Substance Abuse and Intimate Partner Violence

Substance abuse can have both a causal and effective relationship with violence.  Certain traits associated with substance abuse are very similar to those associated with violence, including loss of control, preoccupation, or obsession.  Both domestic abuse victims and substance abusers tend to tolerate adverse consequences for small but addictive rewards (i.e. the high or numbness created by the substance or the occasional affection of the abuser).  While domestic abuse is never the fault of the victim, substance abusers may be more likely to tolerate unhealthy relationships due to impaired judgment or poor financial situations, and some substance users are more likely to become perpetrators of violence as well.  Certain substances, including alcohol, can cause some users to act violently. 

Substance abuse within a family or relationship can also create an environment where secrecy and denial are normal, creating an inherently unhealthy relationship in terms of communication.  Denial, distortion of facts, and manipulation are all hallmark traits of both substance abuse and domestic violence.  Unpredictability and constant stress are also traits of both, meaning that the entire environment of either is conducive to the other.  We discuss this more in our book, Intimate Partner Violence.

Studies on substance abusers have found that approximately 37% admit to a family or domestic history of physical violence, 22% admit to experiencing physical violence as adults, and 18% admit to being perpetrators of physical violence.  These numbers become more alarming when the focus is more targeted.  For example, in one study of adults seeking treatment for cocaine, 86% report physical assault by someone, 50% by an intimate partner, and nearly half of those surveyed met the criteria for PTSD.  73% of women surveyed who were living in residential treatment for chemical dependency reported being raped at some point in their life, 45% multiple times.

Substance abuse is also associated with a higher chance of abuse during pregnancy.  While about 3% of pregnant women who do not abuse substances are sexually assaulted during pregnancy, those rates rise to 15% among pregnant women who are substance abusers.

Evidence of substance abuse is, therefore, often tied to evidence of domestic abuse and proof of one may be evidence of the other.  Those seeking help for domestic violence may also require treatment for substance abuse, and vice versa.  It is crucial that anyone handling a domestic violence case is equipped with information about substance abuse and options for the victims to pursue treatment if necessary.


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