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What Triggers a Domestic Violence Attack?

Substance Abuse Plays a Role, But Isn't the Trigger

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Updated September 17, 2013

Angry Woman

Red Flag for Violence

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Drug and alcohol use has long been linked to domestic violence, but the exact role substance abuse plays in triggering violent events is not clear. The general consensus seems to be that alcohol and drug use may act as a catalyst in escalating conflicts into a violent outburst, but isn't the actual cause of the behavior.

Alcohol can play a part in domestic violence because it can impair the abuser's judgement, reduce inhibition and increase aggression. There have been many studies done on the relationship between alcohol abuse and domestic violence and the prevalence of alcohol abuse during a violent episode has been reported from 25% to 80%.

But there is no scientific evidence indicating a cause-and-effect relationship between substance abuse and intimate partner violence.

What Does Trigger Violence?

What then does trigger violent episodes among intimate partners? What does cause a perpetrator to launch a violent attack?

A new approach to researching domestic abusers and their victims may be the key to finding the most common trigger for a violent episode. By listening to actual telephone conversations between perpetrators who have been incarcerated for felony domestic violence (violence that resulted in serious injury) and their victims, researchers have been able to determine exactly what triggered the violent episodes.

Julianna Nemeth and other researchers at Ohio State University listened to hours of audio recordings of telephone conversations between male abusers who were in jail and their female victims. The researchers were trying to determine the immediate precursor of the violent episode - "the one thing that happened right before the violence," she wrote.

Accusations of Sexual Infidelity

What the researchers found was that violence most often followed an accusation of sexual infidelity made by one or both of the intimate partners. Drug and alcohol use was often involved in these incidents, but not always.

Previous research has shown that sexual jealousy played a role in domestic abuse, but the Ohio State scientists were surprised to find that this particular type of jealousy - infidelity accusations - was the trigger that most often initiated the violence.

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Other Relationship Stressors

"I have worked in domestic violence intervention for many years, but still the findings shocked me," lead author Nemeth wrote. "We never knew that it was the accusation of infidelity that tended to trigger the violence."

Along with the accusation of infidelity as the main trigger for a violent outburst, the telephone conversations reveal a variety of other relationship stressors that also contributed to the intimate partner abuse. They include:

  • A long-running dispute about infidelity in nearly every relationship.
  • Chronic drug and alcohol abuse, which escalated arguments into violence.
  • Untreated mental health issues - depression, preoccupation with suicide.

A Red Flag for Violence

The Ohio State researchers concluded that counselors and advocates working with domestic abuse victims who are trying to assess how much danger the victim may be in should ask specifically if accusations of sexual infidelity have been discussed by the couple.

"It is a red flag that the relationship may be volatile," they wrote.

They also suggested that health care providers working with abuse victims should also screen for drug and alcohol abuse as well as mental health issues.

Get the Help You Need

Previous studies have also recommended linking substance abuse and domestic violence services. Although there are different opinions about what role drug and alcohol abuse plays in intimate partner violence, research has shown that providing substance abuse and domestic abuse services together can have a positive impact on ending the abuse.

If you or someone you know is it a relationship in which there have been accusations of sexual infidelity and in which there is some form of drug or alcohol abuse, please seek help. There is assistance and help available in your area.

Sources:

Collins, JJ, et al. "Issues in the Linkage of Alcohol and Domestic Violence Services." Recent Developments in Alcoholism, Volume 13: Alcoholism and Violence. Accessed 2012.

Nemeth, JM, et al. "Sexual Infidelity as Trigger: An Events Analysis of Intimate Partner Violence." Journal of Women's Health 29 June 2012.

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