“If I was sober, I wouldn’t have done it.”
“I just had too much to drink and lost it.”
“Alcohol makes me violent. I just can’t help it.”
These are some of the most common excuses used by people who use abusive behaviors in their relationship, as well as those around them. In fact, the excuse is so effective that it has taken hold as arguably the most prevalent misconception about relationship violence.
The myth that alcohol causes relationship violence is one that has been ingrained in our culture since the Temperance Movement began over 200 years ago and is still widely believed today. A 2005 survey published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence1 found more than 4 in 5 people agreeing with the statement that “much domestic violence is caused by alcohol and drug abuse”.
Exploring the link between alcohol use and violence, we will dive into the scientific data, hear from people who’ve experienced relationship violence and see how treatment providers are helping people with substance and relationship abuse problems change their behaviors regarding both issues.
Alcohol Doesn’t Cause Violence
Empirical and anecdotal evidence gathered through numerous studies has shown time and again that – despite correlations – there is no causal biological link between alcohol consumption and violent behaviors. In other words, one does not cause the other.
“Although there is an association between alcohol and violence, one does not cause the other,” wrote Dr. Donald Dutton, a social psychologist who has spent the past 45 years working with and studying people who use abusive behaviors. “Both are traced back to an earlier aspect of the self. Personality is formed much sooner than one learns to use alcohol.”
Verifying Dutton’s position are a variety of studies that show alcohol abuse is a risk factor for violent behavior but that the biological effects of the substance itself aren’t what makes someone become violent. For example, although 19 percent of heavy drinkers admitted in a national survey to using abusive behaviors in the previous year, alcohol was involved in less than half of the incidents.2
While there are studies that indicate higher correlations between intoxication and relationship violence, they rely on reports from the justice system which are typically confined to criminal acts of abuse – such as physical or sexual assault – and don’t consider individuals that aren’t arrested or use the numerous abusive behaviors that aren’t against the law.
Alcohol Can Increase Frequency and Severity
What alcohol does do is impair judgement, reduce inhibitions and increase aggression. It also been shown to impact an individual’s ability to accurately perceive and process information which can lead to them misinterpreting the actions of others – such as the person they’re in a relationship with.
When these effects from alcohol are combined with other social, psychological and situational factors, it can result in a greater willingness to use violence to achieve a goal. Since the goal of relationship violence is power and control, individuals become more willing when they drink to escalate the severity of their abusive behaviors to achieve it.3
“Relationship abuse is not about violence, anger or alcohol,” said Julie, a Denver woman who experienced relationship violence. “It’s about power and control over another. (They) may have a problem with alcohol, but that is not what is causing the abuse.”
Abuse Doesn’t Require Alcohol
Perhaps the most convincing evidence of alcohol not being the cause of relationship violence is the prevalence of abuse that occurs when none is present. Many people who use abusive behaviors will address their substance abuse issues only to continue using them once they are sober. Others engage in relationship violence without having ever taken a sip of alcohol.
“My ex-husband never drank alcohol or used drugs,” said Megan, a Colorado woman who used to be in an abusive marriage. “I would argue (abuse) is completely unassociated with external factors such as drinking, but I do believe that alcohol might exacerbate those behaviors in some cases.”
Relationship violence is also a pattern of abusive behaviors that take place over time rather than single violent acts that only occur while someone is drunk. You can blame an abusive incident on being drunk, but that still doesn’t account for the numerous controlling behaviors used when alcohol isn’t involved.
“My ex-husband was always sober when he was abusive,” said a woman from southern Colorado who experienced relationship violence. “It was always about jealousy and control. He would drink once in a while but the abuse never occurred during these times.”
“He would drink, but I don’t believe he had a substance problem and it was not connected to his abusive behavior,” said Julie. “He was solely abusive when he didn’t get his way or I brought up a complaint. As long as I did what he wanted, he could be quite nice.”
We’ve Created an Excuse
For some people who use abusive behaviors, alcohol provides them with a justification for their actions. This serves as an excuse to earn the forgiveness not only of the person experiencing the abuse but friends, family, neighbors, coworkers and others in the community. They can even use it as an excuse internally to resist having to accept that they chose to engage in relationship violence.
A treatment provider from Centennial who helps people engaging in relationship violence to change their behavior estimated that they, “blame alcohol for their actions probably 80 percent of the time”.
Many people who have used or experienced abusive behaviors while alcohol was involved report the intentional use of alcohol leading up to the incident. According to the World Health Organization, “individual and societal beliefs that alcohol causes aggressive behavior can lead to the use of alcohol as preparation for involvement in violence, or as a way of excusing violent acts.”4
The excuse even spills over into the one place where excuses typically aren’t tolerated – the justice system.
“I believe that people and the court system focus too much on problems like drinking to find a way to have control over understanding the situation,” said Megan who is now working on a master’s degree in social work, focusing her research on relationship violence.
There is Help for Both
Although alcohol doesn’t cause relationship violence, substance abuse is a serious issue and may even be so serious that the person has to give up alcohol in order to stop using abusive behaviors.
“I approach the issue from the standpoint that each person must assess their relationship with alcohol,” said Caledonia Counseling’s Duane Barone who has spent 15 years working with people who use abusive behaviors. “Not everybody needs to abstain in life. Many individuals can learn to control their drinking but most cannot because they developed the unhealthy relationship with alcohol in their teens – and single digits – to avoid the abuses and pains in their lives.”
For those struggling with using abusive behaviors and substance abuse, there are separate treatments that can help change behaviors related to the separate issues.
“Our standards of treatment dictate that we address substance-abuse issues through relapse prevention group therapy concurrently with their (relationship violence) treatment,” Barone said. “I refer to colleagues for those services and we discuss the issue in treatment groups probably once a month informally connected to other topics.”
If you or someone you know is using abusive behaviors – regardless of whether or not they drink alcohol – it is OK to ask for help. The path to a happier life with healthy relationships begins with a call to the Stand Up Colorado Helpline (855-978-2638) or a chat with one of our trained professionals.
1Journal of Interpersonal Violence. Attitudes and Beliefs About Domestic Violence: Results of a Public Opinion Survey. (2005).
2Family Research Laboratory. National Family Violence Survey. (1985).
3Bennett, L. Substance Abuse and Woman Abuse by Male Partners. (1997).
4World Health Organization. Interpersonal violence and alcohol. (2006).