Library Index » Social Issues & Debate Topics » The Causes of Wife Abuse - Who Is Abused?, Who Are The Offenders?, A Question Of Power, Psychological Explanations Of Abuse

The Causes of Wife Abuse - Substance Abuse And Violence

alcohol women drugs drinking

The role of alcohol and drug abuse in family violence is featured in many studies, and it is a factor in physical violence and stalking, according to such researchers as Pam Wilson et al. who examined the issue in their article "Severity of Violence against Women by Intimate Partners and Associated Use of Alcohol and/or Illicit Drugs by the Perpetrator" (Journal of Interpersonal Violence, vol. 15, September 2000.) Although researchers generally don't consider alcohol and drug use to be the cause of violence, they find that it can contribute to, accelerate, or increase aggression. A variety of data sources establish correlation (a complementary or parallel relationship) between substance abuse and violence, but correlation does not establish causation. In theory, and possibly even in practice, substance abuse may promote or provoke domestic violence, but both may also be influenced by other factors, such as environmental, biological, and situational stressors. Based on available research, it remains unclear whether substance abuse is a key factor in most domestic violence incidents.

Analyzing 2002 National Crime Victimization Survey data, authors of the 2003 Bureau of Justice Statistics report Drugs and Crime Facts found that 17% of victims of violent assaults believed their offenders had been using alcohol, 4.6% believed offenders had been using both alcohol and drugs, 5.6% believed offenders had been using drugs only, and 1.5% believed offenders had used either alcohol or drugs. (See Figure 3.1.) Only 27.7% of victims believed the offender had not used any drugs or alcohol, while another 43.3% reported they did not know.

While anecdotal evidence suggests that alcohol and drugs appear to be linked to violence and abuse, in controlled studies the connection is not as clear. For example,


some research finds that heavy binge drinking is more predictive of abuse than daily consumption of alcohol. Other research reveals little evidence that drug use directly causes people to become aggressive or violent, and some investigators believe that the substance abuse–violence link varies across individuals, over time within an individual's life, and even in response to environmental influences, such as epidemics of drug use and changing law enforcement policies.

In "Alcohol and Other Drugs Are Key Causal Agents of Violence" (Current Controversies on Family Violence, [Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1994]), Jerry Flanzer suggested that while not all alcoholics are violent, alcoholism does cause family violence. He observed that personality characteristics of alcoholics and abusers are remarkably similar, marked by behaviors such as blaming others, jealousy and possessiveness, depression, low self-esteem, and "blacking out" critical incidents. Not all alcoholic families are violent and not all violent families include alcohol abusers, but Flanzer speculated that a careful examination of family histories would reveal overlap between violence and alcohol abuse.

Alcohol acts as a disinhibitor, allowing an individual to act out emotions, including anger, that were previously held in check. It also impairs an individual's understanding of a situation, which may lead a drinker to respond inappropriately with anger. Alcohol is also frequently used to rationalize erratic behavior and violence, allowing an abuser to avoid responsibility for violent behavior by blaming it on the effects of alcohol. Finally, alcoholism distorts the family system by constantly forcing the family to accommodate the short-term demands of the alcoholic to maintain some measure of family stability. This


Alcohol and drug use by victims and their partners in the year prior to the killing or attempted killing of women or the worst violent incident, 1996
Homicide/attempted homicide
Substance Women Partners Women Partners Women Partners
SOURCE: Phyllis Sharps, Jacquelyn C. Campbell, Doris Campbell, Faye Gary, and Daniel Webster, "Table 1: Alcohol and Drug Use by Victims and Their Partners in the Year Prior to the Killing or Attempted Killing of Women or the Worst Violent Incident," in "Risky Mix: Drinking, Drug Use, and Homicide,"National Institute of Justice Journal, no. 250, November 2003, September 10, 2004)
Drunk every day 35.1 11.6 1.2
Problem drinker 13.0 49.2 7.0 31.1 1.7 6.2
Drinks per episode
1–2 64.6 24.4 61.4 35.1 77.7 65.8
3–4 22.9 17.1 27.9 27.2 18.2 25.5
5–6 8.9 24.8 7.9 18.2 3.8 4.8
7+ 3.7 33.7 2.9 19.5 .03 3.9
Ever been in alcohol treatment 27.7 13.5 13.3 18.1 57.1 19.2
Use drugs 18.4 54.2 13.4 25.0 6.7 4.3
Ever been in drug treatment 20.6 11.3 3.5 12.4 14.3 21.4

restructuring of family life establishes an atmosphere that tolerates and accommodates violence.

