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Domestic Violence and Alcoholism

Table of Contents

Approximately 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men in the United States have suffered domestic violence at least once. Ten million people are victims of domestic violence in the US every single year. Domestic violence is considered a national public health problem. 2

Alcoholism or Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is also a public health problem. Over 95,000 people die from alcohol-related issues in the US each year. Alcoholism can lead to problems with physical health, mental health, careers, and of course, relationships. 4

Relationships involving the excessive use of alcohol or other drugs are much more likely to experience patterns of abuse and violence than those that don’t. Alcohol use greatly increases the likelihood of violence occurring, and the more alcohol consumed, the more intense the violence tends to be.

Victims of abuse or trauma are more susceptible to using alcohol as a coping mechanism to numb out or detach from the abuse.

We were both drinking fairly heavily throughout our relationship, and the more he drank the worse the abuse would be. But when I finally left him, my drinking spun completely out of control. I felt so defeated, so ashamed, and like such a failure. All I’d ever wanted was a family, and the one I created for myself was a total disaster. Drinking was the only way I knew how to cope with all these bad feelings – not just about my abuser, more so about myself.

Anna, age 47
domestic violence and alcoholism

What Does Domestic Violence Look Like?

Domestic violence can be physical or emotional; often, it’s both. It can be physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, or even financial. Children, adults, and elders can all be victims of domestic violence or abuse. 6

Abuse isn’t always physical, and it’s not always glaringly obvious, not even to the victim. Here are some types of domestic abuse and what they may look like.

Physical

Sexual

Emotional

Psychological

Financial

Anything that makes the victim feel unsafe, fearful, threatened, or in danger, physically or emotionally, whether it happens a handful of times or consistently, is abusive.

Fear and Coercion

Using fear tactics and coercion to control someone’s behavior or their activities is abusive.

Keeping someone isolated from their friends or family is abuse. Following them around or using a GPS to spy on them is abuse. Hiding or tossing birth control is abuse. Accessing a computer or private documents without permission is abuse. Forbidding one from participating in their religious practice or forcing them to participate in a religion they don’t believe in is abuse. Constantly criticizing, insulting, or humiliating your partner is abusive.

It’s common to think of domestic violence as sheerly physical. However, emotional and psychological abuse can be just as damaging as physical violence. The effects of psychological and emotional abuse can take years to overcome. Some people never heal completely.

What Does Alcoholism Look Like?

Alcoholism and addiction are insidious and baffling because no matter how destructive and unmanageable life becomes due to drinking or using drugs, a person in the throes of addiction is powerless to stop.

Stress and anxiety are huge risk factors for becoming dependent on alcohol or other drugs. Alcohol works to temporarily reduce anxiety by slowing down the heart rate and blood pressure. People can use alcohol as a form of “self-medication” to alleviate the stress and anxiety of being in an abusive relationship.

Unfortunately, the more you drink, the more alcohol you need to achieve those feelings of relaxation; this tolerance can lead to dependence.

Alcoholism is a disease just as dangerous as cancer or untreated diabetes. Alcoholism is not a moral failing or a sign of weakness. Just like any other disease, alcoholism requires treatment and maintenance to recover.

There are a lot of stereotypes surrounding alcoholism. People think of homelessness, joblessness, low socioeconomic classes, disheveled appearance, and men.

The reality is that plenty of rich, successful, bright, funny, well-dressed people are alcoholics – plenty of women too. No one is immune.

Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholism

One of the most telling signs of alcoholism is showing symptoms of withdrawal. When an alcoholic discontinues drinking, they may experience withdrawal symptoms.

Withdrawal Symptoms

Alcohol withdrawal can be hazardous and sometimes deadly. If you or someone you care for suffers from alcohol withdrawals that seem unmanageable, please seek out medical assistance right away.

Relationship Between Alcoholism and Violence

There are strong links between alcohol use and domestic violence (as well as violence in general). Alcohol use greatly increases the occurrence and severity of domestic violence.

Drinking alcohol affects your cognitive functions. When you’re under the influence of alcohol, your judgment is impaired. Your defenses are down, your inhibitions are lowered, and your self-control diminishes.

An individual who tends to be confrontational will become more so after drinking alcohol. It is harder to negotiate feelings of anger and frustration while intoxicated, and therefore more likely that violence will occur. And the more alcohol consumed, the more aggressive the violence tends to be.

It’s easy to assume that the perpetrator of violence is always the alcoholic, but that’s not necessarily the case. In many situations, the victim misuses alcohol to deal with the pain and trauma of abuse. This can lead to alcohol dependence as a coping mechanism, which can lead to addiction, which can lead to even more problems in the relationship, leading to more violence. It’s a vicious cycle.

What is Codependency?

Codependency is often passed down from generation to generation. It is a learned behavior that hinders the individual’s ability to sustain healthy, mutually satisfying relationships. It is sometimes referred to as “relationship addiction” because a codependent person may repeatedly find themselves in emotionally unhealthy relationships, one-sided, and in some cases, downright abusive. 7

When a family member has a problem, alcoholism, for example, the rest of the family members will find themselves using various strategies to cope with the issues and problems that alcoholism tends to introduce into the family dynamic.

One of those coping mechanisms is codependency. In a codependent relationship, the attention and focus are always on the alcoholic. Other family members will find themselves sacrificing their own needs to take care of the alcoholic.

