Abusive Behavior While Under the Influence

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Have a question about a relationship that you or someone you know is in? 

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My sister and her fiancé have been fighting more lately, and the things she’s telling me are sounding scarier and meaner. He’s never hit her, but he punched a wall last week, and I’m worried that eventually he will hit her. When I told her he sounds abusive, she got defensive and said he’s only mean if he’s had too much to drink, usually after a bad day at work.

 Is this a drinking problem or a bigger problem? If he fixes the drinking, will he stop treating her this way? They’re planning to get married this summer, and I’m getting more and more concerned she’s making the wrong choice.

Thank you for asking this, because I’m sure other readers have also wondered whether drinking causes abuse. It’s something that often comes up with clients we meet at the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse (JCADA). What we see in nearly every case is that alcohol and/or substance abuse is separate from domestic abuse. Another way to think about this is that many individuals abuse alcohol or substances, but do not act abusively toward others. When working with clients whose partners were mostly abusive while under the influence, we have not seen the abusive behavior improve when the partner was sober.

Recently, I heard a great metaphor for this: Two people become intoxicated; one is on a diet and trying to avoid sugary/fatty foods, and the other is a lifelong vegetarian because of strong personal convictions against eating meat. Once intoxicated, it is likely the person on the diet will give in to eating unhealthy food, because the person wants it. It is unlikely, however, that the vegetarian will eat a hamburger, because the vegetarian doesn’t want it. The behavior of the vegetarian (whose eating habits are the result of the person’s belief system) does not change as a result of having too much to drink.

If we apply that example to domestic violence, we see that someone who is not abusive will not become so just because they are drinking. While abusers may try to blame their behavior on being intoxicated, alcohol and drugs do not create the behavior.

It sounds like you are right to be concerned about your sister, especially as she is about to take a major step in her relationship. Continue checking in on how she and her fiancé are doing and be as open and nonjudgmental as possible. While she may not be quite ready to hear your concerns about the relationship being abusive, it seems like she wants to reach out to you. This makes for a tricky balance you will need to maintain on your part. I would continue doing what you’re doing and show concern.

You mentioned that he recently punched a wall — this is actually a physically violent act. By doing this, he is showing his physical strength and what he is capable of doing. If the fiancé becomes more physical and/or the abuse worsens, it’s important to tell her you’re concerned about her safety.

Supporting someone through this kind of situation can be scary and emotionally draining. At JCADA, we not only see victims but significant others as well; siblings, parents, friends, rabbis — anyone supporting victims of abuse. If you are feeling overwhelmed and need support yourself, I would encourage you to call us at JCADA at 1-877-88-JCADA(52232).

For the past 17 years, JCADA has offered support to victims and survivors of domestic and dating abuse. These free clinical and legal services are available to any resident of the Greater Washington area, 14 years of age and older, who is affected by any type of domestic abuse. Staff are available to answer questions, offer support, and connect callers to services on our free and confidential helpline Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Fridays, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 1-877-88-JCADA (52232).