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Gambling Affected

Gambling addiction is devastating for anyone who loves/cares about the gambler. Affected others include spouses, families, and friends. Research indicates that partners of problem gamblers are more likely to have mental health issues, engage in substance/behavioural misuse, and are 3 times more likely to attempt suicide.

Often loved ones are in the dark about the extent of the problem and may not know for years that they are fighting an addiction. They experience self-doubt and confusion and are often traumatized when they are blindsided by their loved ones gambling. The combination of the partner’s overwhelming emotions and the problem gambler’s stress can lead to domestic violence. This hidden illness dramatically impacts everyone who loves the addict.

The Addicted Relationship

For the problem gambler, gambling is their primary relationship. Some would say that every problem gambler has a good enabler behind them. Typically there is a partner or affected other that buys into the shared blame for the addiction. Affected others often talk about how “if they would have been more understanding, supportive, and loving then this addiction would never have gotten so bad.” Please know that the gambling is never your fault! You are only responsible for how you move forward (in a healthy way) once you know about the problem. Here are some common consequences that happen in relationships impacted by gambling addiction. Can you relate to any of these patterns?

  • Affected others often have martyr or rescuing roles with the gambler. Addicts become irresponsible, behaving in self serving ways that neglect others’ needs. Loved ones tend to pick up the slack and take on more of the consequences. The more affected others take on, the more the gambler’s behaviour/choices are reinforced.
  • As the addiction progresses, everyone gives up their own needs to accommodate the addictive behaviour, often without being aware they are doing so. As they pay less attention to their own feelings, their own needs become unclear, and are expressed to each other indirectly rather than openly, clearly, and directly.
  • Boundaries can become confused in addictive family systems. Family members feel they can control or change someone else’s behaviour and may invest tremendous energy in trying to do so. Affected others may feel responsible for the actions of others, and for meeting the needs of others. As a result, they lose their sense of self.
  • There is little energy or attention given to the relationship itself. Communication may become tense. Commonly, the partner initiates discussions with accusations, advice giving, or probing questions. The problem gambler reacts with defensive, angry or placating responses. Expression of affection dwindles as problem gambling increases.
  • Trust becomes a significant issue when boundaries have been broken. Partners of problem gamblers report that the secrecy (required to maintain gambling) is a major cause of the break down in trust.
  • The betrayal, deception and secrecy associated with problem gambling often devastates intimacy with partners. Both individuals are disconnected in order to protect themselves during this turbulent process. The affected partner may be feeling punitive and have overwhelming emotions that do not encourage connection.
  • It is the family who are most profoundly effected by the gambler’s emotional rollercoaster. Gambling wins and losses often lead to very high levels of anxiety and depression. Impulsive emotional outbursts can often include despair, rage, and trauma.
  • Over time, the self esteem of affected others is often eroded. People turn on themselves for being so stupid or so blind. Conversely, feelings may be numbed and family members may employ coping strategies such as ignoring feelings or distorting and altering them through self-medication. This self-medication could eventually result in affected others developing their own addictive behaviour as an escape response.
  • Affected others live with repeated lying and secretiveness. Constantly on edge, wondering, guessing, and scared about what is coming next. They try repeatedly to coax, confront and compromise but they always end up losing. Combined with disrupted personal and social relationships, their self-esteem may be shattered. Children and partners of problem gamblers may be insecure, feeling their family is threatened and they are somehow responsible.
  • As the addiction grows, the shame builds. Addiction often leaves family members feeling inadequate and isolated. Most family members of problem gamblers feel consistently helpless and overwhelmed. The family gets secretive, in order to hide from others who may never understand. This staves off criticism but further isolates the loved ones from their emotional supports. Feeling alone and isolated, as well as sadness and anger, may lead to diminished cognitive functioning. Stress load and compromised ability to cope is a prevalent emotional difficulty. However, members of the family ultimately blame themselves for the problems arising from the addiction, and when their efforts to improve the situation fail, they experience a deep sense of shame
  • Perhaps the most obvious problem experienced by family members is a financial crisis or ongoing burden created by problem gambling, which often compounds the breakdown in trust. Loved ones often are caught completely off-guard by the severity of the financial losses. Even after the problem gambling has stopped, the family must deal with the lengthy financial debts. A previous lifestyle will often undergo radical change. Commonly, partners, parents and/or children will bail out or pick up extra burdens to pay the debts.

Recovery Tasks for the Family member/partner or affected others

Affected others may seek help on their own while the problem gambler continues to engage in the problem. The overall recovery task for a loved one is to disengage emotionally from the problem gambler and gambling activity and to focus healthy attention on one’s self. Here are some initial recovery areas to think about for you, if someone you love is addicted to gambling.

  • Financial protection is imperative to restore security and safety for basic needs. Ideally this would be collaborative with the problem gambler but may have to be done independently.
  • Learning healthy expressions of anger and other emotions helps family members to focus on themselves and create boundaries.
  • Due to secrecy, concealment and the invisibility of problem gambling, trust levels have been damaged. Recovery involves the affected others’ learning to trust their observations and instincts about what is going on around them. Self-doubt must slowly evolve to self-confidence.
  • Loved ones learn to be supportive rather than controlling.
  • Affected others need to learn basic information about the process of gambling addiction and that it is an illness.
  • Relationships with friends, family members, and co-workers need to be re-established.
  • Allowing the problem gambler to experience their own consequences rather that loved ones chronically rescuing them and providing excuses.

"When I discovered the big gambling debts a few years ago I was shocked and helpless. I approached Jennifer and started the weekly counselling sessions with her at her office. Right from the start, Jennifer was so helpful, she offered professional advice and gave me strength to cope with debts and many other difficulties in my marriage. I am so grateful for Jennifer’s professional service and continue meeting with her monthly online, during COVID-19.

C.T. -2021

Serving Surrey, Langley, and the Fraser Valley, B.C.