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Intimate Partner Violence & Substance Abuse

This article is from Volume 6, Issue 1 of Forensic Scholars Today, a quarterly publication featuring topics from the world of forensic mental health.

By: Caitlin Papovich, MA

According to Song, Wenzel, Kim, and Nam (2017), intimate partner violence (IPV) is defined as any physical, sexual, or psychological act performed by a current partner, former partner, or partner/spouse that causes harm. Psychological abuse includes humiliation, threatening to harm the partner, threatening to take away children, insulting, or belittling. Physical abuse includes physical aggression, such as slapping, kicking, punching, hitting, and beating. According to Cleak, Schofield, Axelsen, and Bickerdike (2018), psychological abuse is more dominant than physical abuse. However, there is less research on this form of abuse due to underreporting and psychological abuse not being readily understood. Many predictors of IPV have been analyzed and reviewed by researchers and propose that substance abuse is a significant indicator of IPV. Substance abuse has been deemed to occur in up to 60 percent of IPV instances across various studies (Sopher, 2014). This article will explore the relationship between IPV and substance abuse, including the prevalence, causes, interventions, and the correlation with childhood adversity.


According to the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health, IPV is identified as a fragmentary pattern of power and control in romantic relationships. This control is imposed by the utilization of abusive techniques including bullying, verbal threats, physical violence, sexual violence, seclusion, financial abuse, stalking, psychological abuse, and intimidation related to mental health and substance use (Rivera, Phillips, Warshaw, Lyon, Bland, & Kaewken, 2015). The relationship between substance use and IPV has indicated prevalence rates from various sources and evidentiary research practices, including national surveys, community samples, and studies including survivors of IPV (Rivera et al., 2015). Research has indicated that when one, or both partners, engage in the abuse of alcohol, the risk for violence increases dramatically (Moore, Easton, & McMahon, 2011). Within a sample of men and women arrested during a domestic dispute, it was determined that there is a momentous correlation between the severity of alcohol difficulties and the execution of physical and psychosocial aggression. Further, a 2003 study indicated that among men seeking treatment for alcohol abuse or IPV, the likelihood of severe aggression directed towards a female partner was up to 11 times higher when the perpetrator was intoxicated versus days there was no alcohol consumption (Moore et al., 2011). In a 2013 study, out of a sample of men and women admitting into substance abuse treatment, almost 50 percent of women reported having experienced IPV at some point in their life (Rivera et al., 2015). Studies conducted across decades have confirmed that substance use/abuse acts as a facilitating role in IPV incidents by either triggering or intensifying violence (Sopher, 2014).

  • Research indicates that almost half of women receiving victim-related services for IPV have issues with substance abuse.
  • 55–99 percent of women with issues surrounding substance abuse have been victimized at some point in their life.
  • 50 percent of men in perpetration intervention programs have a history of substance abuse.
  • Men with a history of substance abuse are eight times more likely to commit an act of violence when consuming alcohol.
  • 50 percent of men in relationships, who have received some form of treatment for a substance abuse disorder, are 11 times more likely to engage in violent behavior when intoxicated.
  • Up to 80 percent of women receiving treatment for substance abuse are victims of IPV.

IPV and Alcohol

The correlation between IPV and alcohol is prominent and established by research. The psychopharmacological effects induced by alcohol consumption enables a provisional weakening in executive functioning, including discrepancies in social information dispensation (Crane, Oberleitner, Devine, & Easton, 2014). Such discrepancies are linked to a heightened aggressive response, specifically among individuals predisposed to violent acts and individuals who are prone to irritation and violent behavior (Crane et al., 2014). Evidence indicates that more than 40 percent of individuals involved in alcohol treatment reported the perpetration of violence by their partner, on numerous occasions, within the past twelve months (Crane et al., 2014). Long-term alcohol use can influence social learning and can damage conflict resolution skills, leading to acts of violence and aggression.

IPV and Drug Abuse

In addition to alcohol abuse, evidence from the research also confirms a relationship between the use of illegal drugs and IPV (Moore et al., 2011). Moore et al., (2011) report that engaging in the use of cocaine, amphetamines, and marijuana has been specifically correlated with the risk for IPV. Within the overall population, prolonged drug abuse was associated with an increased risk for IPV by men. In addition, evidence indicates that the more recurrent use of cocaine and marijuana were both linked with an increased frequency of IPV and more common exposure to IPV among men and women enrolled in substance abuse treatment (Moore et al., 2011).

Long Term Consequences

Intimate partner violence is a major health concern among our society and can lead to physical and mental health issues for both men and women (Ulloa & Hammett, 2014). Ulloa & Hammett (2014) found that female victims were more likely to develop depression than male victims. This is thought to be because men do not experience the same severe injuries that women may experience; therefore, male victims are less likely to develop depression (Ulloa & Hammett, 2014). Ulloa & Hammett (2014) found that 100 percent of female victims had used illegal drugs in the past year, and less than 50 percent of male victims said to have utilized drugs. Developing post-traumatic stress is also a risk among female victims; 40 to 60 percent of female victims experience this disorder (Karakurt, Smith, & Whiting, 2014). Research reports that IPV, the use of substances among survivors, and trauma-related mental health conditions are likely to co-occur and are interconnected (Karakurt et al., 2014).

