How Alcohol and Stress Interact with Domestic Violence
Statistics consistently demonstrate that stress, particularly the kind of socioeconomic stress related to poverty, unemployment, and inadequate social resources, is associated with increased domestic abuse. Statistics also consistently demonstrate that alcohol is frequently involved in incidents of domestic violence—much more frequently, in fact, than any other commonly abused substance. According to some estimates, alcohol is a factor in two-thirds of domestic violence cases.
The interaction between socioeconomic stress, abuse of alcohol and domestic violence is complex. Alcohol and stress do not directly cause domestic violence, but both can act as catalysts and can become integral components of a cycle of abuse. Alcohol abuse and socioeconomic stress also frequently exist together. While alcohol use may begin as an effort to temporarily alleviate the distress of adverse life circumstances, as use escalates to abuse, life circumstances deteriorate further, leading to an increase in stress and then, predictably, to an increase in the likelihood of ongoing alcohol abuse. Most individuals will never resort to violence, regardless of their level of stress or their alcohol intake, but among those with the propensity to do so, high levels of stress or alcohol abuse can dramatically increase the likelihood that they will.
Characteristics of Domestic Abuse Offenders
Many factors can contribute to the development of a propensity for domestic abuse or violence. These will not be exactly the same for any two individuals. Researchers, however, have identified certain features that may in some cases predict risk:
- Some individuals who engage in domestic abuse tend to perceive stressful situations, including stressful interactions with a partner, as highly threatening. Rather than directly expressing anger and fear, however, they suppress these emotions and engage in efforts to control the threatening situation. Perpetrators of domestic abuse are thus often observed to have “controlling” personalities. They may exhibit a range of coercive behaviors that represent efforts to control their partners financially, sexually, and physically. See: Domestic Violence: Signs, Safety Plan, Help.
- Some individuals who suppress emotions are unable to engage in ordinary day-to-day conflict on any level without becoming overwhelmed. Avoidance and withdrawal from stressful interactions may lead to a build-up of tension over time, increasing the eventual likelihood of an explosive and potentially violent incident.
- A significant percentage of individuals who engage in domestic violence suffer from serious emotional disorders such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Exaggerated fear responses and overestimation of danger are often symptoms of these disorders.
- Domestic violence is, to some degree, a learned behavior. It is more likely to occur when the perpetrator has witnessed domestic violence by a parent or another authority figure in the home during childhood, and has therefore learned to see it, on at least some level, as acceptable behavior. Abusive behavior may have been internalized as a survival skill, or as a method of coping with fear and pain. Over time, the behavior becomes a habit that must be unlearned.
Triggers: Stress, Alcohol and Domestic Violence
When personality traits or emotional disorders combine with environmental influences to predispose a person to engage in domestic abuse, alcohol and/or stress can operate as triggers, creating a “perfect storm” scenario for domestic violence. Stress increases negative emotions. Alcohol and domestic violence are closely linked as alcohol has a powerful disinhibiting effect on behavior. Someone who would ordinarily be able to restrain a violent reaction may lose the ability to do so when overwhelmed by stress or when under the influence of alcohol.
Help for Victims of Domestic Abuse
In any domestic violence situation, the initial focus must be on providing the victim with help and support. Access to information and resources can be critical. Victims sometimes stay with perpetrators who express remorse, believing that sincere repentance means that the violence will not reoccur. This unfortunately fails to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem. Even when repentance is real and heartfelt, it is not likely that a perpetrator will have the ability to stop a cycle of domestic abuse without intense and comprehensive professional help. This does not mean couples’ therapy, which can in fact sometimes worsen a domestic violence situation; it means intensive and ongoing individual treatment for the perpetrator while the victim seeks help elsewhere.
The importance of seeking help as soon as possible cannot be overstated. Abusers sometimes increase controlling behavior in reaction to a victim taking steps to leave, making well-thought out safety plans and access to safe housing critical. Waiting to act until promises of change have been broken repeatedly may result in battered person syndrome, in which a victim becomes so isolated and dependent on an abuser that leaving begins to feel impossible.
Help for Perpetrators of Domestic Abuse
Perpetrators of domestic abuse or violence typically require help on many levels. Some may need economic assistance, employment assistance, substance abuse treatment, and/or individual mental health treatment such as cognitive or dialectical behavior therapy. Even when a perpetrator is willing and able to seek help, and help is available that directly addresses an individual’s specific needs, improvement typically requires a substantial investment of time and effort. If the abuser is in denial, change will never occur. Blaming alcohol, stress, or provocation by a victim are all forms of denial.
Both victims and perpetrators need to understand that adopting superficial change is not enough to prevent the reoccurrence of domestic abuse on a long-term basis. Unfortunately, many standard batterers intervention programs have demonstrated low rates of effectiveness. Research is needed to improve results. It is apparent, however, that perpetrators must confront deep and complex issues of accountability, attitude, relational skills, and behavior before meaningful improvement can occur. In the meantime, victims must take steps to protect themselves.
If You or Someone You Know is a Victim of Domestic Violence
Call one of the following numbers for confidential crisis intervention, information and/or referral to other services:
New Jersey Domestic Violence Hotline: 1 (800) 572-7233 (SAFE).
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1 (800) 799-7233 (SAFE).
To talk to an attorney about your specific situation or obtain more information about any aspect of domestic violence, contact one of our experienced domestic violence attorneys for a free consultation.