Domestic violence is a massive problem across the United States, with 1.3 million women and 835,000 men a year being the victim of physical assault at the hands of a significant other. There are many factors that overlap with the specifics of partner abuse, and the question of domestic violence and addiction is one that has been looked at in great detail.
What Does Domestic Violence Entail?
To fully understand the various elements at work with domestic violence, it’s important to have a clear definition of what domestic violence actually is. For example, it does not necessarily have to be violent. In providing a legal definition for domestic violence, the U.S. Department of Justice explains that it is any form of abusive behavior where one partner seeks to gain or maintain power or control over the other partner in the relationship. While this can certainly extend to physical violence (hitting, slapping, pulling hair, denying medical care, etc.), domestic violence can also cover other types of abuse:
(rape – even within marriage, coercing sex, treating a partner in a sexually demeaning manner, or using sex for leverage)
(attacking a partner’s sense of self-esteem and self-worth with constant criticism, belittling, name-calling, insults, or disregard of personal accomplishments)
(using fear as a way of controlling the partner, destruction of belongings, physical abuse of pets as a means of intimidation, cutting off contact between the partner and their friends and family, or threatening harm to the self, partner or children/dependents)
Make no mistake – these are all forms of domestic violence. Many abusers might attempt to downplay their behavior by saying that since they never physically laid a hand on their significant other, they are innocent of such behavior; however, the legal definition of domestic violence is expansive enough to cover all forms of abuse and neglect, both to the heart and mind as well as to the body. If this describes a situation close to you or someone you know, please call 911 immediately.
Domestic Violence and Emotional Damage
While an obvious effect of domestic violence is physical injury, the myriad forms of the act can lead to a vast array of mental and emotional damage to a partner. The American Psychiatric Association lists the following as common traumas that stem from partner abuse:
- Panic attacks
- Substance abuse
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Suicidal thoughts
- Episodes of psychosis
The APA’s use of the word “trauma” is key. Needless to say, domestic violence is a very traumatic event (or series of events), but trauma has a very particular definition in the field of mental health. According to the American Psychological Association, trauma is an emotional response to something that happens to make a person afraid for their life or their mental and emotional well-being. Being in a car crash would not merely be colloquially described as a traumatic event for the near-brush with death; it would meet the medical criteria for trauma. A soldier experiencing combat and seeing his colleagues killed or maimed would suffer from the various manifestations of trauma mentioned above. And a boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, or wife whose partner beats, threatens, rapes, or manipulates them will almost certainly have a similar reaction.
As TIME magazine puts it, “The vast majority of people with addiction have suffered significant previous trauma.”
Domestic Violence and Women
A CNN article quotes the National Institute of Health as saying that domestic violence is the most common form of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44. Women have what the Journal of Psychiatric Research calls a “heightened fear response,” which makes them twice as likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder as men. When confronted with a traumatic event (or series of events, as in an abusive relationship) that makes a woman fear for her safety, she may turn to addiction to cope with the stress, depression, and anxiety that results from the man she loved becoming violent or emotionally manipulative toward her. The addiction may be in the forms of drugs or alcohol to boost mood, but it can also take the form of other compulsive behaviors, such as eating, shopping, smoking, or even sex.
The Silent Victims
Of course, women are not the only victims of domestic violence. CNN reports that more than three million children – “the silent victims” – witness physical, mental, or emotional assault from one parent to another, or from both parents on each other. Because children are typically vulnerable, defenseless, and unable to fully grasp the concept of their parents/guardians abusing each other, they are very prone to developing some kind of anxiety or stress disorder if they are exposed to domestic violence at a young age.
According to the Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice, children who witness or experience such trauma have brains that develop differently to children who grow up in households devoid of such hostility and volatility.
The journal of Neuropsychopharmacology published a study that found teenagers who experienced childhood trauma (which included, among other events, domestic violence) had connectivity problems in key areas of their brains: one of them was the regions that connects emotions to thoughts, and another was responsible for planning behavior. In other words, teenagers who suffered domestic violence when they were growing up could not healthfully regulate their emotions, making them susceptible to developing a substance addiction. Whatever they saw and heard occurred to them at such a young age that they were denied the opportunity and the ability to respond to it in a responsible, constructive manner. Instead, these children became depressed, fearful, and isolated, turning to drugs, alcohol or other unhealthy behaviors to cope.
Both boys and girls who see their parents or guardians abuse each other (or abuse the children themselves) may channel their feelings of fear, anxiety, and even guilt (believing that they are culpable for the violence) into risky, impulsive behavior. While abusing drugs is common to both genders in such cases, boys tend to act out with violent behavior of their own, striking younger siblings or bullying others on the playground; girls react by becoming sexually promiscuous or with deliberate self-harm (like cutting themselves).
Domestic violence can be acted out against siblings as well. In an article in the journal of Pediatrics (that was reviewed by TIME magazine), researchers found that bullying at the hands of brothers and sisters, as well as non-family members, caused bad mental health outcomes as the victims grew into adolescents. Sibling abuse can be anything from breaking toys to pulling hair or threatening violence, and it can cause the same kind of depression, fear, anxiety, and anger in kids as witnessing a parent hurt another parent or a parent hurting a child. In a study on the subject, children who were physically or verbally victimized grew up with mental health systems that were not present in children who experienced no such behavior.
Troublingly, The New York Times referred to sibling abuse as “the most common form of family violence,” probably because parents and observers have traditionally not considered it a problem, and might even encourage it, believing it a rite of passage that does not need to be taken seriously.
