The Relationship Between Substance Abuse and Domestic Violence

The Relationship Between Substance Abuse and Domestic Violence

Although not everyone that will abuse or be violent toward a partner also has a problem with drugs or alcohol, there appears to be a distinct relationship between substance abuse and domestic violence. Research and studies provide startling statistics about the topic and can inform healthcare practitioners, social workers, behavior analysts and mental health professionals who work with perpetrators or victims. It was found that 61 percent of those found to commit domestic violence are also either using or abusing substances. Victims of domestic violence should know that substance abuse treatment may not stop the violence. Intimate partner violence, or IPV, is a choice and most often occurs in a setting, at a time and with a victim of a batterer’s choosing. A batterer who would be “out of control” under the influence would not be selective about these factors that affect the victims of domestic violence.

Domestic violence does not only impact the partner but children as well and can be seen in the 25 percent of cases of domestic violence in Ohio that involved children, including one case in which a 12-year-old was involved in stabbing and killing his mother’s abuser, or in the case of Hilary Saenz, whose death left children and family bereft. Domestic violence needs to be clearly understood, and treatments need to be accessible for victims and children. Understand more about the role of substance abuse as it plays out in some cases of domestic violence.

A Tragic Ending Involving Substance Abuse and Domestic Violence

In a final ending to a history of domestic violence, Christopher Saenz received a 47-year sentence in the death of his wife, Hilary Saenz, on Christmas Day. As is often the case, even close neighbors and family may be unaware of the extent of the issue, and help may come far too late. Hilary was the victim of a history of domestic violence from her husband who was also a substance abuser. David Brown, Hilary’s father stated:

“We’ve got to be aware of it — neighbors, whatever, even family. I had no idea what my daughter went through. In the last 20 months, I have learned a lot. I was totally shocked during the trial with all the evidence that was presented, but 47 years, I’ll take it.”

Previously to this sad ending, the court issued a 2008 felony conviction of Christopher Saenz of a Class C crime against his wife, wherein he received a sentence that included the requirement of substance abuse treatment and participation in a batterer’s intervention program. However, in 2013, his actions led to multiple traumas for his wife that led to her death.

In Saenz’s public apology, he pointed to his substance abuse problem, saying that it made him become paranoid. He shared his state of mind during the month leading up to his final act. He said that he was constantly “chasing the next high,” and in hindsight, said his “thought process was so screwed up” that he suspected his wife was cheating on him. In this case, even the completion of a treatment program, a conviction and intervention did not stop Christopher from continuing his pattern of domestic violence and abuse that led to the death of his wife. He had an additional history of two other assaults on other parties. This story from Maine underscores the link between substance abuse in domestic violence cases and how batterers can continue to believe that their addiction to drugs or alcohol led them to commit crimes against loved ones.

Domestic Violence and Substance Abuse in Victims and Batterers

Batterers are not the only party who may use or abuse drugs or alcohol. Interestingly, victims have a greater propensity than non-victims to abuse substances. Recent findings on substance abuse by victims show:

  • Women with a history of abuse have a nine times increased likelihood of abusing drugs and a 15 times greater probability of abusing alcohol than women who have never been abused.
  • There is an increase of IPV (intimate partner violence) in which both abuser and victim use or abuse drugs or alcohol.
  • Substance abuse on the part of the victim can present as a barrier to leaving a domestic violence situation.
  • Substance abuse can be encouraged by the batterer, and they may undermine attempts to abstain from drugs or alcohol as a means of control.
  • Women with substance abuse issues may have increased difficulty in accessing advocacy, shelter and other types of help.

Victims who also use or abuse drugs or alcohol often need a multi-pronged approach to help them in changing their situation. When victims or batterers enter a substance abuse treatment program, they also require assistance in handling issues of domestic violence and related trauma. New Beginnings is a program that serves survivors of domestic violence and works with those who also are recovering from substance abuse and trauma. They offer group programs for parents, children, teen girls and more who have experienced or witnessed domestic violence.

Remember that some perpetrators of domestic violence:

  • May have an increased risk of violence in the proximal model that suggests that alcohol use compromises the decision-making ability of a batterer.
  • May have an inherent personality characteristic that can increase the likelihood of intimate partner violence and substance abuse.
  • May have a power motive that plays into domestic abuse or violence and substance abuse.
  • May act out during the process of getting and using an illicit substance, rather than as a result of use.
  • May be part of a generational cycle, being subjected to experiences and domestic violence during childhood that increases the link of substance abuse and domestic violence.
  • May simply use it as an excuse for violence or irresponsible behavior, often condoned to lesser degrees in society.

A number of factors should be considered when addressing and helping those involved in a domestic violence situation and potentially having issues with substance abuse. A thorough understanding of the myriad issues at play can help healthcare providers, social workers and family members provide more effective supports for those caught up in violent situations.

If you’d like to learn more about the relationship between substance abuse and domestic violence, consider taking this online course, Substance Use And Violence Against Women. You can also consider Domestic and Intimate Partner Violence and Domestic Violence: Awareness And Prevention for a deeper understanding of this important issue.


Lisa DiFalco is a leading writer for wellness and education. She has helped manage cases directly at halfway houses before extensive careers in education and wellness. She is passionate about vital issues and supports community improvement efforts.

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