This may mean getting them out of jail, covering for them when they miss work, making sure they eat and bathe regularly; it means making sure “outsiders” don’t learn the extent of the issues going on behind closed doors. Dysfunctional families don’t address the issue head-on – they do whatever it takes to keep things running, or at least appearing to run, “normally.” 7

Codependent people have good intentions; they are putting the needs of the “sick” person ahead of their own. The problem is, this caretaking role starts to become compulsive, and the codependent person may become reliant on those feelings of being needed, of feeling like a martyr.

This creates another vicious cycle where neither partner will receive assistance to improve their relationship or their lives.

With their partner covering up their problems with drinking, the alcoholic is much less likely to seek out help or recovery.

The codependent partner will start to lose themselves in the relationship by constantly pushing down their own needs and avoiding the fact that they are being damaged by alcoholism. They will start to feel hopeless and trapped – yet still, feel unable to leave the relationship because they are so very “needed.”

When abuse is present in a codependent relationship, the victim may feel even more embarrassed and ashamed, and therefore that much more motivated to cover up for the abuser.

This does not mean that a woman covering up for her alcoholic or abusive husband is at fault for being abused. It just means that this particular coping mechanism will be damaging to both partners in the long run.

Getting Help

Asking for help is notoriously one of the most difficult things for people to do. Our culture favors the ideals of strength and individualism. Appearing incapable of managing our own lives, our own problems feel terrifying to many of us.

In truth, asking for help is one of the bravest and most empowering things you’ll ever do. It takes courage and strength of character to ask for help. No one should feel ashamed for needing help with situations that are overwhelming, dangerous, and out of our control.

Addiction and abuse are two things we definitely cannot control. And they become more damaging and more dangerous the longer they go unchecked.

Alcoholism is overwhelming and confusing. It feels like you should stop drinking, but that is incredibly difficult and sometimes physically dangerous. Alcohol dependence is psychological and physiological; your mind and body have become dependent on alcohol to navigate through life’s ups and downs. It takes rigorous honesty with oneself to get to the root of why alcohol became necessary in the first place. Most people cannot do this alone. They need help.

Many women (and men) have survived domestic abuse in one form or another for so long, and they don’t even realize the relationship is abusive. It feels “normal” to them. Some people know that they need help but have no idea of how to go about getting it. Others feel so much shame and regret about being in an abusive relationship that admitting they need help feels next to impossible.

Some people may be fearful, or even in legitimate danger, threatened with more abuse if they ever tell anyone what is happening at home. Mothers (and fathers) have been threatened with separation from their children if they report the abuse to anyone. Some are so isolated from friends or family they don’t feel they have anyone to turn to.

There are countless reasons that people suffering from alcoholism or abuse do so in silence. But it doesn’t have to remain this way. You can speak up; there is help out there. Support services consist of people who have dedicated their careers to helping people overcome addiction and abuse safely and for the long term.

Attaining sobriety is possible. Getting out of an abusive relationship is possible. You deserve to live a life free from abuse and addiction.

Resources for Getting Help

For help with alcohol or drug addiction:

Alcoholics Anonymous

Narcotics Anonymous

You Are Not Alone

Alcoholism and domestic violence are both incredibly isolating experiences. When you’re in active addiction or suffering abuse at the hands of someone who supposedly loves you, it can feel like you are alone in the world, that no one can possibly understand what you’re going through.

This is not the case.

There are tens of thousands of recovering alcoholics thriving, living life on life’s terms without using alcohol or other substances to get them through the day. They’ve overcome guilt, fear, and shame with the help and support of others who understand what they’ve been through. They’ve recreated their lives. They live freely, without the shackles of addiction.

It took work to get there, though. They had to admit that they needed help and then go through intense self-reflection to get sober and remain sober. But it can be done.

Women (and men) who find themselves in an abusive relationship often experience overwhelming fear at the prospect of asking for help. It may take a long time to get to the point where they even consider doing so. Many victims blame themselves for the abuse and feel like if they try just a little harder, do a little better, BE a little better, the abuse will stop. They fear that the abuse will worsen if they speak out or that their children will be taken away from them. 8

Some women (and men) report that they didn’t even realize just how abusive their situation really was until they got out of it. It had become their “normal.”

Being in constant fear and feeling unsafe in a relationship is not normal. If you or someone you care for is being abused, reach out for help as soon as it is safe to do so.

Sources

1. Clare E. B. Cannon, R. F. (n.d.). COVID-19, Intimate Partner Violence, and Communication Ecologies – Clare E. B. Cannon, Regardt Ferreira, Frederick Buttell, Jennifer First, 2021. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0002764221992826

2. Huecker, M. R. (2021, April 19). Domestic Violence. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499891/

3. Types of abuse in domestic and family violence. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.facs.nsw.gov.au/domestic-violence/about/types-of-abuse-in-dv

4. Alcohol and Public Health. (2020, September 03). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/index.htm

5. Trevisan, L. A., M.D., Boutros, N., M.D., Petrakis, I. L., M.D., & Krystal, J. H., M.D. (1998). Complications of Alcohol Withdrawal. Retrieved from https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh22-1/61-66.pdf

6. Domestic Abuse and Women’s Alcohol Issues. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.alcohol.org/women/domestic-abuse-and-alcoholism/

7. Co-Dependency. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.mhanational.org/co-dependency

9. Intimate partner violence and alcohol. (2006). Retrieved from https://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/violence/world_report/factsheets/fs_intimate.pdf