AOD and Family Violence

What is the relationship between AOD and family violence?

Working with both victim survivors and people using violence has given AOD practitioners insights into the complex relationship between substance use and family violence. We understand, for example, that substances can be used by people using violence to exert control, and by victim survivors to help them make it through.

Below is a summary of some of the different roles substance use can play in a violent relationship.

Person using violence

  • Uses state of intoxication, comedown or hangover as an excuse or justification for violence
  • Blames victim survivor for their substance use
  • Encourages victim survivor’s substance use, controls their use, controls administration
  • Interferes in victim survivor AOD treatment, sabotages recovery
  • Uses children as a weapon (e.g. “I’ll tell child protection about your drug use”)

Victim survivor

  • Attempts to predict violence by monitoring partner’s substance use
  • Tried to increase safety by influencing partners substance use (e.g. amount of intoxication, location of use)
  • Manages pain or anxiety/fear caused by family violence through substance use
  • Prepares for anticipated violence

Why the AOD sector needs a specific response to family violence

There is a good chance that AOD practitioners will at some point work with clients that are experiencing and/or using family violence.

  1. The Royal Commission into Family Violence heard that between 50% and 90% of women accessing mental health services and AOD services had experienced child abuse or family violence.
  2. International studies show that among men using AOD services, approximately 30-40% have used intimate partner violence and/or sexual violence.

While much of the evidence base situates family violence as a gendered phenomenon – where men disproportionately use family violence and women disproportionately experience family violence – AOD services are also likely to encounter instances that are not specifically gendered in nature. For example; adolescents towards parents or siblings, adult child towards parents, sibling to sibling violence, LGBTIQ+ intimate partner violence, use of family violence by women, and so on.

This estimated prevalence of family violence among AOD clients suggests that AOD service providers have a unique and valuable opportunity to identify the problem, assess for the relationship between the two issues and intervene appropriately.

Does AOD use cause family violence?

The causes of family violence are complex – and, as mentioned previously, much of the evidence base focuses predominately on heterosexual cisgender relationships where women experience and men use family violence.

This evidence base shows that violence against women and children is deeply rooted in power imbalances between men and women – gender inequality.

Primary prevention group, Our Watch, therefore identifies four distinct gendered drivers of family violence:

  1. Condoning of violence against women
  2. Men’s control of decision-making and limits to women’s independence in public and private life
  3. Rigid gender stereotyping and dominant forms of masculinity
  4. Male peer relations and cultures of masculinity that emphasise aggression, dominance and control

Substance use – while not a driver – can become a reinforcing factor and influence the risk of the person using family violence. Other reinforcing factors may include: intergenerational abuse and trauma, exposure to violence as a child, social and economic exclusion, financial pressures and mental illness.

The tendency to think that AOD is a driver of family violence is due to an evidence base which finds substance use in around 50% of all family violence cases. However, this does very little to explain why people are using violence in the other half of cases where AOD is not present. Additionally, people who use violence may cite alcohol and other drugs as the reason for their violence – using substances as means to give themselves permission to be violent. This is a common smokescreen by people who use violence to avoid taking accountability for their choices.

While the use of alcohol and drugs can often make the violence more regular or more serious, it does not cause it.

Key differences between the family violence and AOD sectors

The AOD and family violence sectors use different language and terminology and have differences in the philosophies that underpin practice.

  1. The AOD sector uses language that is non-blaming and non-stigmatising and differentiates between the self and the behaviour of a person (e.g. person who uses alcohol as opposed to “alcoholic”)
  2. The family violence sector uses language that is intended to emphasise responsibility for behaviour (e.g. person using violence) and to highlight the serious nature and impact of family violence.

Both perspectives are intended to create change and protect people who are potentially vulnerable. Arguably, both perspectives serve a different function and are not mutually exclusive. Mutual respect and a collaborative approach can allow both perspectives to co-exist and both aims to be achieved.

Other key differences between the sectors include the differences in the central operating philosophies;

  1. harm reduction in the AOD sector
  2. gender inequality in the family violence sector.

This can be understood when considering the history of the two sectors. The AOD sector was historically developed to work with men. Currently many workers and clients (67%) are men. Family violence responses were developed to respond to women and children. Over time interventions for men have become part of the work of the sector although work with women and children and with men is largely separate.


For more information on the intersections of AOD and family violence: