Sue and Tom* were married less than a year before Tom’s alcoholism began to have a negative effect on their marriage. Tom was eight years older than Sue, a graduate student at a prestigious university; she was an at-home mom for their first child, but would shortly start graduate school herself. The drinking problem was insidious at first. Tom’s three or four beers every evening hardly seemed something to worry about. When he added a shot of whiskey every night, he excused it by saying he was under a lot of pressure from the difficult classes he was taking. But without making the link to the drinks at first, Sue became more and more upset by Tom’s unpredictable and often angry and out-of-control behavior.
He began to swear violently at her, over small things like a late dinner, or a request for help with the laundry. One night he came home and screamed at her, kicking over a chair and calling her names until she cried, because she had cooked refried beans out of a can instead of making them from scratch. His increasingly violent behavior started to follow a cycle – by the second year of their marriage, it fell into a pattern: Tom would come home tired at the end of the week, start yelling, screaming, and pushing Sue, would then drink more beer and whiskey to calm himself, and the next day would be back to his sweeter self, bringing her a gift or in other ways trying to make up. The cycle would repeat itself two weeks later. Sue sought counseling, deeply upset and puzzled by the two-week cycles. But she could not bring herself to tell the counselor about the violence.
Tom began to drink in secret, disappearing for four or five hours every night after dinner to “work on insulating the attic.” After six months of this behavior, when the attic appeared no closer to being finished, and Sue was tired of managing the household by herself on top of her graduate studies, she began to complain. Tom became more threatening, shouting and swearing at her while pushing her into the wall. At six feet two inches, a hundred and sixty pounds, he towered over her five foot four, hundred and five pound frame. Friends started to notice the problems. One friend of theirs found Sue walking in the neighborhood one day, her face streaming with tears, and asked her what was the matter, but she wouldn’t tell him. Another evening Sue showed up at a friend’s house barefoot, because Tom had locked her out of the house without her shoes.
New behaviors compatible with drinking emerged as Tom found ways to justify his compulsion. Fixing the car was one way to spend a long afternoon drinking beer. But the car remained up on blocks for three weeks out of four nearly every month. Sue was reduced to stealing grocery carts from the neighborhood store to get the groceries home with a three year old in tow. Tom focused on his school work, but seemed completely unable to help with housework. Sue completed her graduate studies, did all the housework, and took care of their child, but grew increasingly frustrated. She began to make the connection to the alcohol, and brought him pamphlets on it, but they only made him angrier. As she got to know his family, she learned that his mother, a brother, and his sister all had serious problems with alcohol.
By the next year they had another child, and Sue was overwhelmed with care of the children, the house, and her graduate studies, as well as an editing job she took to pay for their health insurance because Tom’s assistantship had expired. One night when she tried to confront Tom about his lack of help with the housework, he knocked her down, and rushed out the door. His angry behavior continued, and she found a marijuana joint hidden on the top of a door molding. She continued to confront him but he began to grab her by the arms and shake her hard when she did, and she grew frightened. Finally, when he began to swear at their now five-year old and became violent towards the child, throwing him against a wall when putting him in “time-out”, Sue took the children and left.
But Sue didn’t understand much about alcoholism as a disease. Tom grew repentant, promised to give up drinking and never swear at her again, and to be gentler with the children, if she would just come home. Sue returned to the marriage nine months later, to discover that Tom had only given up drinking for a month. The violence soon resumed. Now when he shook her he left bruises on her arms where he grabbed her. The marriage lasted two more years, until Tom’s escalating violence had driven Sue from their home overnight four more times. The last time he hurt her, he smashed her into a door jam and fractured her arm.
In the end, the court system sent Tom to anger management classes for twelve sessions. But he continued to drink, and continued to have problems with their oldest child during visitation. Mediation sessions ordered by the court were a disaster. Two separate mediators threw out the case, saying that they could not work with the couple in that situation. Even after divorce, alcoholism continues to affect the lives of not only Tom, who remains untreated, but also his ex-wife and their two sons.
Heavy drinking has been implicated as a risk factor in domestic violence, a significant cause of injury, particularly to women. A study published in the December 2004 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research measured baseline alcohol consumption of a group of 9,534 active duty male soldiers, who were also spousal abusers, with a control group of 21,786 who were matched for rank and marital status. The results showed that the heaviest drinkers, consuming 22 or more drinks per week, were “66 percent more likely to abuse their spouses than those classified as abstainers.” Lighter or more moderate drinkers were still two and three times, respectively, more likely to abuse their spouses while they were drinking as soldiers reporting that they consume less than one drink per week.
“In short, we found that the enlisted, married, male Army soldiers who drink heavily are more likely to abuse their spouses both when they are and when they are not drinking alcohol” stated the first author of the study, Nicole S. Bell, a vice president at Social Sectors Development Strategies, Incorporated. Gordon Smith, an associate public health professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health noted the unique ability of the study to link data from different sources. The study used the large group of soldiers because the soldiers were easy to follow over a long period of time, and researchers were able to study the soldiers both before and after abuse events.
The experiences of Sue and Tom, and those of many other couples, continue to demonstrate the relevance of these findings for civilian families as well.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy of individuals.
Author Catherine Knott, Ph.D., teaches Anthropology and Sociology for the University of Alaska on the Kenai Peninsula. She has a Ph.D. in Anthropology, Natural Resources, and Education from Cornell University and a B.A. from Yale University.