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Why We Can't Blame Abuse on Alcohol

Dispelling the common myth that batterers abuse because they’re drunk, and will stop when sober

  • April 25, 2016
  • By domesticshelters.org
Why We Can't Blame Abuse on Alcohol

It’s all too often heard that someone’s partner is only mean/violent/abusive when they’re drinking.

“If only he [or she] stopped drinking, we’d be fine.”

Unfortunately, this argument seldom holds water. Put bluntly, says Larry Bennett, PhD, licensed social worker and professor at the Indiana University School of Social Work, “A batterer who quits drinking is a sober batterer.”

While alcohol can’t take the entirety of the blame for an abuser’s behavior, Bennett says it’s also incorrect to say they’re not connected at all, either. “You can find plenty of examples of individuals who have been sober for decades and are still violent. By the same token, there are some cases where alcohol is almost toxic to the person, where they wouldn’t do things when they’re sober that they do when they’re intoxicated.”

In a paper he co-authored in 2011 titled Substance Abuse and Intimate Partner Violence, Bennett found that research showed nearly half of all men in batterer intervention programs had substance abuse issues and that they were eight times more likely to be abusive on a day in which they were drinking.

“A common misunderstanding is that men who batter are extremely intoxicated and out of control when they batter,” Bennett writes. “Despite the impairment in men's behavior caused by alcohol and drugs, IPV [intimate partner violence] remains a matter of choice. IPV usually occurs in a safe setting (for the batterer), selected for the protection it affords him, at a time of his choosing, with a predictable victim. The fact that violence rarely occurs outside men's comfort zone suggests that men who batter are very much in control, not out of control.”

Bennett says he’s heard similar accounts from many survivors he’s talked to for his research: “Yeah, he’s fine when he’s drinking beer, when he switches to Jack, that’s when I’m getting hurt.” For a lot of abusers, drinking gives them a sense of entitlement to do what they do, he adds, and it’s an excuse both abusers and some of their victims want to believe.

“Because why not? Why would you think someone you love would treat you like that if not for an outside reason like alcohol?”

Bennett says alcoholism doesn’t cause domestic violence any more than poverty, depression or trauma history does, but like those factors, alcohol almost always makes existing abuse worse. “Abusers carry with them their aggressiveness, sense of entitlement and hostility. Unless you address those things, their behavior isn’t going to change when sober.”

He does acknowledge that he’s found some abusers or would-be abusers who have enrolled in addiction treatment and, then, something clicks. “The haze goes away and they’re this new person and they’re open to new information. They’re willing to examine their controlling behavior. For that select group, sobriety alone reduces domestic violence. But, that’s not a very big group.”

Bennett says survivors should be wary of any promises made their abuser. “Going to treatment, in itself, is a kind of control. If you allow yourself to be controlled by the belief or promise that he or she is going to change, you might be selling yourself short.”

To learn more about leaving your abuser, and how to know when the right time to leave is, check out the articles in our Escaping Violence section.