What’s the connection between substance use and family violence? How to get help
CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses family violence including warning signs associated with lethal violence. This content will be distressing or frightening for some readers. Consider whether now is a safe time for you to read it. If you need to talk about any of the issues raised, you can chat to our alcohol and drug counsellors online any time or reach out to the specialist domestic, family and sexual violence counselling line 1800Respect (1800 737 732).
Substance use is linked to both using and experiencing family violence. In recognition of Sexual Assault Awareness Month (April) and Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Month (May), we’re exploring the impact of family violence on people with co-occurring substance issues. We'll also share information about support services that are available to help you (or someone you care about).
Today, we'll focus on violence between intimate partners. If you need to talk about other types of substance-related family violence, like elder abuse or child abuse, you can chat with our online counsellors anytime — free, confidential, 24/7. If you’d prefer to talk to someone on the phone, find the helpline in your state.
Who experiences family violence?
The majority of people experiencing family violence are women victimised by men, but there is not one kind of person who experiences family violence. People of all backgrounds, professions, genders, sexualities and cultures can experience violence. However, some people are more vulnerable because they may have fewer resources to leave a dangerous situation. They may be very reliant on the person using violence. According to 1800Respect, people most at risk include:
- Pregnant women or recent mothers
- Separated women
- People with disability
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
- People from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) backgrounds
- Older people
- LGBTQI+ people
- Women living in disaster-affected areas.
People living with addiction or mental illness are also at risk.
The most common form of intimate partner violence is perpetrated by men against women. Research shows that violence against women happens in the context of gender inequality and harmful gender norms, according to prevention organization Our Watch. Women in relationships with men are at particular risk of lethal violence.
“Gender inequality provides the underlying conditions for violence against women. It exists at many levels in our society – from how we view and value men and women, to economic factors like the pay gap between men and women, to family and relationship roles and expectations. There is a strong and consistent association between gender inequality and violence against women.
Many family violence advocacy organizations focus on men's violence against women because gender roles play a significant role in creating all forms of violence. Women are the largest population experiencing intimate partner violence, so it makes sense that most support services are designed for them specifically.
However, this does not mean that women in heterosexual relationships are the only ones who experience violence. People in LGBTQIA+ relationships experience violence at similar rates, they just represent a far smaller percentage of the population overall. It is less common, but some women may also use violence against men. As a society, we still need to do more to understand how violence manifests in different relationships and provide specialized support services to all survivors.
No one should have to live in fear of their partner, and if you feel at risk in your relationship, that matters. We encourage you to seek support even if you don't feel like a 'typical' victim-survivor. If you need to access those specialised support services now, we’ve listed some below.
Is there a connection between family or intimate partner violence and substance use?
Not everybody who uses substances will become violent, but there is a clear link between substance use and family or intimate partner violence. In Australia, alcohol use is particularly strongly linked to incidents of family violence. Around half of all family violence reports to police involve alcohol, according to a federal government report on Alcohol/Drug-Involved Family Violence in Australia.
Although alcohol doesn't directly cause violence, it may encourage or reinforce it in people who are already predisposed. Researchers suggest that heavy alcohol use may trigger episodes of violence by disrupting normal brain function, increasing aggression, and reducing impulse control.
We also know that experiences of abuse or violence may lead victim-survivors to turn to substance use as a way of coping with trauma and stress. Trauma is an extraordinarily common precursor to problems with substance use.
If you’ve started drinking or using drugs more to deal with an experience of family violence, you’re not alone. The Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence found that most women accessing alcohol and drug treatment had experienced child abuse or family violence.
Is a person who uses violence responsible if they’re under the influence of substances?
Yes, they are. Even if the person is only violent when they are affected by drugs or alcohol, violence is a choice they are making. They are accountable for that choice and can take responsibility by seeking help for their problems with substances and use of violence.
People who use violence often have their own history of trauma and deserve compassion and support to change, but the people they put in danger are not obligated to be the ones who support them through that change, even if they still love and care for them.
If you’ve hurt someone you care about, Full Stop Australia has information on how to start to change.
Can relationship counselling fix an abusive relationship?
Victim-survivors often want to seek relationship counselling with the person using violence against them, but experts warn against it.