A 2003 study of patterns of alcohol and drug use in murders and attempted murders of women by their partners showed a relationship between substance use and violence (Phyllis Sharps, Jacquelyn C. Campbell, Doris Campbell, Faye Gary, and Daniel Webster, "Risky Mix: Drinking, Drug Use, and Homicide," National Institute of Justice Journal, no. 250, November 2003). Researchers found that in the year before the violent incident, female victims used alcohol and drugs less frequently and consumed smaller amounts than did their male partners. (See Table 3.4.) Researchers also found that during the homicide or attempted homicide, 31.3% of perpetrators consumed alcohol, 12.6% of perpetrators used drugs, and 26.2% used both. Less than one in three perpetrators (29.9%) used neither alcohol nor drugs. (See Table 3.5.) On the other hand, perpetrators who abused their partners without attempting to kill them consumed alcohol 21% of the time, drugs 6.7% of the time, and both drugs and alcohol 5.8% of the time. These perpetrators had not used substances almost two-thirds of the time (65.8%). Researchers concluded that increased substance use results in more serious violence.

An Excuse, Not a Cause

Gelles disagreed with Flanzer and others who have presented substance abuse as a cause of family violence in "Alcohol and Other Drugs Are Not the Cause of Violence" (Current Controversies on Family Violence [Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1994]). Gelles argued that although substantial evidence has linked alcohol and drug use to violence, there is little scientific evidence that alcohol or other drugs, such as cocaine, have pharmacological properties that produce violent and abusive behavior. Although amphetamines have been proven to generate increased aggression, there is no evidence that such aggression is routinely expressed as family or intimate partner violence. Gelles maintained that although alcoholism may be associated with intimate violence, it is not a primary cause of the violence.

If alcohol had the pharmacological property of inducing violence, it would do so in all cultures, Gelles argued. Cross-cultural studies of alcohol consumption and violence, however, do not support this correlation between alcohol and violence. In some cultures individuals who drink become passive; in others they become aggressive. In U.S. culture, Gelles noted, drinking disinhibits, permitting violent behavior without responsibility. Social expectations about drinking and drinking behavior exacerbate the problem, teaching people that if they want to avoid accountability or responsibility for their violence, alcohol consumption provides one socially acceptable justification.

Experiments using college students as subjects find that when the students thought they were consuming alcohol, they acted more aggressively than if they were told they had been given nonalcoholic drinks. According to Gelles, it is the expectation of the effects of alcohol that influences behavior, not the actual liquor consumed. He also observed that although abusive families may also abuse alcohol, an analysis of the drinking behavior at the time of the abuse finds that alcohol was not used immediately prior to the abuse in a majority of cases.

The "Drunken Bum" Theory of Wife Beating

Glenda Kaufman Kantor and Murray Straus have tested three commonly held beliefs: that alcohol and wife


Substance use during the killing or attempted killing of women or the worst violent incident, 1996
Homicide/attempted homicide Abuse
SOURCE: Phyllis Sharps, Jacquelyn C. Campbell, Doris Campbell, Faye Gary, and Daniel Webster, "Table 2: Substance Use During the Killing or Attempted Killing of Women or the Worst Violent Incident," in "Risky Mix: Drinking, Drug Use, and Homicide," National Institute of Justice Journal, no. 250, November 2003, September 10, 2004)
Substance use
Alcohol 14.6 31.3 8.9 21
Drugs 3.3 12.6 1.6 6.7
Both 4.7 26.2 0.9 5.8
None 77.4 29.9 88.5 65.8

abuse are related, that wife abuse is more common in blue-collar than white-collar families, and that the acceptance of violence contributes to spousal abuse. In "The 'Drunken Bum' Theory of Wife Beating" (Physical Violence in American Families [Piscataway, NJ: Transaction, 1990]), Kantor and Straus found that the combination of blue-collar work status, drinking, and approval of violence were associated with the highest likelihood of wife abuse. Men with these characteristics had a rate of abuse that was 7.8 times greater than the rate of white-collar men who drank little and disapproved of violence.

