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Alcohol and Mental Health

Unraveling the Link Between Alcohol and Domestic Violence

April 2, 2024
17 min read
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A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
April 2, 2024
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
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Reframe Content Team
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Alcohol’s Toxic Role in Domestic Abuse

  • Alcohol is intricately linked to domestic violence and is known to be fuel for the escalation of domestic disturbances.

  • Domestic violence is complicated and multifaceted, and understanding alcohol’s role can help us identify and overcome it.

  • Reframe offers useful tools and resources to navigate our relationship with alcohol and the ones we care about the most.

Consider the last time you argued with your partner, spouse, or roommate. Was it about some low-priority issue like what to make for dinner, who’s paying which bills, or the thermostat setting? Or maybe it was about something more substantial, like buying a car, changing jobs, or moving away. Most of us in relationships occasionally argue — it’s bound to happen when we share space and life with others. And that’s okay! Most arguments get resolved (or not) without significant consequences.  

A picture about domestic violence

Unfortunately, there’s another darker side to this story. While for many of us, home is where we find solace, comfort, and understanding, for others, home is anything but comforting and safe.

For too many of us, home is a verbal and sometimes physical battleground. It’s a place where arguments — often fueled by alcohol — escalate into a frightening and potentially dangerous situation. Many of us, sadly, are victims of domestic violence.

Let’s delve into the realm of domestic violence by examining its complexities, causes, and the impact it has on those involved.

If you feel unsafe at home or want resources for escaping an abusive home environment, call the U.S. National Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-7233).

Decoding Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is a complex, multifaceted social issue. Once referred to as family violence, the broader term “domestic violence” is more inclusive and encompasses all forms of relationships. It’s also important to note that domestic violence is not just limited to physical abuse but may include elements of emotional, psychological, and, sometimes, financial abuse. According to Barocas et al. (2016), defining domestic violence more broadly helps to align other existing definitions and standards, and it makes more effective interventions available to those of us affected by domestic violence.

How did adopting a broader view of domestic violence change our understanding of it? Previously, domestic abuse billboards and pamphlets showed women with blackened eyes, depicting them as typical domestic violence victims. Today, we know that characterizing domestic violence in that way describes only a small subset of its victims. After all, domestic violence doesn’t discriminate: it affects individuals across gender lines, ages, income levels, and backgrounds.

Alcohol’s influence on domestic violence is well-recognized. Contrary to common perception, people of all genders can be both perpetrators and victims.

So, how common is this problem?

Prevalence of Domestic Violence

According to the CDC, one in four women and one in seven men will experience physical violence by their intimate partner at some point during their lifetimes. Intimate partner violence reportedly occurs in over 10 million people, or 3.92% of the U.S. adult population each year.

This may seem like a shocking number. To fully understand the challenges and complexities of domestic violence requires our understanding of its dynamics and contributing factors.

Breaking Gender Stereotypes

We learned that domestic violence is not exclusive to one gender. This belief contradicts the previous belief that only men can be abusive and overlooks that people of all genders can exhibit harmful behavior, especially when alcohol is involved. Let’s start with some research on the issue.

Looking at the dynamics of domestic violence, Babock et al. (2019) found that of all reported instances of domestic abuse by their study participants, almost an equal percentage were male-initiated violence (15%) and female-initiated violence (15.5%). Twenty-five percent of study participants reported engaging in mutual violence, whereas 40.2% of females and 34.5% of males reported their involvement in domestic violence occurred in self-defense. This study supports the notion that for most participants, domestic violence is not a one-way street; both men and women initiated domestic violence or were engaged in mutual violence. 

Unraveling the Alcohol-Domestic Violence Connection

Alcohol adds another level of complexity to domestic violence because it juxtaposes behavioral and psychological factors. When we consider the relationship between alcohol and domestic violence, we need to ask a couple questions: are all alcoholics abusive? Why are some people abusive when drunk?

Exploring the link between alcohol and domestic violence requires a clear understanding of how alcohol affects the brain and how it impacts our decision making and impulse control. Let’s start there!

Alcohol’s Effect on the Brain

Alcohol is classified as a depressant because of the way it affects our central nervous system (CNS). When we consume alcohol, its depressant effects slow down communication between nerves in our brains. Drinking has a sedating effect, slowing our reaction times, impairing our coordination, and generally relaxing us. While many of us may initially feel euphoric or more sociable, excessive alcohol consumption typically intensifies its depressant effects, leading to lethargy, confusion, and even unconsciousness. 

Personality and the Alcohol Connection

Many studies have looked at the relationship between alcohol and personality as a factor in violence in general. They found that emotional instability and impulsivity — combined with personality disorders, genetic predisposition, and environmental stressors — can trigger aggression while under the influence of alcohol.

The American Addictions Center identified antisocial disorder, conduct problems, and borderline personality disorder (among several other risk factors) in alcohol-related domestic violence. The addition of personality as a factor in alcohol-related domestic violence attests to how complex this problem is. 

How Does Alcohol Lead to Domestic Violence

So far, we have learned that alcohol consumption affects our central nervous system, which in turn alters how our brain functions, especially when we drink excessively. But how does this translate into domestic violence, especially when personality and other issues are factored in? The short answer: it’s complicated! 

