It has long been understood that there is a link between alcohol use and domestic violence, but what is the connection? Is someone more likely to be victimized while intoxicated, or is the person intoxicated more violent as a result of using alcohol, or because he or she is less inhibited by it? As it turns out, there are many overlapping factors that contribute to an increase in domestic violence involving alcohol.
Alcohol and Domestic Violence Statistics
Anyone who has dealt with alcoholism, either as the user, the parent, spouse, sibling, or child of the user, knows the greatest impact is felt within the immediate family. Numerous studies across several decades conclude a definitive link between drinking and violence, and since most people return home after excessive drinking, or do so in the home, those living with the intoxicated family member are most at risk for exposure to violence.
During a 2013 single-day survey of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, call centers averaged 14 calls every minute for the 24-hour period. As many as two-thirds of cases reported involved excessive use of alcohol. Other violent crimes including rape and physical assault increase when alcohol is a factor.
According to studies examining risks of violence in the home, half of all men who commit violence against a female spouse, do so under the influence of an abused substance, usually alcohol. While the majority of violence occurring in alcohol-related incidents is committed by men against women, women, too, can become violent with excessive drinking.
Families with Children
In cases of domestic violence involving children, nearly 70% of violent acts were perpetrated by a parent who had been drinking excessively. When children are removed from homes due to neglect and abuse, excessive alcohol use is cited in as many as 90% of cases.
Children exposed to violence in the home reported the violent parent drank excessively and exhibited violent behavior more often while drinking. And children of one alcohol-dependent parent will be more at risk of violence either from the alcohol-addicted person or because the alcohol-addicted parent was unable to stop violence from occurring.
Spousal Homicides Increase with Alcohol Use
Spouses, especially women, are more at risk for violence leading to death in cases where alcohol is a factor in a domestic dispute. One United States Department of Justice study indicated that in more than half of spousal homicides committed, the assailant had been under the influence of alcohol.
Sexual Abuse and Alcohol Dependency in Females
Nearly nine in 10 women seeking help for alcohol abuse reported some history of sexual abuse. This research suggests strong correlation between sexual abuse in women and subsequent alcohol dependency, whereas there is little to suggest a similar trend in men. This may make women more vulnerable to physical aggression by their spouse.
Experiments Measuring Increased Aggression During Alcohol Consumption
However, as far as aggressive behaviors, in controlled experiments designed to measure aggressiveness in both men and women paired with what they perceive as a like-partner, consumption of alcohol elevated aggression substantially in both sexes, with men showing only a slightly higher tendency toward violent behavior.
Individuals were isolated and told they would be competing in speed-related tasks against another same-sex individual. Whoever lost each match received an electric shock. The individual was told the other participant controlled not only the intensity, but the duration of the shock as well.
In reality, there was no other human participant. Instead, a computer randomly generated the shocks. And the computer’s increase in duration and intensity was a detail designed to test whether the intoxicated person retaliated with a similar response, mimicking how aggression might increase in a situation in which one person is intoxicated.
The study indicated an increase in aggression for both men and women after consuming alcohol.
Same Sex Couples and Alcohol-related Domestic Violence
Those controlled studies may account for the similar rates of spousal abuse in same-sex couples when reported where alcohol is a factor. Individuals within a same-sex relationship are hugely under-served when it comes to domestic violence reporting and assistance. Fear of reporting the violent behavior due to fear of persecution, leaves these individuals far more at risk for ongoing and elevated violent behavior. At the same time, depression related to perceived social isolation, homosexual individuals may be considered high risk for alcohol dependency.
Decreased Serotonin, Testosterone, Age Factors and Aggression in Men
The brain chemistry of men lends a hint of credibility to the notion that men are more affected by alcohol and more likely to become violent while drinking. Men with naturally lower serotonin levels tend toward more aggressive and risk-taking behavior.
Serotonin regulates our moods and behaviors. In men with naturally lower levels of serotonin, they are more likely to engage in excessive drinking and, due to the effects of alcohol in further reducing levels of serotonin in the body, become increasingly aggressive and less inhibited. The brain becomes hyper-focused on “the now,” and can no longer easily relate behavior to consequence.
Younger men with naturally higher levels of testosterone than older men are more likely to engage in excessive drinking and exhibit aggressive behaviors, as testosterone appears able to inhibit certain neurotransmitters that might subdue aggressive tendencies. When alcohol further decreases serotonin levels within the body, aggression is more pronounced. As men age and testosterone levels begin to drop, a subsequent increase in levels of dopamine depress aggressive behaviors later in older males.
Alcohol and Consequence
As mentioned earlier, when serotonin in the brain is reduced, the reasoning parts of the brain relating to consequence are inhibited. Moreover, as alcohol consumption drives up dopamine levels, focus is narrowed significantly. It’s a recipe for the bad fights we say “started over nothing” in which that insignificant “nothing” becomes the driving force behind the argument and subsequent violent behavior.
No longer able to clearly conceive of the consequence of their actions, the person lashes out verbally or physically. At this point, the person is receiving two very dangerous signals igniting both the drive and reward centers in the brain. Drive in the form of focus on the fight, and reward from the dopamine now flooding the reward centers of the brain.
Complexities of Alcohol and Violence
Biological as well as psychological factors play a huge role in why someone becomes dependent on alcohol and whether or not they engage in violent behavior. Factors including a history of sexual abuse and violence, age, social upbringing, and brain chemistry can play supporting roles in addictive behavior and violence. The only certainty is that when alcohol is a factor, violence is more likely. And so increases the chances that one person within the relationship will become aggressive and even violent.
Getting help isn’t easy, but may be necessary to prevent escalating violence. Whether addicted to alcohol or facing a partner dealing with alcohol addiction, seeking help from treatment and support services, such as AA, will greatly increase your chance of success in regaining control of your life and protecting your family.
Protect Yourself, Your Spouse, and Your Family
Help and support are here. Protect yourself, your spouse, and your family by contacting AlcoholTreatment.net. We’ll connect you with an individualized program to best meet your needs. Call today.