Kantor and Straus emphasized that in three-quarters of the cases (76%), alcohol was not consumed immediately prior to the instance of wife abuse. In about 14% of the instances, only the male was drinking, in 2% only the female was drinking, and in 8% both the male and female were drinking. The researchers found a definite correlation between the amount of alcohol consumed and violence. Approximately 6.8% of those who abstained from alcohol abused their wives, while almost three times as many binge drinkers (19.2%) used violence. Kantor and Straus, however, underscored the importance of not overlooking the considerable amount of wife abuse perpetrated by nondrinkers and moderate drinkers.

The researchers also found that the major factor determining wife abuse was whether the individual approved of the use of violence against women. Not surprisingly, men who approved of a man hitting his wife were far more likely to have hit their wives than men who disapproved.

The Relationship Is Complex

Glenda Kaufman Kantor warned that considering alcohol as simply a disinhibitor of violence understates the complexity of the problem in her study "Refining the Brushstrokes in Portraits of Alcohol and Wife Assaults" (Alcohol and Interpersonal Violence: Fostering Multidisciplinary Perspectives [Rockville, MD: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Research, 1993]). She proposed that the finding that heavy drinking by wives can increase their risk of being abused may be because intoxicated women violate what is considered to be the normal gender role. Furthermore, if women become verbally or physically aggressive under the influence of alcohol, they risk being beaten. Alcoholic women are also more likely to suffer abuse from their partners than nonalcoholic women. However, this finding does not imply that the wife has brought on the abuse by her drinking. Kantor emphasized that violence is initiated by the aggressor, not the victim.

In their study "When Women Are under the Influence: Does Drinking or Drug Use by Women Provoke Beatings by Men?" (Recent Developments in Alcoholism [New York: Plenum, 1997]), Glenda Kaufman Kantor and Nancy Asdigian found little evidence that women's drinking provoked or preceded aggression by husbands. The authors theorized that women drink or use drugs as a means of coping with violent partners. In households where the husband is a substance abuser and abuses his wife, the wife is also more likely to be a substance abuser. The authors proposed that both excessive drinking and spousal abuse have common roots in childhood experiences of physical and/or sexual abuse.

Does Treatment Help?

Timothy O'Farrell and Christopher Murphy, in "Marital Violence before and after Alcoholism Treatment" (Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, vol. 63, no. 2, 1995), examined whether behavioral marital therapy was helpful in reducing violence in abusive relationships. The researchers found the percentage of couples who experienced violent acts decreased from about 65% before treatment to about 25% after treatment. Severe violence dropped from between 30% and 35% before to about 10% after treatment.

Following treatment, recovering alcoholics no longer had elevated violence levels, but alcoholics who relapsed did. Based on women's reports of their partners' violence, 2.5% of nondrinking alcoholics, compared to 12.8% of the nonalcoholic sample, were violent. In contrast, 34.7% of the relapsed alcoholics were violent. O'Farrell and Murphy warned that the data do not permit drawing the conclusion that drinking caused the continued violence since other factors may have influenced behavior. They did conclude, however, that their findings support the premise that recovery from alcoholism can reduce the risk of marital violence.

A more recent study supported these findings. After intensive inpatient treatment of male batterers for alcoholism, both alcohol consumption and levels of violence within families decreased, according to Gregory L. Stuart, et al. in "Reductions in Marital Violence Following Treatment for Alcohol Dependence" (Journal of Interpersonal Violence, vol. 18, October 2003). Not only did the frequency of husband-to-wife physical and psychological abuse decrease, but the frequency of wife-to-husband marital violence also decreased significantly.

The Causes of Wife Abuse - Abuse Of Pregnant Women [next] [back] The Causes of Wife Abuse - Sociological Explanations Of Abuse

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or

Vote down Vote up

almost 7 years ago

I just got married Nov. 13 to an alcoholic. Dec. 17 he beat me and put me in the hospital. He says he does remember this incident the law has 16 min recording on a 911 call while they where attempting to find me. Is there any truth to he may not remember?