“Abuse is not a relationship problem… there’s a great risk for any person who is being abused to attend therapy with their abusive partner. Relationship counselling can help partners understand each other, resolve difficult problems, and even help the couple gain a different perspective on their situation. It cannot, however, fix the unequal power structure that is characteristic of an abusive relationship.
An abuser may use what is said in therapy later against their partner. Therapy can make a person feel vulnerable. If the abuser is embarrassed or angered by something said in therapy, he or she may make their partner suffer to gain back the sense of control. Therapy is often considered a “safe space” for people to talk. For an abused partner, that safety doesn’t necessarily extend to their home.”
— US National Domestic Violence Hotline
I feel afraid, but they never hit me. Is it still family violence?
Emotional or psychological violence is violence.
Some of the most serious and devastating abuse may involve no physical violence at all. We are increasingly learning about the dangers of a form of primarily emotional and psychological abuse known as ‘coercive control’. Here’s how journalist Hayley Gleeson describes it:
“Sometimes referred to as "intimate terrorism", coercive control chips away at victims' sense of safety and independence; some report feeling as if they're being held hostage, constantly "walking on eggshells" or being "smothered alive".”
While coercive control can feature physical abuse, it is primarily characterised by the use of threats, manipulation or intimidation to dominate an intimate partner and exert control over their lives. Check out the 12 signs of coercive control, as summarised by Relationships Australia Victoria.
A partner who uses coercive control will deny your autonomy, including controlling aspects of your health and body. This may include controlling your access to substances, coercing you to use substances, or preventing you from seeking treatment for substance use problems.
The danger posed by coercive control should not be underestimated. Coercive control is strongly associated with intimate partner violence leading to murder.Recently, Australian states have been recognising the extreme harms of coercive control and are developing laws to criminalise it.
The relationship isn’t that bad all the time — the Cycle of Abuse
Many abusive relationships have ups and downs and aren’t awful all of the time. Things might have even been truly fantastic in the beginning, then become difficult over time. A partner may behave well most of the time, turn frightening during periods of stress or anxiety, then quickly return to normal. This is what's known as the Cycle of Abuse.
Dr. Lenore Walker interviewed 1500 domestic violence survivors in the 1970s and discovered a recurring pattern in abusive relationships, which is now known as the Cycle of Abuse. Not all people who use violence follow this exact cycle, but it is a very common pattern.
How do substances affect the cycle of abuse?
Substance use often plays a role in the cycle of abuse, either by responding to or triggering certain stages. The cycle repeats until the relationship ends, but sometimes the person using violence can break the cycle by seeking treatment to address their emotional problems.
Image by Avanduyn via Wikicommons
Phase 1: Tension building
Anxiety and stress builds up in the relationship. The person using violence becomes increasingly sensitive. The victim-survivor tries to placate them, but nothing they do is right. The person using violence increasingly criticises, insults, or yells at the victim-survivor. The victim-survivor feels a sense of danger. They fear doing anything to set the person using violence off.
Substance use in Phase 1
The person using violence might begin or resume using substances to cope with the tension they are feeling. They may blame the victim-survivor for their substance use.
Alternatively, if somebody has already been using steadily, Phase 1 may be triggered when the person using violence is unable to access enough of their preferred substance.
Phase 2: Incident/Explosion
The tension builds to breaking point. The person using violence explodes and attempts to dominate their victim through physical, emotional, psychological or sexual abuse. The victim-survivor has to protect themselves. They might try to reason with the abuser or leave, but may also fight back. Fighting back in self-defence does not make the victim-survivor equally accountable for the violence. The explosion releases tension for the person using violence, while the victim is left distressed. The tension relief fills an emotional need for the person using violence, leading them to repeat the behaviour in the future.
Substance use in Phase 2
Alcohol or drug use may escalate and trigger bouts of rage. The person using violence may frighten the victim-survivor by seeming out of control.
In somebody who has been unable to access substances they have been using regularly, Phase 2 might be triggered by panic associated with withdrawal.
Phase 3: Reconciliation
After the explosion, the person using violence begins to feel bad. They might feel guilty or fear that the victim-survivor will leave them or call the police. The victim-survivor is still distressed, but the person using violence might try to reconcile by offering apologies, promising it won’t happen again, or pretending it never happened at all. They may lovebomb the victim-survivor — that is, shower them with intense and often intimidating affection. They may also use threats of self-harm or suicide to ‘guilt trip’ the victim-survivor into staying in the relationship. This is a way of continuing to control the victim-survivor.