Let’s start with impaired judgment and impulsivity. Under the influence of alcohol, people tend to say and do things they normally wouldn’t while sober. This tendency is often referred to as alcohol’s disinhibiting effect. Here’s an example of how alcohol transforms typical behavior into something entirely different.

A couple is having a quiet evening at home while sharing a bottle of wine. During the evening, an argument starts over something inconsequential. Usually, this isn’t a huge issue; neither person blows up when sober. However, with three drinks down, the couple’s argument quickly transforms into a shouting match, name-calling, and some pushing and shoving. Slower reactions, impaired judgment, and impulsivity due to their drinking eventually lead to kicking and punching and cuts and bruises.

For some, the above scenario may be a one-off. Still, for many others, it can become a cyclical pattern, especially if one or both people are struggling with alcohol abuse or dependence. Without intervention, a destructive pattern of drinking and domestic violence often continues. 

Domestic Violence Action Steps

Dispelling Misconceptions

The research we’ve talked about paints a concerning picture. So can alcohol make you violent? And are alcoholics abusive? Dispelling misconceptions about domestic violence is a pivotal step toward creating a safer environment for those of us affected by it. 

Two misconceptions are that all alcoholics are abusive or that all people are abusive when drunk. Neither is true, nor is the suggestion that all abusers are alcoholics. The link between alcohol and domestic violence is not exact. The reality is many people engage in domestic violence without drinking, while many alcoholics are never violent toward a partner. 

The relationship between alcohol and abuse, especially when we try to account for the influence of personality and other factors, is a complex, many-layered puzzle. (Consider this blog just the basics; no single source can plumb the depths of such a multifaceted issue.)

What Can I Do If I Am Experiencing Domestic Abuse? 

While the most apparent signs of domestic violence are physical altercations, there are several nonphysical ways partners can exhibit abusive behaviors:

  • Controlling. Your partner tracks what you do, where you go, and to whom you talk. Your partner gets upset if you don’t immediately reply to texts, emails, and phone calls.

  • Demanding sex. Your partner insists on sex based on their needs, not yours. 

  • Decision making. Your partner makes decisions regarding what you wear or how you spend money.

  • Jealousy. They act jealous, even in harmless situations. Your partner may react irrationally or constantly accuse you of cheating.

  • Angry outbursts. Your partner has angry outbursts that seem to come from nowhere and then blame you.

If you live in the U.S. and are experiencing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-7233.

Domestic Violence Action Steps

Luckily, there are resources available to overcome domestic violence.

  • Educate yourself. Knowledge is power. Learn the signs of domestic violence, its various forms, and the role of alcohol in exacerbating abusive behavior.
  • Communicate. Discuss feelings, concerns, and stressors with your partner. Healthy communication is one way to prevent them from escalating into volatile situations.
  • Establish boundaries. Set clear and healthy boundaries within your relationships by emphasizing mutual respect, kindness, and understanding. Be sure to define acceptable behavior. 
  • Encourage responsible drinking. If alcohol is a part of your life, responsible drinking habits are essential. Know your limits, choose moderation, and be mindful of how alcohol impacts your relationship — and encourage your partner to do the same.
  • Seek professional help. If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol-related domestic violence, professional assistance is essential.
  • Leaving. Leaving is always an option and may be the best way to move on with your life. However, this too comes with risks. When contemplating leaving, ensure that you have a secure and detailed plan with support in place. 

Moving Forward

Understanding the complex and diverse nature of abuse and taking proactive steps is the best way to foster healthier relationships. There are ways to move forward and step into a safe, happy life free from violence. Quitting or cutting back on alcohol is a highly effective way to see the situation in a new light and take stock of how to move forward.

Summary FAQs

1. Is domestic violence only physical, or does it encompass other forms of abuse?

Domestic violence extends beyond physical harm; it includes emotional, psychological, and financial abuse. 

2. Can women also be perpetrators of domestic violence?

Domestic violence transcends gender stereotypes. Both men and women can be perpetrators and victims. Acknowledging this reality is essential for fostering empathy and providing support to all individuals affected by abuse.

3. Is there a direct link between alcohol consumption and abusive behavior? 

While alcohol doesn't make everyone who drinks abusive, it can influence decision making and impulse control, contributing to aggressive behavior. Alcohol consumption and alcohol dependence are two common factors often associated with domestic violence.

4. How can I recognize signs of domestic violence, and what should I do if I suspect it is someone I know? 

Educate yourself about the signs of domestic violence, including changes in behavior, especially alcohol-related, isolation, controlling behaviors, and physical injuries. If you suspect abuse in someone you know, approach the situation with respect, care, and understanding, encourage open communication, and offer support. 

5. What role does responsible drinking play in preventing alcohol-related domestic violence? 

Moderate drinking involves knowing personal limits and understanding its potential impact on relationships. 

Looking Ahead to a Brighter Future

Relationships are rarely a bed of roses, but there is always room for improvement. Reframe is a great place to start down that road.

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually with science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions worldwide drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less but thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also be able to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today! 

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