Monday, March 27, 2017

If He'd Just Stop Drinking: Domestic Abuse and Alcohol

While both alcohol use and violence may appear in a relationship, they are independent issues. Those of us who lived with abusers who were also heavy drinkers often claimed, “If he’d just stop drinking, everything would be okay.” Many members of society still believe that alcohol or drug use causes abuse. However, there is no research to support that theory. Studies indicate that the “majority (76 percent) of physical abuse incidents occur in the absence of alcohol use.”(1) Also, the majority of heavy drinkers do not abuse their partners. Studies do indicate that the use of alcohol allows abusers to more easily enforce their own internal rules through any means. This results in a higher rate of injuries to partners of heavy drinkers who are abusers.

As defined by The National Institute on Drug Abuse: 

Alcoholism or alcohol dependence is a diagnosable disease characterized by a strong craving for alcohol, and/or continued use despite harm or personal injury. Alcohol abuse, which can lead to alcoholism, is a pattern of drinking that results in harm to one's health, interpersonal relationships, or ability to work. (2 & 3)

Domestic violence defined by the National Coalition Against Domestic Abuse:

Domestic violence is the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another. It includes physical violence, sexual violence, psychological violence, and emotional abuse. The frequency and severity of domestic violence can vary dramatically; however, the one constant component of domestic violence is one partner’s consistent efforts to maintain power and control over the other. (4)

Alcohol can intensify an already difficult situation. Continued use of what was once used to self-medicate anxious feelings, may now increase that anxiety. Combined with the predisposition to control one’s partner and the growing fear of losing that control, alcohol may exacerbate the situation, resulting in an increased risk of severe injury or death for the victim. 

Removing alcohol from the picture may temporarily reduce the violence, but the desire to control at all costs, embedded within the core of the perpetrator, remains. The abuse will not only continue but its severity will likely escalate. 

There are specific strategies used to gain and hold a position of power. The controlling partner: 

Isolates the victim from family and friends. They are a threat because they may confirm the victims initial feelings that something is wrong with the relationship and encourage her to leave. 

Plays mind games by putting her down, redirecting conversations or disrupting her plans, instilling confusion and mistrust in herself. (5)

Creates constant chaos around the victim to keep her off balance and focused on “making things better.” The victim feels that resisting is more difficult than complying because they are exhausted by the overwhelming expectations and demands.

Threatens to harm the victim, her pets or children to assure that she will be reluctant to reach out for help. 

Demonstrates omnipotence or power by controlling all finances, withholding information or flaunting the law. Keeping track of her through constant phone calls, texts or tracking devices instills a sense that resistance is futile.

Humiliates and degrades the victim in public or private. She becomes reluctant to be around others—furthering her isolation. As her self-esteem declines, her dependence on the controlling partner increases.

Enforces trivial demands by a creating petty rules to fortify his control. Every time she performs one of these tasks it reinforces that he holds the power.

The insidiousness of the above behaviors is topped off with an occasional indulgence—an act of kindness. This “gift” to the victim throws her off balance and motivates her to comply and believe that “He will change.” She may minimize and deny what he is doing to her. When the abuse returns, she feels hopeless and helpless.

When I asked Doctor Darald Hanusa (who developed a well respected batterer’s treatment program(6)), why men abuse their partners, he responded without hesitation. “Because they can.” Society has taught them that it is permissible to control your partner through violence. 

Violent partners often use alcohol as an excuse for their bad behavior. They also claim to have lost control because they were angry and frustrated. However, those who treat batterers agree that assaulting is always a matter of choice. The fact that they only abuse their partner, not their boss or associate, dispels the out-of-control claim. In addition, they usually abuse in private and are careful to not leave bruises where they can be seen. 

One batterer who went through treatment shared his perspective. “It was like having a new toy," he said. "I had the buttons and I could make her do whatever I wanted. I was trying to intimidate her. I wanted to control her for the simple reason that I knew I could do it. It made me feel powerful.”(7)

Abuse is not a disease like alcoholism. It is a choice. 

Both domestic abuse and alcoholism wreak havoc on our families.

For anonymous, confidential help available 24/7, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY) now.

For confidential help regarding substance abuse call the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation at 1-800-257-7810

  1. (
  2. Alcohol | National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)  
  4. (
  5. I am using he as the perpetrator and she as the victim for ease of writing. Either men or women can and do abuse.
  6. Darald Hanusa Ph.D., L.C.S.W
  7. (