Substance use in Phase 3
The person using violence may use their substance use as an excuse for their violence and promise to stop using. Alternatively, they might use withdrawal as the excuse and claim everything will be ok now that they have access to their substance of dependence again.
Phase 4: Calm (the Honeymoon phase)
Life returns to ‘normal’, and things seem calm and peaceful. The person using violence might agree to attend counselling and attempt to be helpful and attentive. However, over time their commitment to the good behaviour may wane and when frustrations grow they will return to the beginning of the cycle, Phase 1: Tension building.
Substance use in Phase 4
The person using violence may abstain or moderate their substance use. When they cycle back to Phase 1, they may relapse as a result of the tension they feel. On the other hand, they might be triggered back into Phase 1 because they are prevented from accessing their substance of dependence.
What are the warning signs that a troubled relationship is at risk of escalating to serious violence?
When you’re stuck in this cycle, it can start to feel normal. You might get used to walking on eggshells all the time. So how do you know if a relationship is at risk of potentially lethal violence?
The Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association (VAADA) has put together a helpful guide with evidence-based red flags to look out for when substances are involved in a relationship. A relationship doesn’t have to include all of these red flags to be dangerous. Even a few are concerning. We encourage anybody who fears their relationship is at risk to reach out to a support service for assistance.
Here are some signs that someone using violence may be at an increased risk of seriously injuring or killing their partner:
- They misuse drugs or alcohol: The severity and frequency of violence may increase if the person using violence begins to use substances more. Heavy binge drinking doubles the risk of family or intimate partner violence.
- They are unemployed or drop out of education: When the person using violence spends more time at home, especially if they feel ashamed or powerless, the risk to the victim-survivor increases.
- They make threats to kill: Even if they’ve made empty threats before, threats should still be taken seriously as an indication of escalating violence as they represent an attempt to extend their control over the victim-survivor. You cannot be sure that they will not act on the threat this time.
- They threaten or attempt suicide: The risk of murder-suicide increases when a person using violence is threatening suicide. This is also another attempt to control the victim-survivor’s behaviour.
- They have use or have access to weapons:The presence of weapons in the home is associated with more severe domestic violence. A person using violence may also use drugs as a weapon, such as by threatening their partner with a ‘hot shot’ (intentional overdose).
- They demonstrate controlling behaviours: Someone may choose to dominate their partner by restricting their access to substances, controlling dosage levels, or preventing them from seeking treatment for substance problems. They might also coerce or even force their partner to use substances.
- They exhibit jealous, obsessive behaviours: Expressing paranoia and possessiveness about who the victim-survivor spends time with is a common method of alienating them from external support systems. An abusive partner might use jealousy as a reason to prevent their partner from seeking treatment. They might claim they are afraid the victim-survivor will meet someone else in detox, or suggest that a doctor or AOD counsellor is trying to turn the victim-survivor against them.
- They sexually assault their partner: The person using violence may violate their partner’s consent by using substances to coerce their partner into unwanted sexual activity, or take advantage of their partner while incapacitated by substances.
- The violence is escalating: It probably goes without saying, but it is concerning when the frequency or severity of violence increases.
- They stalk the victim-survivor:Stalking takes many forms and may manifest ‘in real life’ or digitally.
- In ‘real life’ the stalker might choose to show up unexpectedly in the victim-survivor’s spaces, such as at appointments, their workplace, or preferred social hangouts. They might intercept the victim-survivor when they try to meet with their dealer, interrupt group therapy meetings or show up at medical or counselling appointments.
- Digital stalking is often ‘technology-facilitated abuse’. They might track the victim-survivor’s movements using their phone or threaten to ‘out’ the victim-survivor as a drug user on social media.
- They physically assault their partner while pregnant or following a new birth:This is a high-risk period, as the person using violence may resent the attention the victim-survivor is giving to the baby and feel threatened by their increased support network outside the home (such as mother’s groups, maternal and child health professionals, or unusual attention from family and friends). It is common for the first episode of physical violence to occur while a woman is pregnant.
- They know their partner is planning to leave or has recently left:A recent separation is among the highest risk periods for a victim-survivor. A controlling partner may escalate incidences of violence to maintain control through fear if they sense the independence of their victim-survivor is increasing — for example, if they are engaging in treatment programs. VAADA warns: “Any increased support from community and time away from the home presents in a similar way to the (victim-survivor) leaving.” Any period of increasing independence is high-risk.
