It’s Complicated: substance use and domestic abuse
By: Lori Rodriguez, Education Director
Many believe that substance use is an underlying cause of domestic abuse, but this is a misconception. There is nothing in drugs or alcohol that causes someone to believe that they have the right to hurt or control another person. Many people who use substances do not abuse their partners or family members. While substance use doesn’t cause domestic abuse, there is certainly a connection. People who use violence against their partners may use substances, and survivors might as well. In fact, according to the 2016 report of the Maine Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel, domestic abuse increases the chances that someone may develop a substance use disorder, and those with substance use issues may be at greater risk of being subjected to domestic abuse.
Substance use can shape and change the experiences that people have with abuse in many ways. It can determine the tactics used by an abusive person, sometimes causing them to use more severe forms of abuse. Survivors have reported that when abusive partners stop using, the abuse doesn’t always stop but the tactics sometimes change. On the other hand, some survivors have expressed that they have found it easier to manage their relationships and plan for their safety while their partner was using.
Substance use coercion is the term used to describe the ways in which abusers may undermine and control their partners or family members through tactics such as forcing use, supplying drugs, and coercing illegal behavior. Research shows that women are most likely to be introduced to illegal drug use by a partner or spouse. Survivors may start using substances as a way to cope with the abuse they are experiencing. Substance use coercion can also be used to prevent a survivor who has a substance use disorder from accessing treatment and sabotaging recovery efforts. The small and often rural nature of recovery communities make it difficult for survivors to conceal their participation in supportive groups or medication-assisted treatment.
In addition to substance use coercion, abusers often employ other tactics of emotional abuse and isolation to control partners with substance use disorder and limit connections to those who might support them. They may shame or belittle their partners and try to persuade them that other friends, family, or loved ones will not understand or care about them. They may convince them that by reaching out for support, they could get in criminal trouble, or have their children taken from them. These tactics are especially effective because of the stigma attached to substance use in our communities overall, which is strengthened by the real consequences that many face for their substance use.
This complex relationship between domestic abuse and substance use underscores the need to reinforce the message that survivors who use substances are not at fault for the way their partners or family members abuse them, and there is nothing inherently wrong with people who use substances or have substance use disorders. People who are abusive seek out and create vulnerabilities in their partners that they can exploit to their benefit. Survivors who use substances actively or have histories of substance use disorder are just as worthy of support, care, and love as those who do not. Survivors deserve advocacy from people who will not judge them for their use.
Advocates at New Hope Midcoast are trained and prepared to talk with survivors about their substance use or their partners’ substance use. Advocates do not judge people for substance use. Survivors do not have to be sober, in recovery, or even considering recovery to call and talk about resources and options. We understand that substance use and domestic abuse are separate issues that must be addressed individually and that for some, it is impossible to imagine recovery options without first addressing immediate safety concerns. Whether the need is safety, recovery or both, advocates can help. Contact (800) 522-3304 to ask about services and to reach the 24/7 helpline.
New Hope Midcoast is one of Maine’s eight regional Domestic Violence Resource Centers and a member of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence. Our nonprofit organization supports people impacted by domestic abuse, dating violence, and stalking through housing and legal advocacy, education and prevention programs, and a 24/7 helpline. New Hope serves Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox, and Waldo Counties and empowers clients by providing options and treating everyone with care and respect.