How Addiction Affects Abusive Relationships

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Why Are Abusive Relationships and Addiction Linked?

Abusive relationships can take many forms and incorporate multiple types of abuse. Many onlookers tend to wonder why a victim of an abusive relationship simply does not leave, while others point to drugs and alcohol as causes of abuse. While abuse and addiction do have a correlation, it’s not as simple as one might think. It’s crucial to understand the complexity of abusive relationships and addiction in order to break the cycle and help victims.

Mythbusting: Blame It On the Alcohol

Drugs and alcohol do not cause violent behavior. It may seem like they do because abusers’ behavior worsens when they’re under the influence, but it’s important to recognize abuse for what it is and not allow the abusive partner to shift responsibility to the substance. The relationship between an abusive relationship and addiction revolves around inhibition. When an abusive partner is sober, they are more likely to inhibit their violent impulses. This is due to what’s called social control —the expectations of friends and family, established social mores, and, most importantly, their desire to make the victim feel like it’s not all that bad.


In the cycle of abuse, the abusive partner alternates between showering the victim with love and mistreating the victim. In the former phase, the abuser may “lovebomb” the victim with flowers, doting, and promises to “do better.” In the latter, the abuser physically abuses or bullies the victim. Often, under the influence is when the pendulum swings toward the negative end of the spectrum.

Addiction to Abuse

Love bombing creates a different form of addiction in the victim: trauma bonding, a form of Stockholm syndrome. Most love-bombing happens at the beginning of an abusive relationship: the abusive partner showers the victim with extreme confessions of love, shows tremendous charisma, and “hooks” the victim. The victim feels like they’ve met “the one.”
When the pendulum then swings to the other side, the victim experiences cognitive dissonance, wondering what went wrong or even outright denying that anything is wrong. Meanwhile, the abuser may use emotional abuse and manipulation to keep the victim from leaving. The key tactics are gaslighting, in which they cause the victim to doubt their sanity, and deprivation, in which they slowly cut off the expressions of love and intimacy. It’s akin to cutting off an addict’s supply and can leave the victim in a state of confusion and anxiety.
At the right moment, the abusive partner swings back toward the positive behavior and promises love, affection, and to never do it again. To relieve the anxiety and recover the high from the good times, the victim gives the abuser another chance. The cycle of abuse is the same as the cycle of addiction. Being addicted to an abuser is the chief reason “why they didn’t leave.”
Many people with substance abuse use exhibit codependency and trust issues, and thus may be more likely to deploy these tactics in relationships. Again, it’s not that the substance causes the abuse, but rather that the abusive partner is more likely to have tendencies that are also linked to substance abuse.

Substance Abuse as a Coping Mechanism

Most people who experience substance abuse fall into it due to trauma or persistent mental health issues. As one might imagine, being the victim of abuse is highly traumatic and is a risk factor for developing alcohol or drug addiction. If the victim is still in the abusive relationship, drug addiction can further impair their ability to process new trauma, seek help, or leave the relationship. In some cases, drugs and alcohol can provide a bonding experience that the victim clings to as the abuser slowly drains their supply of affection or other positive experiences.

Addiction and Mental Health in Relationships

All that said, addiction can certainly be a contributing factor to unhealthy, if not abusive relationships. People with addictions often exhibit poor impulse control,  codependency recovery, and irrational thought, none of which are healthy for a relationship. Sometimes, these behaviors can become abusive. If one or both partners in the relationship suffer from poor mental health, these problems can be compounded. Therefore, it’s crucial to seek help for addiction and mental health issues and to cultivate healthy relationships, whether romantic or otherwise.

Breaking the Cycle in Abusive Relationships

Helping yourself or a loved one break the cycle of abuse and addiction is no small undertaking. It’s as important to not blame yourself or the victim for the abuse as it is to assign responsibility to the abusive partner for their behavior, rather than blame drugs and alcohol. The victim should seek therapeutic treatment for trauma as soon as possible, as well as mental health issues and drug addiction if applicable. If one suspects that their loved one is abusing substances, early intervention is key to preventing lasting addiction.

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To help prevent the development of PTSD, it’s also very important to accept the victim’s account of their abuse, even if it’s hard to hear. In situations of emotional abuse, gaslighting can leave victims very confused and they may say contradictory things.

How to Help Someone in Abusive Relationships with Addiction Present

Often, the victim might confide in a loved one, then backpedal out of fear of retaliation from their abuser. They may even say they were “just joking” or insist that the abuser is “getting better” and deserves another chance. You should recognize this as a sign that your loved one is addicted to the abusive partner or perhaps brainwashed by the lie of false love.
Have a non-confrontational conversation in which you give specific examples of behavior that concerns you. Be open and practice active listening, but shut down any statements of self-blame or excuse-making and redirect the conversation to help the victim feel empowered to seek help. Loved ones can support victims by avoiding language that expresses shame or blame and instead using words that encourage recovery and self-empowerment.
Abuse and addiction have complicated relationships that can take many forms. To escape a dangerous situation, victims need to feel empowered and supported. If you suspect that someone you care about is experiencing an abusive or addictive situation, intervene sooner rather than later. If you believe that you may be in such a situation, seek out someone you can trust who can help you make a plan for escape and treatment. Or you can call the  National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.
If you or a loved one needs help, call us at 949-625-4019.

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