Why Can't She Stop: Alcohol's Relationship With Domestic Abuse

Hi Reader Friend,

This week, I’m hoping you will read this and gain a bit of perspective on why perpetrators and victims of domestic abuse drink alcohol. If you or someone you know is being controlled or abused in a relationship, my thoughts are with you. If you need advise for how to access services, please feel free to get in touch.

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When I first started supporting victims of domestic abuse, I recall ‘higher than thou’ thoughts I had about the perpetrators and victims’ use and dependency on alcohol. I couldn’t understand why women got drunk with their abusive partners, which led to more serious risk of harm. Or why perpetrators, who genuinely wanted to change, kept drinking, knowing that it perpetuated the abusive cycle they found themselves caught up in. In my naivety, I didn’t understand that the connection between domestic abuse and alcohol was not straightforward.

Daniella Wallace is a vibrant motivational speaker and coach who has been a victim of both domestic abuse and alcohol dependency. ‘I grew up in Preston on a council estate that wasn’t at all affluent. Both of my parents were steeped in alcohol and domestic abuse. All of my family were alcoholics – it was inherently generational.’ She recounted how her dad would drink heavily and go on to encourage her mum to do the same so that his drinking would be justified. He would then proceed to be abuse her physically and emotionally. This was her normal growing up, and it would be become her normal again in her future. 

Daniella ended up meeting a man that also heavily used alcohol - just as her dad had – and emotionally and physically abused her. Perpetrators of domestic abuse may use alcohol for a variety of reasons. He may be stressed about money (which is often worsened by purchasing alcohol), drowning out his own victimised childhood, or feeling ashamed of his behaviour. But what drives them to domestic abuse is not the alcohol itself. In a report on The Dynamics of Domestic Abuse and Drug and Alcohol Dependency, it was found that the men in the study that had been abusive towards their partners felt the ‘need to control became increasingly acute when their relationships were in crisis, when they had secrets to keep, when they felt dependent on drugs or alcohol, were afraid of losing their minds, their partners and their children, when money was scarce, and when homelessness and criminalization were distinct possibilities.’ While conflicts might have been accentuated by intoxication, it was the desire for control that led to the conflict, not the alcohol. 

Daniella went on to describe an instance that her partner strangled her at a wedding. Or when he pressured her to get pregnant after only a few months of being together. Or when he messaged her on her phone telling her all the women he was with to make her jealous. Or when he hit her with an ironing board when she was four months pregnant. Most of his abuse came after having multiple drinks. All the while, she coped by drinking. ‘Alcohol was my balm, a crutch to forget,’ she said. 

While alcohol may not be the root cause for domestic abuse, the World Health Organization found that it:

  • directly affects cognitive and physical function, reducing self-control and leaving individuals less capable of negotiating a non-violent resolution to conflicts within relationships

  • can exacerbate financial difficulties, childcare problems, infidelity or other family stressors. This can create marital tension and conflict, increasing the risk of violence occurring between partners

  • can encourage violent behaviour after drinking and the use of alcohol as an excuse for violent behaviour

When Daniella managed to leave her abuser, she moved with her baby into a new house. But like many perpetrators, he continued to demand control, staying days at a time with her, using and abusing her. She would drink alone at night when he would go out to lessen the anxiety and fear she felt. Eventually, she got an injunction against him and slowly started to rebuild her life. As life stabilized, she realized her growing dependency on alcohol. ‘My one bottle of wine at night, would often turn to two.’ As she compared her alcohol use to others, she considered how her inability to even feel the effects of an entire bottle of wine was concerning and unhealthy. ‘Flipping heck,’ she thought. ‘This can’t be right.’ She began to slowly wean herself from alcohol – having less drinks at night, drink free nights or weekends. Now, she only drinks on special occasions to celebrate, not as a means of coping with stress. 

Not all victims taste freedom from alcohol and abuse the way that Daniella did. A victim that has used alcohol either on their own accord (to ease anxiety, fear, pain, trauma) or from pressure of a partner, can become not just dependent, as Daniella was, but physically dependent and psychologically addicted to alcohol. She may crave a drink, be unable to stop drinking, experience withdrawal symptoms, drink in dangerous circumstances, or need to drink more to get a desired intoxication level. Her brain has become chemically imbalanced from repeated instances of drinking to excess.

