The Tara Treatment Center Blog

Domestic Violence, Drugs, and Denial

Domestic Violence and Substance Abuse

In honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we’re reflecting on the ways that intimate-partner violence may be linked to substance abuse. 

domestic violence

We contacted Caryn C Burton of the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence.  She explains, “Substance abuse intertwines with intimate partner violence in two different ways. There is, overall, a high correlation between the two.  But, it is important to understand that substance use/abuse is all-too-often used as an excuse for domestic violence.

Caryn Burton substance abuse Domestic Violence
Caryn C Burton, Training Coordinator for Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence

Myth:  Substance abuse is the cause of domestic violence

We asked Caryn: “In what ways is domestic violence connected to substance abuse?  Are victims of one more likely to become victims of the other?”


Caryn:  “[Substance abuse] is mistaken for the cause of the violence, rather than the exacerbating factor and/or coping mechanism it is. So, where there is co-occurrence, too many people say, ‘well if they (the perpetrator /abusive partner) would just stop drinking or drugging, they wouldn’t be abusive,’ which is patently false. Or, if it is the victim partner who uses, then they say, ‘well, if they wouldn’t drink or drug, then (the perpetrator) wouldn’t need to get violent with them,’ which is also patently false.”

“How exactly is substance abuse an exacerbating factor or coping mechanism for those struggling with domestic violence issues?  What do these terms mean here?”

Caryn: “As an exacerbating factor, what you see is basically an excuse.  Its a way to direct attention away from the real issue, which is that one partner in the relationship demands and takes control of the other using violence. The drinking or drugs are a way to say, ‘well, if it hadn’t been for that last beer, pill, etc., then the violence wouldn’t happen. This comes from both sides, regardless of who is using.

But what it covers up is that there is already an underlying issue.  It covers up the assumption that one partner gets to demand & enforce control with violence.”

“Is substance abuse solely a problem for the perpetrator of domestic violence?”

Caryn: “Substance use and abuse can be used by both the abusive and victim partner as a coping mechanism, as well. For the victim, it is a way to numb the pain of the reality of the state of the relationship, and often even the physical pain caused by physical violence. For the abusive partner, it is a way to dissociate from the reality of their actions. It’s much easier to look themselves in the mirror the next day if that reflection is distorted by the veil of drugs and alcohol.”

As a Method of Control

“So, substance abuse occurs frequently in households affected by domestic violence in the form of a coping mechanism and/or as an exacerbating factor.  You mentioned a different way domestic violence is connected to substance abuse?”

Caryn: “There is one other way that we see substance use/abuse mingled with intimate partner violence, and that is as a method of control. It is much easier to control someone if they are addicted and you are the source of their drug of choice. Or, if that substance use/abuse is the regular threat used when a victim thinks about calling the police and reporting the violence.”

An Argument for Gender-Specific Treatment

Domestic violence is as tragic as substance abuse, but recognizing the link between the two may help victims get their life back.  It can sometimes be difficult to ‘open-up’ in addiction treatment programs when members of the opposite sex are present.  Some facilities offer gender-specific treatment, specific to males or females.  This can help individuals discuss domestic problems alongside addiction problems by providing a more comfortable, same-gendered environment.

Check here for information on Tara’s Gender-Specific Recovery Program.