on substances and build healthy futures. Contact us to see how we can help.