The Link Between Intimate Partner Violence and Substance Use Disorders

By Helaina Hovitz 02/16/18

And then, when you realize you need it, that you don’t just want it, even when the consequences are becoming more dangerous, you stay for one reason: fear.

2 images of same woman in distress.

Domestic abuse or intimate partner violence is something that thousands of women face daily, whether that’s in the form of verbal, physical, or sexual violence. Domestic violence is the cause of over 50 percent of female deaths by homicide.

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), research has found that both ‘victims’ (I don’t like that word, but that’s how it’s worded) and abusers are 11 times more likely to be involved in domestic violence incidents on days of heavy substance use, and found that forty to sixty percent of domestic violence incidents involve substance misuse.

Women who misuse substances, according to the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics, make up 85 percent of domestic violence ‘victims,’ and are more vulnerable to domestic violence than their non-using counterparts.

Similarly, women in violent relationships are more prone to have substance use disorders than women in nonviolent relationships.

Back to that question: why are the rates higher?

It’s not merely that women who have substance issues are more likely to be in these relationships, but that being intoxicated makes them more vulnerable to violence.

On the other side of it, women who are in abusive relationships may rely on substance use in order to cope with and remain in the relationship.

One possible scenario is that if you're drunk or high, you are less likely to be able to be strong and resist and more likely to be in dangerous situations, or, if alcoholism ties in with codependence and low self-esteem and care-taking, then maybe you're more drawn to people with drug or alcohol problems, especially since the family you grow up in affects your later relationships.

These points are all valid, but the “why” is more complex than that. Maybe the best person to explain it is someone who lived it and came out the other side.

Because, how does someone end up in an abusive relationship in the first place?

It almost mirrors the same exact process of becoming addicted to a substance: first, euphoria, warm, comfy, fun feelings. Blissful, at times. And then, when you realize you need it, that you don’t just want it, even when the consequences are becoming more dangerous, you stay for one reason:


We don’t seek out abusive relationships just like we don’t seek out addiction. So many men who ultimately find themselves exhibiting abusive behavior once they’re in a relationship are warm, fluffy cuddle bears to start out with, and frequently, they’re loved by everyone. They’re popular. Not him. Nobody would believe it if you told them.

Some of these men are also tough, protective, headstrong, confident, and that’s a huge draw as well, specifically for women who are looking for someone to protect them and make them feel safe out in the world; these men offer some much-needed comfort and security.

Again, it’s similar to how our relationship with substances changes over time.

When I was in my teens and through my first year of college, this is exactly what happened to me. Twice. But these men and relationships were in my life before alcohol or weed came into the picture. So why did I stay, and leave, and stay, and leave? It wasn’t just fear of being totally alone with my thoughts; and it wasn’t because I empathized with their feeling out of control and believed them when they said they were sorry and would change.

Living with undiagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder until around the same time I got out of the second relationship, I related to those feelings, I cared about these guys, and it wasn’t all bad (of course it wasn’t, nothing is ever all good or all bad).

I recently heard from a woman who is five years sober and also found herself in abusive relationships.

Nicole Taylor is a Domestic Violence Survivor and Recovery Advocate in Lafayette, New Jersey with five years sober. Taylor has an incredible amount of insight, as many of us who are lucky enough and brave enough to finally face those fears and leave what’s hurting us behind eventually gain. Reflecting on her situation, she points out that often, when someone has a substance use disorder, the mental disease (rather than the symptom of drug or alcohol use) manifests in anxiety, misidentification, and a lack of self-worth.

“These are all key variables that aid in the vulnerability needed to make a partner submissive or controllable” she says. “Substances tend to conceal underlying issues that may be found, making the chaos in life no longer questionable, but normal.”

That was my experience exactly. My trauma kept me stuck at age 12, having yet to form an identity of my own or develop a sense of self-confidence or value outside of whatever guy I was standing next to or how I looked on the outside. As much as I felt everything around me was so out of control--that I was out of control--it was almost comforting, in a twisted way, to feel controlled. Trauma and addiction is a dark world, especially for a teenager, and I was used to that very same chaos Taylor describes, so while deep down part of me knew it was all wrong, I literally didn’t see any other way to pull myself forward every day.

“Being in any relationship, I felt as though I had finally found worth in my life. It wasn’t until the relationship became physical that the need for a new drug of choice was needed,” Taylor says. “And when you’re in an abusive relationship, you feel as though you can’t run or you’d be lost, the ‘you’ that you strived for would be gone forever.”

In that way, when we talk about domestic violence and its relationship to substance misuse, we need to talk more about how they are both, in a way, symptoms of a greater underlying issue and our search for resolution. Often, it’s more than one issue.

The only way to break the cycle of abuse, in both cases, is to step out onto the other side of that fear and dependency, and make sure you’ve got people there to support you and professional help or a program of some sort that will help you begin to deal with those underlying issues. Developing self-worth and being able to ask for help is critical because if we keep turning to something outside of ourselves for a fix, it could eventually kill us.

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Helaina Hovitz is an editor, journalist, and author of After 9/11. She has written for The New York Times, Salon, Glamour, Women's Health, Newsweek, Teen Vogue, VICE, Reader’s Digest, Forbes, The New York Observer and many others. Visit her on Facebook, Twitter, or