Alcohol Use and Domestic Violence

Research Update: Strong Correlation Between Alcohol & Domestic Violence

The following is a Research Update excerpt from the Butler Center for Research. Download the PDF to read the entire Update. 

Domestic violence can be defined as the intentional use of force by one family member or partner to control another. Domestic violence can take the form of physical, psychological, sexual, economic or emotional abuse, intimidation, isolation, and/or exerting power and control by using privilege.1 This Research Update focuses on male to female domestic violence because it is the most prevalent, but violence can and does occur in other situations including female to male and within same-gender couples.

A strong correlation exists between alcohol use and physical violence in marital or partner relationships. In fact, domestic violence is a significant public health issue in the U.S.—one in six couples experience a physical assault each year.2 One fourth to one half of those who commit acts of domestic violence also have substance abuse problems.1 While alcohol and/or drug use does not cause or explain domestic violence, the importance of its correlation cannot be overlooked.


Domestic violence, the most common cause of nonfatal injury to women, represents a substantial threat to women for both injury and death. Women in the U.S. experience a risk of up to 22% for any type of injury resulting from domestic violence. One third of women who are victims of homicide die as a result of violence committed by a spouse or partner.3 Perpetrators are not easily categorized and multiple factors are involved including: experience of violence while growing up; need for control and power; and intimacy and dependency issues. All of these factors occur and in the context of societal sexism and cultural acceptability of violence toward women.1

Injuries inflicted on women by their partners cost society over $44 million each year. For example, 30% of women who are trauma patients have been victims of domestic violence. Severe physical assaults occur in 8–13% of marriages and re-occur in two-thirds of these marriages.1

Relationship Between Alcohol Use and Domestic Violence

Strong Correlation

A strong correlation exists between alcohol use and domestic violence. In one study, in which newlyweds were asked about their relationship one year after marriage, researchers found a strong association between alcohol use and increasing severity of domestic violence.4 In cases of verbal abuse, 3–10% of the husbands were using alcohol. In cases of mild physical abuse (defined as throwing something, pushing, grabbing, shoving, or slapping), 11–27% of the husbands were using alcohol. In cases of severe physical aggression (defined as being kicked, hit with a fist, hit with an object, beaten up), 38–43% of the husbands were drinking.

These researchers followed the couples into the third year of their marriage and found that the violence present in the first year predicted violence in the third year. The relationship between drinking and violence of husbands and wives was complex: the most violence occurred in marriages where the husband was a heavy drinker and the wife was not.5

Violence appears to be more closely associated with alcohol than other drug use. In one study of women who were injured intentionally, 52% reported that their partners were using alcohol just before the assault while 15% said partners used drugs prior to the assault.3 In general, women's drinking does not seem to predict whether a woman is a victim of marital violence.3, 4

But even though there appears to be a strong correlation between alcohol/drug use and domestic violence, two factors remain unexplained. First, we do not know the direction of the correlation between alcohol and domestic violence. Abuse of alcohol or drugs may cause domestic violence, or domestic violence may cause alcohol/drug abuse, or an entirely different factor may cause both. And second, the fact remains that a large proportion of domestic violence (i.e., probably at least 50%) is NOT associated with alcohol use. Alcohol may increase the distortion of power and control, which is believed to be the main determinant of conflict in intimate relationships, and lead to violence.3 Some researchers have theorized there are different types of perpetrators for example: (1) antisocial types who are generally violent, both inside and outside the home; (2) controlling, perfectionistic, or domineering men whose violence mainly occurs in the home; and, (3) men with attachment and abandonment issues, who vacillate between being calculatingly violent and desperately needy and remorseful.1

Breaking the Cycle

To interrupt the cycle of alcohol/drug use and domestic violence, violence must be addressed in alcohol/drug treatment. Research shows that providing alcohol/drug treatment (especially couples therapy for alcoholism) reduces domestic violence considerably. Rates of violence decreased dramatically after behavioral couples therapy (BCT) for alcoholism: the rate of physical assault by men was 64% the year before BCT therapy, 28% one year after, and 19% two years after therapy.6 Recurrence of violence was associated most with relapse to alcohol use: the rate of violence by relapsed alcoholics was 35% one year after BCT and 29% after two years.6 After BCT treatment, domestic violence returned to the level experienced by other families in general.1

The effectiveness of alcohol/drug treatment and relapse prevention improves when domestic violence issues are addressed in treatment.1 It is critical for treatment programs to not portray or sanction sexism, sexual harassment, or an environment of subtle denigration of women, but instead, to make concerted efforts to dispel societal stereotypes and mores that makes domestic violence socially acceptable.

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