Alcohol Linked to Partner Violence?

Interview with Dr. K. Daniel O'Leary

Is there an alcohol/partner violence link? This interview with Dr. K. Daniel O'Leary examines the relationship between alcohol and physical aggression against a partner.

Dr. Hanson--

Before we start talking in any depth about the issue of dating violence and partner violence, can you first tell me what is meant by dating violence and partner violence?

Dr. O'Leary--

Dating and partner violence both refer to any act of physical aggression against a partner such as pushing, shoving, kicking, grabbing, pulling hair, and beating. The physical aggression almost always occurs in the context of an argument. For a number of different reasons, sexual aggression is generally seen as different from physical aggression though the acts of sexual aggression are physical in nature, e.g., unwanted fondling, kissing, and sexual intercourse.

Dr. Hanson--

How big a problem is dating violence? How big a problem is partner violence?

Dr. O'Leary--

Approximately 30% of females and 30% of males in high school and college report that their partners engaged in physical aggression against them. The most common forms of physical aggression are pushing, slapping, grabbing, but about 5% of high school and college students report that their partners used severe physical aggression against them.

Physical aggression between married partners is less than the prevalence of physical aggression in dating relationships. Overall, approximately 12% of women and 12% of men in nationally representative community samples of U.S. citizens indicate that they have been the recipients of physical aggression against their partners.

Dr. Hanson--

So are you saying that physical aggression gets less as one gets older?

Dr. O'Leary--

Yes, physical aggression against intimate partners decreases across the decades. This decrease in similar to the decrease in physical aggression of varied kinds, e.g., assault and murder. Overall, aggression of most kinds declines as one ages or “matures.”

Dr. Hanson--

The notion that physical aggression declines as one ages does not seem to fit with the notion that violence escalates, a view that one sometimes hears on television and in the newspapers.

Dr. O'Leary--

In the early clinical descriptions of violence and battering, interviews were conducted with battered women who were asked about their past and the history of the violence they experienced. Often these women would describe relationships characterized by physically aggressive encounters that occurred early in the marriage, or even during courtship. Further, the women described how the physical aggression escalated across time to arguments and encounters that involved control and fear inducing tactics.

Dr. Hanson--

Do you question the accuracy or truthfulness of the reports of the battered women?

Dr. O'Leary--

No. I don’t question their truthfulness. The descriptions given by the battered women were most likely quite accurate, but the majority of women in relationships characterized by physical aggression during the dating or early marriage phase do not report that such aggression continues. We just finished a follow-up study of women we assessed prior to marriage and over the first three years of marriage. We now have followed the women a decade later. While about 30% of the women were in relationships characterized by physical aggression during their courtship, a decade later, more than half of these women no longer said that their partners engaged in any physical aggression against them. More specifically, only 10% of the women a decade later reported any aggression whereas 30% of the very same women had reported physical aggression when they were courting.

These data collected from a longitudinal study of first time marriages fir well with data from studies that have looked at large samples of men and women and then broken the sample down into age groupings. Essentially, the studies show that physical aggression against intimate partners declines after about age 25.

Dr. Hanson--

Has the problem of dating violence/partner violence increased across the last few decades?

Dr. O'Leary--

We do not know for sure, but at least based on studies of dating violence in high school and college students, it appears that there may have been an increase in such aggression across the last 25-30 years.

Dr. Hanson--

Does alcohol cause dating violence/partner violence?

Dr. O'Leary--

Alcohol use itself does not cause dating violence or partner violence. However, alcohol use is a significant risk factor for partner violence. More specifically, in a nationally representative sample, men who drank alcohol many drinks of alcohol at one sitting, often called binge drinking, were more likely to engage in physical aggression against their partners than men who do not drink at all or who drank only one to two drinks at a sitting (e.g., over a two hour period). However, in about 75% of the instances where physical aggression occurred, no alcohol was used by either partner. Thus, many factors other than alcohol use contribute to physical aggression in partners.

Dr. Hanson--

It seems to me that we often hear about a man beating his wife and when the incident is investigated by the police, alcohol played a significant role. What is the evidence on this issue.

Dr. O'Leary--

If one turns to the evidence gathered from populations in which there is some significant legal problem such as partner abuse that is reported to the police, the association between alcohol abuse and partner abuse is quite high. In fact, in one study about half of the men arrested for partner abuse had been drinking at the time of the incident.

Dr. Hanson--

What is the evidence about the alcohol/violence link if one looks at a population of alcoholics?

Dr. O'Leary--

Some data that links alcohol use and abuse in alcoholics has been found using a daily diary approach. Specifically, the alcoholics kept daily records of their drinking or abstinence (as did their partners) and they also kept daily records of whether there was any physical aggression. The odds of an alcoholic man being physically aggressive against his wife were 11 times higher on days the man drank alcohol than on days when he drank no alcohol. As predicted, the violence was more likely during the male partners’ drinking or shortly after the drinking.

Dr. Hanson--

Do these data have any practical advice for a partner of a man or woman with a serious alcohol problem?

Dr. O'Leary--

These findings suggest that it is often prudent to avoid arguments and conflicts when one or both partners have been drinking because the risk of violence is much higher when the partner is drinking than when he/she is not drinking.

 

Dr. K. Daniel O'Leary is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Director of Clinical Training at Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY. He is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and he was the recipient of the Distinguished Scientist Award from the Clinical Division of the American Psychological Association. He was also the recipient of the Distinguished Practitioner Award from the National Academies of Practice. He has conducted work on the development, prevention, and treatment of partner abuse. More specifically, he has been interested in predictors of partner violence, and he has shown that alcohol use itself is not a major risk for dating violence or partner violence in community samples. However, in community samples, alcohol abuse, problem drinking, and binge drinking are very significant risk factors for partner abuse. Further, in clinical samples such as samples of men who are mandated to treatment for partner abuse, alcohol use and/or abuse is a significant risk factor for partner abuse.

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