Abuse and Addiction
In writing about “How Childhood Trauma Creates Lifelong Addicts,” The Fix explains that abuse endured in formative years “massively increases the risk” of unhealthy coping habits – such as using drugs or drinking alcohol – being employed as the victims move from adolescence into adulthood. A study in Depression and Anxiety on 587 participants found that the rates of substance abuse correlated with childhood instances of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse:
- 39 percent abuse alcohol
- 1 percent abused cocaine
- 8 percent abused marijuana
Head Injuries and Addiction
The physical component of domestic violence can also be conducive to the development of addiction. Medical News Today quotes figures from the Centers for Disease Control that show between 1.6 million and 3.8 million people suffer head injuries of varying severity as a result of impact from car collisions, sports or recreation, or violence. Between 10 and 20 percent of people who receive traumatic brain injuries develop a substance abuse problem following the injury. The Journal of Neurotrauma explains that this may be because severe impact to the head and brain change the circuitry in the brain that deals with incentive and rewards. The pathways in the brain that are responsible for carrying the electrical signals of pleasure after we carry out an enjoyable activity are artificially and forcibly rewired by abusing drugs and alcohol – and traumatic brain injuries have exactly the same effect on those pathways. In other words, a violent impact to the brain can prime someone to develop an addiction because the effect the impact has on the brain is similar to the impact that drugs and alcohol have on the brain.
Additionally, repeated injuries to the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain can cause an organic personality disorder, which renders the victim especially susceptible to developing a substance addiction by way of not being able to exercise discretion and appropriate judgment.
Domestic Violence and Men
We’ve looked a lot at the victims of domestic violence as primarily women and children, but the truth of the matter is that men can be on the receiving end as well. The National Family Violence Survey found that women were just as likely as men to initiate an assault against their domestic partner. The men’s rights group Parity found that more than 40 percent of domestic violence victims are male. However, male complaints of partner abuse are frequently not taken seriously, seldom reported, and rarely prosecuted to the fullest extent.
Given that men are more likely to develop a substance abuse problem than women (twice as likely in the case of drugs and three times as likely in the case of alcohol), male victims of domestic violence face unique challenges. The Daily Mail posits that as gender lines are becoming more blurred, with women assuming positions of greater power and leadership – and even drinking more – than they did a generation ago, the traditional idea of a meek woman and a strong man is rapidly fading. Women are encouraged to be more aggressive in the workplace and even in the home, and the pressure and stress of balancing professional and family obligations can result in behavior that does not have to be physical in nature in order to be abusive.
Oftentimes, men are still expected to face challenges and be the head of the household with stoic silence. When a relationship goes off the rails, and where the man is the victim in the dynamic, he may be reluctant to seek medical, professional, or legal help for fear that his sense of masculinity would be publicly and humiliatingly eviscerated. Driven to depression and silence, battered men find solace not in society, not in the legal system, and not in the company of sympathetic friends and family members, but in drugs and alcohol, which they may see as the only way they can appropriately (and acceptably, given cultural conceptions of gender roles regarding substance abuse) react to their deteriorating domestic situation.
Domestic violence can be a complicated issue, but its effects are starkly straightforward: unhappiness, stress, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse and addiction. If you need immediate, urgent help because you’re afraid of your partner, or if your partner is abusing you or your children, please call 911 right now. If the threat isn’t imminent and you have used drugs or alcohol to cope with the consequences of domestic violence, a comprehensive rehab program can help you leave substance abuse in your past and start a healthy, balanced life.
 “How PTSD and Addiction Can Safely Be Treated Together.” (August 2012). TIME. Accessed February 20, 2015.
 “Abuse Victims Report Long-Term Poor Health, Depression.” (March 2009). CNN. Accessed February 20, 2015.
 “Sex Differences in Fear Conditioning in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.” (January 2013). Journal of Psychiatric Research. Accessed February 20, 2015.
 “What is Trauma?” (n.d.) Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice. Accessed February 21, 2015.
 “How Childhood Trauma May Make the Brain Vulnerable to Addiction, Depression.” (August 2012). TIME. Accessed February 20, 2015.
 “How Childhood Trauma Creates Lifelong Adult Addicts.” (September 2011). The Fix. Accessed February 20, 2015.
 “Substance Use, Childhood Traumatic Experience, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in an Urban Civilian Population.” (December 2010). Depression and Anxiety. Accessed February 21, 2015.
 “What is traumatic brain injury (TBI)? What causes traumatic brain injury?” (October 2014). Medical News Today. Accessed February 20, 2015.
 “Does Traumatic Brain Injury Increase Risk for Substance Abuse?” (July 2009). Journal of Neurotrauma. Accessed February 21, 2015.
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 “More than 40 percent of Domestic Violence Victims are Men, Report Reveals.” (September 2010). The Guardian. Accessed February 21, 2015.
 “Men vs. Women: Does Gender Matter in Addiction Recovery?” (2012). PsychCentral. Accessed February 16, 2015.
 “The Alcoholism Gender Gap: Why Are More U.S. Women Becoming Problem Drinkers?” (September 2011). International Business Times. Accessed January 8, 2015.
 “Why are so Many MEN Becoming Victims of Domestic Violence? It’s One of Britain’s Last Remaining Taboos, But Abuse Against Men in the Home is On the Rise.” (December 2013). The Daily Mail. Accessed February 21, 2015.
 “In Mental Illness, Women Internalize and Men Externalize.” (August 2011). Livescience. Accessed February 16, 2015.