Intimate partner violence produces long-term consequences that affect an individual’s day-to-day life. According to Simmons, Knight, & Menard, (2018), research suggests women and men are both affected harmfully by IPV. This research depicts IPV as a global health issue that derives across different cultures, societies, and environments (Simmons et al., 2018). Simmons et al., (2018) found that IPV is more detrimental for women versus men. Common effects include relationship instability, attachment issues, increased job loss, decreased financial stability, increased alcohol use, drug use, severe depression, and higher levels of stress. Both male and female victims of IPV had increased levels of marijuana use (Simmons et al., 2018).

IPV and Childhood Adversities

Witnessing IPV induces serious, harmful effects on children, including the increased risk for child abuse, psychological issues, mental health disorders, and medical problems (Stover & Coats, 2016). Fathers who are perpetrators of violence, and have co-occurring substance use issues, have a limited ability to understand their child’s mental state, also referred to as reflective functioning (Stover & Coats, 2016). This limited capability is connected with parental aggression and child withdrawal from connections and positive interactions (Stover & Coats, 2016). As relayed previously, IPV and substance abuse (both illicit substances and alcohol) have a strong connection; IPV is 11 times more likely to take place when the perpetrator is under the influence. Due to this momentous intertwinement, the likelihood that children are witnesses of domestic abuse, are also directly bared to the parent/parents with substance abuse issues (Stover & Coats, 2016). Witnessing domestic violence is considered an adverse childhood experience, and can cause lifelong consequences, including psychological, social, emotional, school problems, and behavioral issues. Mental health problems are also a common factor among exposure to IPV in childhood; common disorders include mood disorders, anxiety disorders, depression, PTSD, and substance use disorder. It is important to note that whether the domestic violence is perpetrated by a parent being under the influence of a drug and/or alcohol, or if the substance abuse is caused by the parent experiencing IPV, that both substance abuse and IPV are considered risk factors for child maltreatment and increases the risk of child abuse and/or neglect.

Research suggests that male aggressors, who witness violence in their childhood, have a higher chance of perpetrating violence against their partner (Watt and Scrandis, 2013). Fonseka et al., (2015) found that childhood physical abuse was the predominant adverse childhood experience (ACE) category leading to one becoming a perpetrator of violence; 60 percent of males reported being physically beaten as a young child.  Further, Fonseka et al., (2015) identified 31 percent of male perpetrators having four or more adverse childhood experiences. By becoming familiar with perpetrators, and their experiences of childhood traumas, human service professionals can recognize and treat children and families who are at high risk for violence (Watt & Scrandis, 2013). In doing so, human service professionals can begin intervening and providing appropriate therapeutic measures for the child, thus reducing the risk of the child becoming a perpetrator of violence as an adult.

Interventions & Further Research

Human service professionals must become more apt in conducting intimate partner violence screenings with individuals who have chronic alcohol and/or drug use history (Babcock & DePrince, 2013). Identifying this disorder can help treat alcoholism and potentially prevent domestic violence from taking place. Interviewing and assessing survivors of intimate partner violence, as well as perpetrators of violence, will provide professionals with the tools needed to develop interventions (Babcock & DePrince, 2013). Educating professionals who work with victims and perpetrators is also imperative; training police, correctional officers, dispatchers, etc., in this area may help prevent violence.

It is vital to recognize that most victims of IPV demonstrate resilience related to the obstacles of continuing IPV. It is also important to acknowledge that many survivors also require professional support to address substance abuse issues, directly related to the effects of IPV. Interventions that encompass a trauma-specific approach are most beneficial in treating mental health concerns, such as substance use disorder, and various co-occurring conditions (Hartney & Barnard, 2015). Due to the significant correlation between substance abuse and an increase in violence, it is vital to treat the addiction. In conclusion, intimate partner violence is a global issue, affecting millions every day; research provides evidentiary significance supporting the pairing of substance abuse and intimate partner violence. The majority of domestic violence disputes, in some form or fashion, encompass substance abuse, specifically alcohol. In addition, the majority of perpetrators have some type of substance abuse problem (Sopher, 2014). Being a victim of IPV, or growing up in a family where IPV is prominent, are both significant predictors in adolescent substance abuse and adult addiction (Sopher, 2014). It is vital among professionals within the forensic setting to acknowledge new research and come together as a multidisciplinary team to prevent re-occurrence and ensure the community is aware of how intimate partner violence creates long-term consequences.

Author’s Biography:

Caitlin Papovich, M.A., is a senior case coordinator for individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities at Centerstone in Louisville, Kentucky. Caitlin currently provides services for the Michelle P. Waiver and the Supported Community Living Waiver, in which the client’s independence is promoted. Prior to working at Centerstone, Caitlin was employed at a therapeutic foster care agency and oversaw the independent living program. The program consisted of foster youth ages 18 to 21, who were transitioning from supervised foster placements (foster home, residential, group home) and into apartments. The program advocated and actively assisted in managing a positive transition into adulthood. While working with foster youth, Caitlin provided therapeutic services to address issues associated with trauma, including substance abuse, human trafficking, academic underachievement, domestic violence, parenting, mental health disorders, and involvement with the criminal justice system. Caitlin has experience providing case management services for foster youth of various ages prior to becoming involved in the independent living program. Caitlin received her Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Louisville in 2010. Caitlin graduated from Concordia St. Paul in December 2019, attaining a Master of Arts in Human Services with an emphasis in forensic behavioral health. Caitlin plans to continue raising awareness and educating the community on the issues surrounding child abuse and trauma.


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