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Domestic Violence and Drug Abuse

The Department of Justice (DOJ) defines domestic violence as a pattern of abusive behavior in a relationship between spouses or family members, usually by one person to gain control over the other. This form of violence is often a combination of physical, emotional, psychological, sexual, and financial actions, threats of actions, or forms of control. The intention of a domestic abuser is, consciously or subconsciously, to manipulate, humiliate, terrorize, coerce, blame, or wound their victims. Women who are romantically and sexually involved with men are the most recorded victims of domestic violence, although men, people who identify as gay or bisexual, and children with abusive parents can also become victims of domestic violence.

Drug and alcohol abuse are closely tied with domestic violence, although one does not specifically cause the other condition. Still, understanding the complex link between violence at home or in relationships and the risk of addiction is very important in screening for and treating both conditions. The co-occurrence of substance abuse and intimate partner violence is about 40-60 percent.

Domestic Violence and Addiction Feed on Each Other

Both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence may struggle with addiction. Similarly, a domestic violence scenario increases the risk of developing drug abuse issues, and struggling with drug abuse increases the risk of perpetrating or experiencing domestic violence. These scenarios are linked together as other co-occurring disorders are. The stress of an abusive relationship increases cravings for drugs or alcohol while addictive substances increase the mood swings and suffering associated with the abusive relationship.

Among victims of domestic violence, 55 percent of cases involved alcohol, and drugs (both illicit and prescription drug abuse) were involved in 9 percent of cases. Spousal violence cases showed that alcohol was involved in 65 percent of these instances of intimate partner violence while illicit or prescription drugs were involved in 5 percent of cases. In part, this has to do with how widely alcohol is abused – about 16 million people in the United States struggle with alcohol use disorder (AUD) – compared to other types of drug abuse.

Women in abusive relationships with men report similar experiences as women who struggle with addiction, including:

  • Shame, guilt, and isolation
  • Behaviors reported by others as dysfunctional or bizarre
  • Experiencing psychological and/or physical trauma
  • Denial of the problem
  • Loss of support systems
  • Fear of losing their children
  • Low ego strength or resilience
  • Belief that the problem will simply go away on its own, also called magical thinking
  • Impairment in logical decision-making
  • Some involvement in the criminal justice system
  • Seeking services or help only when in crisis
  • When not in crisis, returning to the source of the problem (the abusive relationship or substance)

People who witness abuse or who are childhood victims of abuse are more likely to struggle with addiction to drugs or alcohol later in life. A study surveying Massachusetts’ children found that those who witnessed their mothers being victims of domestic violence were 50 percent more likely to abuse alcohol, drugs, or both. Nationally, four in ten child abusers reported they had been drinking alcohol when they committed the crime; about half reported drinking for six hours or more prior to abusing the child.

The Complex Nature of Getting Help

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People who struggle with substance abuse need support when they reach out for treatment. For people who are victims of domestic violence, this includes screening for violence and getting protective support, legal assistance, and emotional support for the victim. It likely includes managing childcare and custody laws.

Victims of domestic violence who struggle with addiction often have a hard time seeking help. This is because their partners, who may physically, psychologically, or sexually abuse them, often become angry and feel threatened, which increases the risk of violence. For the victim, violence increases the risk of relapse. Long-term, improving self-esteem, social support networks, and personal safety is important, which means that removing the victim from the environment and getting appropriate therapy and legal help are crucial in the short-term.

Some victims may remain in violent relationships because their abuser is also their drug dealer. Taking addiction treatment slowly while the victim focuses on stability after removal from their harmful environment can work for some, but both issues (substance abuse and trauma from domestic violence) should be addressed simultaneously in therapy.

People who are the perpetrators of domestic violence typically also struggle with substance use disorders. Many of these individuals end up involved in the criminal justice system at some point, but those who need treatment while incarcerated rarely receive it. About 95 percent of those who were incarcerated and also struggled with addiction returned to substance abuse after they were released. About 60-80 percent of substance abusers commit a new crime after they are released, often drug-related. For others, this crime is domestic violence.

Reaching out for treatment for substance abuse is a brave step, and there are many reasons a person may struggle with addiction. People who enter treatment should be screened for intimate partner violence or domestic violence, both as the perpetrator and as the victim. When this issue is addressed, individuals can receive appropriate support to find safe living arrangements, therapy, and legal assistance.