- They strangle or attempt to strangle the victim-survivor:Research shows that attempted strangulation or otherwise placing hands around the neck is a high-risk action and strongly associated with future lethal violence.
- They threaten to harm or kill pets: Threats to harm pets, especially those belonging to the victim-survivor or their children, should be taken very seriously. Such threats are often used as a way to control the victim-survivor, and it often works — the ABC reports that 70% of women fleeing domestic violence also report pet abuse, and many say it delayed them leaving. Some services, such as Pets of the Homeless, offer short-term emergency pet foster care to victims of domestic violence to keep their pets safe while they leave the relationship.
How can I seek help to manage or leave a dangerous family violence situation?
It’s not always clear how to leave a frightening relationship — and sometimes people don’t get to plan how to leave because everything blows up unexpectedly. People leaving a violent relationship often need all the help you can get.
If you have a friend or family member you trust, we encourage you to confide in them, even if your relationship has recently been strained or distant. People using violence often intentionally separate their partner from loved ones as a way of maintaining control, as they know that outside relationships are resources that can help the victim-survivor to leave. Every person you confide in is a potential gateway to independence.
If you haven’t been speaking much, they’ll probably be thrilled to hear from you. They care about you and will want to help — and might already suspect something is going on.
Community support systems are thriving but often go unnoticed until you really need them. Check out your local community centres, public libraries, faith groups, and other public hubs. There are a lot of resources that are best accessed by word of mouth.
Many communities also have Facebook groups known as Good Karma Networks where locals can exchange favours, request or give away goods like furniture, appliances, clothing, toys — basically anything you can think of. People in these groups can be extraordinarily generous and they’re designed to be non-transactional, so you’re not required to give them anything in return (although many people choose to pay it forward when they get back on their feet). Find out if there’s a Good Karma Network in your area.
Government and not-for-profit
There are a range of professional services that help people living in, leaving, or recovering from family violence. Common support services include:
- Safety planning, including making plans to protect yourself at home or leave the relationship
- Emergency housing
- Financial assistance
- Ongoing rental subsidies
- Grief and trauma counselling
- Legal assistance, including criminal and family law
- Material aid such as clothing, food, furniture and other essential supplies
- Parenting support
- Medical assistance
If all the services seem overwhelming and you’re not sure where to start, 1800Respect is a simple option that can put you on the right path — call them on 1800 737 732, 24/7.
Most services offer translation services for people who would prefer to communicate in their native language.
National domestic and family violence services
The National Domestic Family and Sexual Violence Counselling Service. 1800Respect counsellors are available 24/7 to offer support and referral into services in your area. Their website offers resources to build healthy relationships or understand violence and abuse, plus a service finder of local support services.
- Nationwide, 24/7
- 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732)
- Online chat
No to Violence — Men’s Referral Service
Helpline and referral service for men who use family violence and want support to change, their friends and family. They can refer you into support programs such as Men’s Behaviour Change Programs, anger management training, group support, or counselling.
- Nationwide, 7 days
- 1300 766 491
Full Stop Australia: National Violence and Abuse Trauma Counselling and Recovery Service
A national support, education, training and advocacy service working to end sexual, domestic or family violence. They offer confidential trauma specialist counselling for all people who are impacted by violence and abuse, as well as their supporters.
- 1800 385 578
- Nationwide, 24/7
- Webchat (click the speech bubble in the bottom right corner)
MensLine is a 24/7 helpline that helps men with all kinds of issues. This is a good choice for men experiencing family violence.
- Nationwide, 24/7
- 1300 78 99 78
A 24/7 culturally safe crisis support helpline operated by and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 13 YARN is a free call from any mobile or pay phone.
- Nationwide, 24/7
- 13 92 76
Free, confidential phone and online counselling and referral for young people aged 5 to 25.
- Nationwide, 24/7
- 1800 55 1800 (free to call, including from mobiles)
- Email counselling
Rainbow Sexual, Domestic and Family Violence Helpline
National helpline for LGBTQIA+ people who affected by sexual, domestic or family violence. Operated by Full Stop Australia with training by ACON, one of Australia’s best-respected LGBTQIA+ advocacy organisations. Previously known as the LGBTIQ+ Violence Service.
