Roles of Alcohol in Intimate Partner Abuse

2 December 2014

Researchers: Professor Liz Gilchrist, Dr Lana Ireland, Dr Alasdair Forsyth, Tim Laxton & Professor Jon Godwin

Key findings

  • Two-thirds of ‘domestic’ incidents known to the police were found to involve at least one of the couple concerned being ‘under the influence’ of alcohol.
  • There are peaks in such incidents at times of contentious football matches, but also during other significant cultural events involving alcohol such as New Year.
  • According to alcohol screening tools, those convicted of domestic abuse were more risky drinkers (from their AUDIT scores) and associated their drinking with aggression more (from their ARAQ scores) in comparison to other groups.
  • Interviewed participants considered alcohol to have a direct effect on their behaviour and did sometimes present alcohol as an exculpatory factor. However, alcohol’s role in conflict was not restricted to times of intoxication but extended across issues such as male entitlement to drink, control or prevention of his partner’s drinking and his spending from family budget to buy drink.
  • There were clear indications of intertwined cultural, sub-cultural, familial and contextual influences on gender and alcohol use, such that when women were drinking they were held more accountable for any relationship conflict (victim blaming), whilst if men were drinking they were held to be less accountable (accused excusing).


The main aim of the project was to recruit and interview a range of participants with different levels of conflict in their relationships, in particular collecting data from those convicted of domestic offences, plus those seeking help for relationship conflict and a general population sample, to investigate the roles of alcohol in domestic abuse/partner conflict.

This three-phase study collected quantitative and qualitative data to investigate links between drinking and relationship conflict, and also sought to explore cultural events known to co-occur with drinking and domestic violence, such as football. One focus was on the Glasgow ‘auld firm’ football fixture, which had been linked to ‘spikes’ in the incidence of domestic violence locally (Dickson et al, 2012).

The research also sought to explore the use of alcohol as an excuse for domestic abuse, and to consider the evidence to support or challenge previously proposed theoretical links between domestic abuse and alcohol (McMurran & Gilchrist, 2008) specifically: the direct effects model, the indirect effects model, the spurious link model, the multi-threshold model. The research sought to encompass the heterogeneity recognised in domestic abuse; the central role of coercive control within domestic abuse and the need for multi-level nested models as an explanatory framework (Gilchrist et al, 2003).


The project involved three phases.

Phase 1 involved obtaining a large police database of call-outs to domestic incidents. This was conducted in order to quantifying the extent and nature of the known association of alcohol and IPV.

Phase 2 involved the recruitment of (male) offenders from the prison service, including both those convicted of a domestic offence and ‘general offenders’ (collectively termed as the ‘convicted’ group). These prisoners were compared to two control groups; an agency sample of ‘victims/survivors’ of domestic problems (the ‘conflicted’ group), and a community sample of (male) footballers (the ‘contented’ group). All three groups were administered the same questionnaire pack (including three screening tools measuring alcohol, aggression and partner conflict risk: the AUDIT, the ARAQ, and the CTS2).

Phase 3 involved conducting in-depth qualitative interviews with a subset of the prisoners who took part in phase 2.


Phase 1 findings

Analysis of secondary data, concerning almost one quarter of a million police call-outs to domestic incidents, revealed that alcohol was logged as involved in a majority (68.2%) of these, with 61.4% of accused and 36.4% of victims being recorded as ‘under the influence’. Most (82.4%) incidents involved a male accused and female victim (though the majority of both male and female accused were under the influence). By contrast very few call-outs involved illegal drugs and most of these also involved alcohol.
The police data did show some ‘spikes’ in the incidence domestic incident call-outs during the local ‘auld firm’ (Celtic v Rangers) football derby days, however there appear to be similar, or even much greater, ‘spikes’ on other dates when alcohol consumption is likely to be elevated (including more distant international football fixtures) and in particular at the New Year. As might be expected, call-outs involving alcohol tended to peak during the night and at the weekend, and there was a strong association between police call-outs and increasing area deprivation, particularly where alcohol was involved.
Although the co-occurrence of alcohol and IPV was clearly indicated, this does not explain the nature of the relationship between the two (i.e. if causal) nevertheless alcohol tended to be present at apparently more serious domestic incidents.

Phase 2 findings

Primary quantitative data was generated by administering a questionnaire pack, comprising three validated instruments (screening tools) to our three groups of participants, termed here as the ‘convicted’ (male prisoners’), the ‘conflicted’ (mainly female victims/survivors) and the ‘contended’ (male community footballers). For prison operational reasons the ‘convicted’ group included both known ‘domestic offenders’ and ‘general offenders’ (imprisoned for other reasons).

A short demographic questionnaire revealed that although they were of a similar age range and partner status, the ‘convicted’ group was less well educated and the ‘contented’ group had fewer children. These groups are, of course, only representative of the populations they were recruited from and this is likely to impact on the patterning of findings. Nevertheless, some striking, if not entirely unexpected, differences between each of the groups were found.

