Your Partner Has a Gambling Problem: Here's How to Help
About a year ago a coaching client of mine told me about sudden inexplicable financial troubles. He couldn’t figure out where the money was disappearing. It really wasn’t difficult to figure out at all - he just wasn't ready to see it.
A Story of Love and Gambling
He and his wife enjoyed day trips to Atlantic City, and they had been going for years. Recently, he told me his wife began going with her friends, without him. I suspected that extra money was going down that drain. He followed up on my suggestion about discussing it with her but the conversation backfired - she not only became defensive about her need for those day trips, she also claimed that her need originated from the stress he brought to the relationship. She even claimed that if she had more control over the finances, they wouldn’t have so many problems.
A few days later he called to tell me that she wasn't going to Atlantic City with her friends, she was going alone, and sometimes she went gambling even when she said she was going elsewhere. He admitted that he could be living and loving a gambling addict. The signs were:
- Disappearing money
- Secretiveness about the gambling
- Blaming another for the problem
- Claiming to be able to control the problem.
Notice how it sounds just like the signs of substance abuse addictions.
I told him to take careful stock of the valuables in the house, and he began to notice some things missing, like his gold cufflinks (that he almost never wore) and her grandmother’s watch.
The goal in our work together became how to help a compulsive gambler, but there were two major roadblocks:
- His feelings.
- Her perceptions.
He had a hard time accepting that his beloved wife would steal money, lie, and compulsively gamble. He was also afraid to confront her because he didn’t want to hurt her and he didn't believe in tracking her movements or restricting them. He was afraid to say to her “I know you went to A.C. to gamble,” it felt accusatory, like he was an abusive husband. While he wanted her to stop, and wanted to help, he also wanted to defend her and cover up for her.
A bigger problem was that she needed to want to stop. The first step was to convince her that there was a gambling problem. Since the relationship was strong, we used a cooperative approach. One goal was to set financial boundaries and make it obvious when those boundaries were threatened. For that, he needed to be aware of her gambling and be able to discuss her financial breaches without accusing her. For this:
- They started to plan her trips to Atlantic City together - planning how much money she would have to take with her.
- They would review how well she did when she came back. This way he could track the losses.
This was really difficult for him, especially when she lost some of her expensive jewelry. However, since he was not getting angry and he was supportive of her (but not of the habit) it only took about three months for her to just admit that she had a problem, though it took another six months before she was ready to get help.
They are not out of the woods yet, but it is looking good. He needed (and needs) constant coaching and support, especially to guard his own finances and sanity. He certainly could not do it alone.
5 Tips for Helping a Loved-One
Here are some lessons for anyone in this situation:
1. Get Support
If you are living and loving a problem gambler, don’t try to handle the situation without support. Get help. Like all addictions, shame and stigma can prevent you from regaining your life, if you let them.
- Support, either through professional help or a 12 step group, can save you from feeling that you're all alone.
- Other people who have the same struggles can point out codependency problems; when by trying to be helpful to your loved one you are actually exacerbating the problem.
2. Protect Yourself and Your Family
Like with any addiction, one person's behaviors affect other family members. If you and your family get burdened with your loved one’s gambling debts, it could take years to get your financial situation back under control.
- If you have to take over the family’s finances, then that might be a priority.
- At the same time, you must be very careful not to become responsible for the gambler’s problems. He or she will have to sink or swim on her or his own.
3. Explain the Situation to the Children
If you have children, explain the problem to them. They know that something is amiss and they will handle it better if it is explained in an appropriate manner. When talking to your children, and when talking to yourself, never forget the good qualities your loved one has.
- You need to keep the door open for a full and complete reintegration into the family.
- In this same vein, you want to keep the gambler involved in family activities as much as possible.
4. Keep Calm
Staying calm is extremely important.
- Don’t lose your temper about the gambling, because that can serve as an excuse for more gambling (and the same goes for lecturing and scolding.)
This does not mean that you need to sugarcoat the situation. You do need to discuss the implications and consequences of the gambling, just do not react emotionally since it will be counterproductive.
5. Allow Natural Consequences to Occur
You should never bail out the gambler. There need to be “natural” consequences for bad behavior.
Always remember that gambling addiction treatment can take a long time, and it is likely that there will be ups and downs, progress and relapses, but with support and persistence you can get your family-life back.
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