- Nationwide, 24/7
- 1800 497 212
National organisation offering resources and information for LGBTQ+ people experiencing unhealthy relationships.
National helpline for older people experiencing abuse, particularly by the family members that care for them.
- 1800ELDERHelp (1800 353 374)
Domestic and family violence services in your state
Each state has their own system for supporting people experiencing family violence. Here’s how to reach out for help in your state:
- ACT: Domestic Violence Crisis Service: 02 6280 0900
- NSW: NSW Domestic Violence Line: 1800 65 64 63
- NT: GOV.AU: Get help for domestic, family and sexual violence
- QLD: DVConnect
- Womensline: 1800 811 811
- Mensline: 1800 600 636
- SA: Domestic Violence Crisis Line: 1800 800 098
- TAS: Safe at Home — Family Violence Response & Referral Line: 1800 633 937
- VIC: Safe Steps Family Violence Response Line
- WA: Women’s Domestic Violence Helpline: 1800 007 339
The above helplines can refer people into relevant services, but if you’d like to know exactly what’s available where you live, Full Stop Australia has compiled a list: Find domestic violence services in your area.
Do I have to report my violent partner to police to receive assistance?
No, you don't. Most domestic violence support services don't require you to have reported the abuse to the police or taken any legal action. The decision to report should be entirely up to you, but if you choose to do so, a domestic violence counsellor can assist you.
Note:It's important to understand that if you share any information about child abuse or neglect with a professional, they may be required by law to report it to child protection services. The rules on mandatory reporting vary by state, so it's worth finding out more about your particular situation. Find out more.
What to do if you’re misidentified as the aggressor by police
It’s more common than people expect for women to be misidentified by police as the perpetrator or primary aggressor in episodes of family violence:
- The Women’s Legal Service Victoria estimates that 1 in 10 women are incorrectly identified as the aggressor in police applications for family violence intervention orders.
- An analysis of domestic violence homicides in Queensland found that around half of the victims had previously been incorrectly identified as the perpetrator on an order protecting the person who eventually killed them.
- Women who are affected by drugs or alcohol may be at greater risk of misidentification.
This often happens because police misinterpret the situation when they arrive on the scene, with the victim appearing erratic while the abuser is calm. Often the abuser is the one that called the police in the first place, as a way of threatening or punishing their partner. ABC journalist Hayley Gleeson described a common scenario:
“When the officers arrive, she's beside herself with frustration and relief; she's wailing and grabbing her thighs, yelling in her language. The police are flummoxed, they've got no idea what she's saying. But Lee's boyfriend is calm and well spoken: She's crazy, he tells them, she's clearly got mental problems. The officers accept his account that she's the violent one and, apparently without even trying to talk to her, arrest her on the spot.”
- Hayley Gleeson, Police are still misjudging domestic violence and victims are suffering the consequences
Being unjustly arrested when you are the victim of a crime is traumatic, and we understand why women often feel abandoned or revictimised by the system. However, it is important to know that domestic violence services are aware that it is common for victims to be falsely arrested on family violence charges, so you do not need to fear judgment if you reach out for support.
If you speak to a family violence counsellor or case manager, let them know that you have been misidentified as the primary aggressor by police — sometimes, it’s helpful to use those exact words so the situation is clear to the worker.
They can refer you to appropriate criminal and family law assistance, as well as other resources to help you navigate the problem. Pending charges will generally not stop you from receiving the emergency financial assistance available to people escaping family violence.
We recently published a guide on how to navigate the criminal justice system if you’re facing drugs charges. A lot of the advice will also be useful for people who have been charged with family violence offences.
How can I convince my loved one to leave a violent relationship?
You can’t force anybody to leave an abusive partner, and you should understand that the victim-survivor may have a better understanding of the danger they face if they leave than you do. The best thing you can do is make yourself a safe and non-judgmental person to come to when they’re ready.
Check out the US National Domestic Violence Hotline’s tips on Supporting Someone Who Keeps Returning to an Abusive Relationship.
Everybody deserves a home without fear
We all deserve to have autonomy in our lives. Nobody should feel afraid in their own home. If you’re worried about, experiencing or using family violence and want to talk about it, we’re here to listen — free, non-judgmental, confidential, 24/7. Start a webchat.
Photo by Jordan Bauer on Unsplash