The link between alcohol and violence is oversimplified and creates false stereotypes. I bet if you thought of a man who perpetrated domestic violence against his female partner, you would guess he was probably drinking alcohol. In fact this assumption is supported by research that finds that men who use alcohol and who hit their partner are violent more frequently and with more severe consequences than men who do not use alcohol.
Social acceptance of the alcohol-violence link
Different cultures sanction different ways of behaving when under the influence of alcohol. Cross-cultural studies show that it is only western culture that exerts social messages that condone anti-social behaviour when drinking. In western society, drink and violence are thought to be naturally linked – caused by the loosening of brain functions that are believed to normally keep violence in check. But, there is a great deal of evidence to show that being violent when drunk is socially legitimised.
This then leads some male perpetrators of domestic violence (in western society) to drink alcohol on purpose to reduce anxiety and to muster the courage to beat their wives. As a study conducted by Coleman in 1980 showed, one man spent the day drinking and taking pills while preparing to brutally beat his wife the following day.
Alcohol and the loss of control are two common socially accepted excuses used by many men who hit their female partners. For example Gelles and Cavanaugh (2005) cited research that showed that there were men who beat their wives and then told police they lost control because they were drinking. But, when given a test, they were found not to be over the legal alcohol limit.
The myth of losing control
The link between alcohol and violence is commonly thought to lead to a loss of control. But domestic violence perpetrated by men is often deliberately aimed with a specific purpose in mind. For instance men tell researchers and stopping abuse programme facilitators that they hit their partner because they wanted her to cook the dinner on time, they wanted to stop a fight, to hurt her, to frighten or silence her, or to isolate her from family and friends.
There are men who blame alcohol and loss of control for their violence, yet simultaneously may be perpetrating an ongoing systematic pattern of non-physical forms of abuse and control. In this case, physical violence is just one tactic in a one-sided perpetration of power and control. Therefore this undermines any notion that loss of control is the key problem.
Attitudes contribute to violence
Other research notes that men who use alcohol, and beat their female partners, have attitudes that approve of aggression towards women. Or they have an underlying need for power and control over female partners.
The complex reality about men, alcohol and violence
- Whether drinking, or not, male perpetrators may avoid dealing with relationship problems in positive ways.
- Women’s stories show that their male partners who are intoxicated in public wait to beat her in private.
- It is pretty rare that a man who uses alcohol, and then hits his female partner, will hit his boss.
- Men choose who to hit, which part of the body to hit, how to hit – whether that’s a closed fist, an open hand, hair pulling, kicking or strangling.
- Many men who drink do not hit their partner after drinking, but many of those men do hit her when sober.
- One study found that, men who never drank, used violence against their partners more often than men who drank on occasion.
- Importantly – many men who use alcohol never use violence against their female partners ever.
These findings completely undermine the direct causal link between alcohol and violence against women.
The masculinity-alcohol-violence link
Research conducted in New Zealand and Australia finds that media images and peer pressure links heavy drinking with a particular sought after form of masculinity – but only sought after by men who want to gain acceptance and recognition in the eyes of particular men. For those men, under-drinking is considered dishonourable and therefore breeds humiliation. The same findings hold for violence. There are men who must initiate or defend themselves with physical violence for the sole purpose of avoiding humiliation and to establish a particular form of masculine honour.
The alcohol-violence link debunked
It is evident then that alcohol does not cause domestic violence. Not all cultures show a link between alcohol and violence, rather western society, in particular, condones anti-social behaviour when drinking. This then gives those men who hit their wives a socially legitimate excuse, whereas men who drink and hit their partners also do so when sober. Two threads weave through this link between alcohol and violence – namely some men’s attitudes that it is okay to have power and control over women – and some men’s needs to practice a particular style of masculinity that guarantees rewards of honour and acceptance from particular people.
- Bograd, Michele. (1988). How battered women and abusive men account for domestic violence: Excuses, justifications, or explanations? In G.T. Hotaling, D. Finkelhor, J.T. Kirkpatrick and; M.A. Straus (Eds.), Coping with family violence: Research and policy perspectives (pp. 60-77). Newbury Park: Sage.
- Coleman, Karen H. (1980). Conjugal violence: What 33 men report. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 6, 207-213.
- Gelles, Richard J. and; Cavanaugh, Mary M. (2005). Association is not causation: Alcohol and other drugs do not cause violence. In D.R. Loseke, R.J. Gelles and; M.M. Cavanaugh (Eds.), Current controversies on family violence (2nd ed., pp. 175-189). Thousand Oaks: Sage.
- Gondolf, Edward W. (1995). Alcohol abuse, wife assault, and power needs. Social Service Review, 69, 274-284.
- Hill, Linda. (1999). What it means to be a lion red man: Alcohol advertising and Kiwi masculinity. Women’s Studies Journal, 15, 65-85.
- Holtzworth-Munroe, Amy, Bates, Leonard, Smutzler, Natalie and; Sandin, Elizabeth. (1997). A brief review of the research on husband violence: Part I: Maritally violent versus non-violent men. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 2, 65-99.
- Ptacek J. Why do men batter their wives? In: Yllö K, Bograd M, editors. Feminist Perspectives on Wife Abuse (SAGE Focus Editions) 1988. p. 133-57.
- Robertson, Neville and; Busch, Ruth. (1998). The dynamics of spousal violence: Paradigms and priorities. In M. Pipe and; F. Seymour (Eds.), Psychology and family law: A New Zealand perspective (pp. 47-66). Dunedin, NZ: University of Otago Press.
- Tomsen, Stephen. (1997). A top night: Social protest, masculinity and the culture of drinking violence. British Journal of Criminology, 37, 90-102.
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Hi Kevin, Sorry I do not give relationship advice on this website. I do, however, recommend that you and your partner contact a local domestic violence or alcohol counselling organisation so you can both tell your story and receive appropriate help that addresses the dynamics in your relationship. Clare
Its not all men who get drunk then violent.
I am living with a lovely woman who when depressed hits the bottle [vodka] , when she’s drunk sleeps for about two hours then gets up andis very violent to me .
I don’t want to leave her as i love her but i don’t now what to do.
Is there anything i can do
I grew up with 2 alcoholic men, my uncle and my father. Very different people, but both with a cruel streak, that was more dangerous when they were intoxicated.
I bore the brunt of my Father’s controlling behaviour and his violence. I could tell when I came in the door, or when he arrived home what type of mood he was in, how likely he was to drink, and how he was going to play his sadistic violent games.
Alcohol certainly didn’t do the violence, but I’ve seen him come close to hitting other people when intoxicated, that he wouldn’t touch when he was sober. He is a middle classed man with strict ideas about public behaviours.
My experience is that my life has been affected by my both family member’s drinking and their violence. Interestingly, when dad tried prozac, he also became disinhibited and lashed out in a bizarre way at people. he just lost the plot entirely, and had to stop taking it immediately. He has a severe historical head injury.
I have read of other cultures where intoxiacted people are violent, with not only alcohol, but with other mind altering substances. I’ve read of village’s of people cowering in their homes, with the intoxicated person running amok and being afraid they would be the ones chosen to be attacked.