In this case, a victim is in a position that could lead to criminalized behaviour (drunk driving, theft, aggression) or social service involvement (where children are present). Shame may pour over her, leaving her stuck in the abusive relationship, too afraid to disclose or seek refuge. The study mentioned earlier found that ‘for the women in these relationships, criminal justice intervention was often greeted with trepidation, for it rarely provided the protection it promised. Instead, they had often concluded that it was simpler to suffer difficulties within their relationships, attribute violence to drugs use and attribute drug use to earlier traumas, of which there were many in our participants’ lives.’ It found that victims were often further controlled by their partners threatening to report her for hitting back in conflicts or for her personal drug and alcohol misuse. She may feel shame over her alcohol use. Shame over her fear. Shame over her tolerance. Shame over her inability to protect her children. So she chooses to stay in the relationship and continues to medicate her shame with alcohol. 

In its conclusion, The Dynamic of Domestic Abuse and Drug and Alcohol Dependency stated, ‘What is under-acknowledged in many serious cases of domestic abuse is that both perpetrators and victims often share in the shame associated with being abused as adults and children, of failing to protect their own children, anticipate their partner’s needs, having hit back, gotten drunk or engaged in illicit drug use.’ A perpetrator may feel shame due to the behaviour which he instigated and possibly shame from childhood abuse. A victim may feel shame created by adaptive behaviours to abuse. They both need support. 

Perpetrator programmes do exist for abusers that want to admit to actions and change their behaviours. Group sessions, offered through charities such as Respect, look at the causes of abuse and help men understand why they are violent and/or controlling. They ask participants to take full responsibility for their actions and the impact of those actions, and then learn different ways to behave in an intimate partner relationship. Additionally, alcohol treatment programmes are available if a perpetrator of abuse recognizes a drinking problem. 

Victims of domestic abuse should not feel that they need to stick around to support an abusive partner. The victim needs to find safety for both herself and her children from crisis services that can be suggested by hotlines such as The National Domestic Violence Hotline. Once she is safe, she can begin treatment for her alcohol addiction. She will most likely need to detox initially, and then be treated with specific therapies such as: 

  • Co-Occurring Disorders treatment (manages co-occurring mental health and medical disorders as they may be intertwined)

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (helps clients develop coping skills to address self-destructive thoughts)

  • Seeking Safety (trauma focused therapy to develop safety in thoughts, emotions, behaviours and relationship)

  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (trauma therapy that uses images and visual cues to reform negatives emotions and behaviours from past trauma. 

Unfortunately, the problem with support is that is always comes down to funding. These treatment therapies rely heavily on financial backing and have waiting lists for access. I spoke to Amy, a Domestic Violence and Abuse Worker, about a realistic perspective on availability. ‘The specialist therapies are sometimes tough to get places on with alcohol recovery programmes. Depends on the availability of the service, matching criteria and funding. It’s really difficult because with some therapies and certain counselling you can't engage with them unless you're not drinking. It's a tough cycle.’

She aims to do everything she can with clients to keep them engaged while they wait for therapy. ‘When I've had alcohol dependant clients, I've gotten her involved with alcohol services who will give some reduction services and try to give detox in community or sometimes in hospital. It can be a waiting game which means some clients will disengage because they have feelings of hopelessness. The substance misuse workers will handhold them with regular appointments until therapies are available.’

She went on to suggest that victims struggling with alcohol addiction could use the GetSelfHelp website to manage stress and anxiety through mindfulness sessions. Additionally, she emphasized how important it was to have friends and family that would just be there when anxiety levels and cravings were overwhelming.

To break free from addiction takes courage and vulnerability, and often patience while waiting for therapy to become available.

A perpetrator of domestic abuse may genuinely want to change but needs support to do so (by saying this, we must in no way justify, condone, or be ‘okay with’ the actions of an abuser. He has acted independently to abuse and should be held accountable for his actions - loss of relationships, the criminal justice system, etc).  A victim may not want to be alcohol dependent but sees no other way to manage her fear or anxiety in the midst of an abusive relationship, or the trauma once she has escaped. Both need support. And victims in particular, need protection and security to even begin to think about beating alcohol addiction. 

The link between domestic abuse and alcohol is strong, but often misunderstood by onlookers, myself included. But if we could just step back and see the ‘why’ behind the addictions and the abuse, we may start to experience empathy that leads to support, which could lead to freedom. 

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