The three groups completed the 10-item Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test (AUDIT), the 28-item Alcohol Related Aggression Questionnaire (ARAQ) and the 78 item revised Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS2), plus an additional question in the CTS2 format relating to checking-up on partner via mobile phones or social media.
Data from our questionnaire pack revealed greatly elevated scores on both the AUDIT and ARAQ among our ‘convicted’ group, as compared to both the ‘conflicted’ and ‘contented’ groups. For example, 25 of the 40 prisoner participants scored in Zone IV of the AUDIT (the highest level of alcohol harm risk). No participant in the other two groups scored in this highest zone.

The ‘convicted’ and ‘conflicted’ groups were both at higher risk of domestic abuse according to the CTS2, as compared to the ‘contented’ group. Interestingly, our additional question using the CTS2 format, concerning social media, was particularly good at discriminating those in the ‘contended’ group (i.e. they alone tended not check-up on their partners in this way).

As might be expected, being community footballers, more of the ‘contented’ group were supporters of a football team; however it was the ‘convicted’ prisoner group who were most likely to support one of the rival ‘auld firm’ clubs.
Although prison records indicated that the general offenders were more likely to have a known alcohol problem, when our data from prisoners who had been convicted of a domestic offence were compared with our ‘general offender’ participants, the only clear difference between the two prisoner types was that the ‘domestic offenders’ were older (i.e. both types scored as at a similarly high levels if risk according to each of our screening tools: AUDIT, ARAQ and CTS2).

Perhaps as might be expected, the ‘domestic offenders’ were more likely to agree to take part in the qualitative interview phase of the research, which directly addressed the roles of alcohol in their relationship conflicts.

Phase 3 findings

Thematic analysis of qualitative interviews identified two superordinate themes in the data: Situational Context of Alcohol Misuse and Alcohol and Relationship Conflict.

Our interview participants (prisoners) reported a range of ‘abuses and excuses’ familiar within previous account of domestic abuse, citing male entitlement, need to monitor partner behaviour, to control partner’s drinking, need for control, and desire not to lose control. Sexual jealousy and infidelity were also reported (Pence & Paymar, 1993). The oft-reported issues around perpetrators of domestic abuse minimising, denying and blaming were strongly present.

This group of participants reported strong beliefs in the direct effects of alcohol on their behaviour, and even stronger beliefs that certain types of alcohol linked more strongly to violence than others. Cultural norms for alcohol and relationships, and alcohol-related expectancies, were important.

There were clear culturally shaped and gendered beliefs about men and women’s drinking and reference to drinking as the context for relationship conflict and violence. Sporting events, particularly involving the ‘auld firm’ football teams, were linked to relationship conflict, partly through the location of the drinking (a domestic setting) but also with reference to the emotional impact of the matches and even more to challenges to the social identities associated with particular club affiliations.

There were strong beliefs about men and women’s drinking with indications that men’s drinking reduced responsibility of harmful behaviours, whilst women’s drinking increased their culpability.

There was evidence of alcohol performing a role in domestic abuse, not as a disinhibitor but as a source of family stress, as an indicator of preference for masculine values over family ones and as a possible vehicle for judging and controlling a partner. Alcohol was also identified as a factor that functioned not only as an individual risk factor but also as a context for conflict, and as a factor that needs to be explained and understood within strong sub-cultural and cultural beliefs about drinking and violence.


Alcohol is a correlate of domestic abuse and thus does need to be addressed. The high levels of alcohol consumption in our ‘convicted’ sample and relationship conflict in our ‘conflicted’ and ‘convicted’ samples suggests that joint intervention might be appropriate for those experiencing relationship conflicts.

However the strong beliefs in a direct causal effect of alcohol, and strong culturally shaped and gendered beliefs about men and women’s drinking, also demands that alcohol is addressed not as an individual risk factor but in terms of alcohol expectancies, related beliefs and as a gendered issue.

Further Information

For Further information please contact Professor Liz Gilchrist, Glasgow Caledonian University.


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Dickson, A., Jennings, C., & Koop, G. (2012) Domestic Violence and Football in Glasgow: Are Reference Points Relevant?. SIRE discussion paper SIRE-DP-2013-33: Scottish Institute of Research in Economics. Glasgow: University of Strathclyde.

Gilchrist, E., Johnson, R., Takriti, R., Beech, A., Kebbell, M. & Weston, S. (2003) Domestic violence offenders Characteristics and offending related needs Findings No. 217, London: Home Office.

McMurran, M., Egan, V., Cusens, B., Van Den Bree, M., Austin, E., & Charlesworth, P. (2006) The alcohol related aggression questionnaire. Addiction Research & Theory, 14:3, 323-343.

McMurran, M. & Gilchrist, E. (2008) Anger Control and Alcohol Use: Appropriate interventions for perpetrators of domestic violence? Psychology, Crime & Law, 14: 2, 107 – 116.

Pence, E., & Paymar, M. (1993). Education groups for men who batter: The Duluth model. New York: Springer.