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Study Links Heavy Drinking and Spousal Abuse

Abuse Occurs While Drinking or Not

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Updated September 17, 2013

Domestic violence is a significant and preventable cause of injury to women. The majority of cases involve violence perpetrated by a male partner, and heavy drinking has also been implicated as a risk factor.

A study in the December 2004 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research looks at alcohol consumption and perpetration of spousal abuse by male U.S. Army soldiers. Findings indicate that soldiers who drink heavily are more likely to abuse their spouses both when they are and when they are not drinking alcohol; heavy drinking is also associated with subsequent episodes of spouse abuse even when drinking habits are measured years prior to the event.

"Women are not only more likely than men to be victims of abuse at some point in their lifetime, but women are also more likely to sustain serious injury than are male victims of abuse," said Nicole S. Bell, first author of the study and a vice-president at Social Sectors Development Strategies, Incorporated. "However, it is important to note that married men and women are about equally likely to initiate physical abuse against each other. In fact, male victims of abuse may find it more difficult than female victims to come forward to report their experience due to social stigmatization or shame."

Bell added that heavy drinking is clearly a risk factor for intimate partner violence (IPV). "Men who drink heavily are more likely to abuse their partners both when they are drinking and when they are not drinking than men who are light drinkers. Put another way, women who live with heavy drinkers are more likely to be victims of intimate partner violence.

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Perpetrators of Spousal Abuse

"Furthermore, women who are themselves heavy drinkers are also more likely to be victims of intimate partner violence, though it is not always clear whether their heavy drinking preceded the abuse event or is adopted as a way to cope with an unpleasant home life."

"One of the unique things about this study is that it's able to link data from difference sources," added Gordon Smith, an associate public health professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "This study was able to measure baseline alcohol consumption of a group of soldiers, and then follow them over time to see if there's an increased risk of them being a perpetrator of spousal abuse.

For this study, participants comprised all active-duty, male, enlisted Army spousal abusers identified in the Army's Central Registry (ACR) who had also completed an Army Health Risk Appraisal Survey (HRA) between the years of 1991 and 1998 (n=9,534). Their data were compared with that of 21,786 "controls" who were matched on gender, rank, marital status and had also completed an HRA.

High Functioning, But Heavy Drinkers

"We chose to focus on Army soldiers primarily because we have extensive data available to study them both before and after the abuse event," said Bell. "We were able to examine the stability of the relationship between drinking and perpetration of spousal abuse over a relatively long follow-up time.

"Furthermore, unlike some other studies of perpetrators that have examined populations with criminal backgrounds or those in treatment programs, this study population is relatively high functioning in that they're fully employed, have full access to healthcare, and hold a wide range of different occupations within the Army such as truck drivers, cooks, infantry soldiers, flight crew, and mechanics. Finally, the sheer size of this study population allowed us to explore variations in risk for abuse in different race and age subgroups."

The results showed that those classified as the heaviest drinkers (22 or more drinks per week) were 66 percent more likely to abuse their spouses than those classified as abstainers. In addition, self-reported moderate (8 to 14 drinks per week) and heavy drinkers (15 to 21 drinks per week) were three times as likely, and light drinkers (1 to 7 drinks per week) were twice as likely, as soldiers who report they typically consume less than one drink per week, to be drinking during the time of the abuse event.

Abuse Occurs, Drinking or Not

"In short, we found that the enlisted, married, male Army soldiers who drink heavily are more likely to abuse their spouses both when they are and when they are not drinking alcohol," said Bell.

Researchers also found that heavy drinking is associated with subsequent episodes of spousal abuse even when drinking habits are measured years prior to the event.

"The link between self-reported typical drinking habits and increased risk for spousal abuse appears to be stable even over long periods of time," said Bell. "That is, soldiers who report drinking heavily who are then followed for several years are still, years later, at greater risk for spousal-abuse events, particularly those involving alcohol during the event, but also those not involving alcohol."

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