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Domestic Abuse and Substance Abuse: The Connection

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Domestic violence refers to any behaviors that are used to control, manipulate and gain power over an intimate partner. The different types of abuse include physical, emotional, verbal, mental and financial. Each poses its own danger and are often combined by an abuser to sustain power and control over an intimate partner.

Domestic violence, like addiction, has no prejudice; it affects people from all walks of life. Both men and women are abusers and it’s just as common in homosexual couples as heterosexual couples. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, an estimated 85 percent of domestic violence victims are female, and women have a five to eight times greater chance of being victimized than men.

Recognizing Domestic Abuse in Relationships

The New York State Office of Children and Family Services defines physical abuse as the “non-accidental use of force that results in bodily injury, pain or impairment. This includes, but is not limited to, being slapped, burned, cut, bruised or improperly physically restrained.” On average, 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States, which comes out to a total of 10 million men and women per year.

Verbal, emotional and mental abuse are interconnected through a series of behaviors that an abuser uses to create confusion, undermine the victim’s self-confidence which allows the abuser to control the victim. Signs of this abusive dynamic are isolation, intimidation and manipulation.

An abuser may use the following tactics to control their victim: screening or monitoring texts, calls and social media, recording the odometer mileage on the car after use, as well as driving by workplaces or known locations, not allowing or becoming increasingly displeased by certain makeup, hairstyles, and clothing choices.

Emotional abuse is the result of verbal and psychological abuse that aims to diminish another person’s sense of identity, dignity and self-worth. Verbal abuse is making direct or indirect threats, yelling, screaming, and insulting. Psychological or mental abuse is using statements that distort reality or invalidate the victim’s emotions, thoughts or feelings.

Financial abuse is the withholding or controlling of all the income, not allowing the victim to access funds or putting the victim on a strict allowance. An abuser can also prevent or sabotage the victim’s attempts to secure employment by refusing transportation, making them late, or calling/harassing them at work frequently.

Sexual Abuse is using coercion, force, guilt, manipulation or not considering the victim’s desire to have sex. Exploiting a victim who is unable to make an informed decision either because they are asleep, intoxicated or otherwise drugged, or targeting a victim who is too young, too old or dependent upon or afraid of the abuser is also sexual abuse.

For victims in an abusive relationship, daily life is centered around reading your partner’s moods, walking on eggshells, saying or doing anything to keep the peace for fear they may become violent. Eventually the manipulation and fear can become so great that a victim will often feel they deserve to be abused.

The Link Between Substance Abuse and Domestic Abuse

Substance abuse tends to bring out the worst in people; it’s no surprise that statistics are finding a direct connection between substance abuse and abusive relationships. While under the influence of drugs or alcohol a person’s ability to make clear decisions and control their impulses is severely diminished.

Alcohol is often used as a social tool to feel comfortable and release anxiety, but just like all addictive substances, it carries a darker side. Alcohol abuse is one of the leading risk factors for partner violence—a study from 1994 of domestic abuse cases that resulted in death found that more than 50 percent of the accused had been drinking at the time of the murder.

Between 40 and 60 percent of domestic violence incidents involve substance abuse and abusers will sometimes encourage their victim to use drugs as a method of control and to create dependence. Often, when a victim is under the influence of drugs they may not be able to accurately assess the level of danger they’re in. In fact, they may be afraid to report any abuse out of fear they will be arrested for using illegal drugs.

While it’s possible for both men and women to be the abuser, it’s statistically more likely that a woman will be the victim. In these cases, it is not uncommon for a woman to turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with an abusive spouse. The fear for herself and her children, if they were to leave the abusive relationship, can be so crippling that she may feel that staying is the only option.

Effects of an Abusive Relationship

Life after an abusive relationship is a complex puzzle of putting yourself back together. Mental and emotional abuse can leave a person doubting their own sense of self, second-guessing every decision and living with deep shame. Victims are usually left with a general mistrust of others; it may lead to a complete aversion to dating or building relationships without a genuine connection. It’s common for many to be diagnosed with substance abuse disorders, eating disorders, depression, anxiety and PTSD.

How to Escape an Abusive Relationship

Making the decision to leave an abusive relationship is difficult—a victim may believe that their partner will change and that things will get better, but the reality is that many abusers have complex emotional and psychological problems.

When faced with the consequences of their behaviors, abusers will make promises to stop the behavior and profess intense guilt and shame, literally begging for forgiveness. They may mean what they say at the moment but when the threat of their partner leaving has subsided, they’ll return to their abusive behavior.

Worrying about what will happen if they leave, where they will go, what people might say, has led many victims to stay in abusive relationships. There are simple steps one can follow to help them disengage from their abuser and get out safely.

Create an exit plan; doing so means that you are less likely to return to your abuser for any reason. When creating an exit plan, reach out to a friend, family member or local resource for help. Establish a safe word that they’ll recognize if you’re in danger and call the police.

Set aside any money you can and keep a bag packed and hidden should you need to leave at a moment’s notice. When you’re ready to leave, take what is necessary and recognize that you can always replace clothing, jewelry or other items. Your safety is not worth risking over material goods.

Have a person that will keep you accountable for your decision. Change your phone number and seek out a restraining order. Be kind and loving to yourself; this is a time of intense emotion, so it’s okay to be scared.

Find the courage within yourself to separate from an abusive partner, reach out to support groups and family, and remember: you are not alone.

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