The Conjoinment of Addiction and Domestic Violence

Domestic violence and addiction are not just closely related; they’re often the same exact pattern. They feed and inform one another, and it is all but impossible to break either cycle without breaking both. If an addict gets clean but does not address the patterns of (usually intergenerational) trauma expressing as domestic violence, they are almost guaranteed to be an unsafe partner and parent; their children are far more likely to become addicts and abusers themselves, and the cycle continues. 

It will come as no surprise that most of the addicts we work with, including many of our staff, have both personal and intergenerational histories with domestic violence. We work with both women and men who have experienced nightmares that few of us can imagine. We also work with people who have perpetrated those same nightmares. Most addicts, especially men, have caused grievous harm to the people, especially women, who they are close to. 

It would be criminally neglectful for us to ignore the histories of our residents while attempting to support them in recovery. As addiction psychologist Dr. Gabor Mate writes: “Before we ask how we handle something, we have to understand what are we handling… Addiction is only a symptom, it’s not the fundamental problem. The fundamental problem is trauma.” The success rates for most sober houses are quite low, and we believe that one factor contributing to this is that most sober houses do not directly address the cycles of trauma that are often at the root of addiction. 

At Midcoast Recovery, we are dedicated to supporting recovery in its totality. This means that in addition to targeted recovery practices, we prioritize helping our residents experience healthy domestic culture in our houses. For our women’s house, this is often an exercise in healthy boundaries, identification of red flags and unhealthy patterns, clear communication, and balanced relationships. The staff of 63 Washington work to counsel and mentor the residents there towards a deeper understanding of their own agency and power, what it feels like to be respected in relationships, how to communicate needs and boundaries clearly, and how to assert those boundaries effectively. 

Many of our residents have come from violent and abusive relationships; and much domestic abuse is framed by abusers as love or support. This can make it immensely challenging to understand that love is not abuse, and the internalization of this framing can lead victims of domestic violence into new abusive relationships despite their immense work and desire not to be abused again. The work we do at 63 Washington is intended to lay the foundations for the women there to move into healthy working environments, heal family dynamics, and manifest healthy, supporting, loving romantic relationships in their lives. 63 Washington is not just a place to stay clean and sober; it’s a place to practice healthy living in a way that many of our residents have never known and provide a launch-pad for them to take off into new realms of health and wellness. 

The work at The Friends’ House is perhaps surprisingly similar. We practice respectful and gentle communication, genuine awareness and sharing of emotions, understanding of our own power and agency, identification of unhealthy patterns, and healthy boundary affirmation and assertion. 

Many of the men at The Friend’s House are coming directly out of prison, and this brings a set of challenges that can seem unique. They have learned not to trust anyone but themselves, and they have internalized some beliefs and perspectives about women which are heart-wrenchingly dehumanizing. While they generally have strong critical judgments about men who hurt women, they simultaneously carry and regularly express beliefs which are directly supportive and justifying of violence against women; and it is clear that their mindsets will lead them back into the patterns of domestic violence that most of them come from unless addressed and shifted. It can be easy to blame this on prison culture, but over time we have come to see these not as characteristics unique to prison, but as focused and concentrated expressions of thought-patterns common among men who come from domestic violence and addiction. 

In addition to being our ethical duty to our communities, we view our work helping our male residents shift these harmful perspectives and beliefs as integral to their recovery. One of the lesser-discussed aspects of abuse is that perpetrating domestic violence is a brutally painful thing for the perpetrator to carry. Perpetration is caustic to the soul, and relapse into addiction can be a very easy escape from the awareness that you have hurt someone you love. This kind of cycle is so well-known that the drunken, violent father archetype has been the butt of many sitcoms, but when we name it outright the ugliness and tragedy of it becomes much more real. 

It can be tempting to come down hard on someone who makes an overtly sexist comment, but in our experience this often serves only to drive the pattern underlying the comment deeper, and remove our access to it. So instead of judgment, we work to help the residents at The Friends House begin to see the ways in which their lives are better, happier, and healthier when their perspectives on women are more humanized. This is slow, subtle work; simply stating it is not enough and is often actually counter-productive. It is done by mentoring healthy male-female relationships, gentle questioning and exploration of thoughts and opinions, what we choose to laugh at in conversation, the subtle shaping of the house tone and narratives, and myriad other practices intended to help our residents undertake the slow, hard work of shifting deeply-ingrained, lifelong patterns with roots that often extend back generations. 

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. As your community members, we ask several things of you who have read this far on the subject of domestic violence. The first is the simplest: We ask that you give generously to organizations who are working to address domestic violence. If they need volunteers, give generously of your time as well. There are many amazing groups around the world doing incredible work on this issue, and they are often chronically underfunded; your support will actively help communities become healthier and more safe. 

The second is much harder. We ask that you consider the ways in which you have internalized beliefs and perspectives which contribute to domestic violence. Addressing subtle ways in which we have been taught to dehumanize women and minorities is a way that we can directly confront both patterns of addiction and patterns of domestic violence in our communities. For example, do you use any gendered insults, like “Sissy” or “Bitch?” Have you considered how these types of insults reinforce the ideas that women are weak, or that a woman expressing her power is inherently bad? Have you considered how reinforcing these beliefs makes harming women more ideologically justifiable or excusable in a patriarchal culture? 

Our language and our thinking are inextricably intertwined, and each inform the other. Please consider all the layers that you can of what you were taught about gender and violence, and confirm that you ethically support all the mindsets that your speech and thought contribute to. This is hard work, and thank you for considering it with us. 

Many thanks for all your investment and support, and may we all move towards health and wellness.