When there’s a problem or compulsive gambler in the family, more than just the gambler is negatively affected. The entire family suffers as a result of the behavior and thinking of the gambling addict. How each family is impacted depends on the severity of the gambling problem, how long it has gone on, the closeness of the relationship with the gambler and other factors. Serious financial, psychological, emotional, social and legal problems may completely undermine family functioning to the point of collapse.
The negative effects of problem or compulsive gambling on the family are widespread in this country. According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, an estimated 2 million U.S. adults (1 percent of the population) are compulsive or pathological gamblers. Another estimated 4 to 6 million (2 to 3 percent) can be considered problem gamblers. An estimated one-third (35 percent) of adult problem gamblers have children at home under the age of 18.
Let’s examine some of the ways that gambling affects the family.
Out-of-control gambling and repeated gambling losses take a tremendous toll on the family finances. Well-meaning family members, usually the spouse of the gambler, often try to “help” the gambler by lending them money, bailing them out of financial difficulties, paying their bills, helping them to stash money to gamble, and other behaviors related to providing money to the gambler. This is classic enabling and does no good either for the gambler or his or her family.
Ultimately, the financial losses become too great. The home may be forced into foreclosure. The family may have to declare bankruptcy. When bills can’t be paid because the gambler has squandered all the money on chasing the losses, more than just money is at stake. The provider can no longer provide, and everyone suffers.
Signs of financial difficulties related to gambling include the following:
- Financial statements go missing
- Calls from creditors
- Mounting debt
- Unexplained cash advances on credit cards
- Assets disappear from the home
- Bank accounts drained
- Sudden, unexpected bills
- New loans taken out
- Money for bills used for gambling
Breakdown In Family Relationships
Trying to deal with the stress and tension brought on as a result of the gambler’s behavior jeopardizes the bond among family members. When the spouse, children, siblings and other family members can no longer trust the gambler, feel no sense of security, have no confidence in the gambler or even fear for their future, the result is a breakdown in the family relationships. Endless lies, staying out late or not coming home at all, threats, manipulation and violence or domestic abuse all contribute to the dissolution of family ties.
Shame, avoidance of friends, secrecy and trying to hide the pain further magnify the isolation the family members feel as the gambler’s behavior gets more and more out of control.
Inevitably the spouse of the problem or compulsive gambler tries to pick up the slack. Often the spouse makes excuses to friends and other family members, including children, about the behavior and whereabouts of the gambler. The web of deceit becomes more and more intricate as the spouse tries to hold everything together, trying to maintain a semblance of normalcy despite everything falling apart.
Protecting the children is perhaps the most difficult, as children naturally look to both parents for their security and emotional support. Weighed down by the accumulating financial problems, lack of trust in the gambler, knowing that the gambler’s word means nothing, the spouse cannot help but display his or her tangle of emotions. Children and teenagers pick up on the slightest nuance in family dynamics. They know when something’s not right, when their parents now sleep in different rooms, when tension fills the air, when there’s little or no demonstration of affection, when arguments, tears and recriminations become a daily occurrence.
Anxiety, guilt, shame, depression, insomnia, behavioral problems and emotional insecurity begin to afflict all the family members that are closest to or living in the same environment as the problem or compulsive gambler. The spouse or family members may hide their feelings and refrain from saying certain things, afraid that it may trigger an explosive outburst. Children often seek to distract the attention away from the gambler by being disruptive, comedic or inordinately charming, or they react in the opposite manner and become withdrawn, quiet, and fearful. Older children may assume the role of protector of the younger siblings, or attempt to pick up the responsibilities of one or both parents. They often try to overcompensate at school, believing that if they were only better in their scholastic achievement, maybe their gambling parent would love them more and quit gambling. The emotional roller coaster continues to wreak devastation on the children’s emotional development the longer the gambler keeps gambling and does not get treatment. But, again, everyone in the gambler’s family suffers emotional consequences.
With no trust in the gambler, no belief in their word, the spouse of the gambler often withdraws from the relationship in the form of sex. What sex there is may become perfunctory at best. Harboring intense feelings of anger and blame, the non-gambling spouse cannot show feelings of love. As the cycle of gambling continues with even more damaging consequences, the gambler loses all desire for sexual intimacy – his or her life is now controlled by gambling. The result for the non-gambling spouse is often complete demoralization, loss of self-esteem and confidence.
With tensions escalating at a dangerous pace, the arguments and emotional outbursts may end in violence. Spousal and/or child abuse may occur when the problem or compulsive gambler feels cornered. Both parents may vent their anger at the children, while the children may try to stick up for one parent or defuse the tensions. They may also become pawns in the never-ending squabbling. The bigger the losses, the longer the out-of-control gambling goes on, the greater the potential for serious bodily harm to family members.
Gambling And Dependency
Some problem and compulsive gamblers have more than one dependency. It is commonly accepted that individuals with one type of addiction often have others as well. This may be an addiction to alcohol, illicit drugs, pharmaceutical drugs used for nonmedical purposes, or other type of substance. Just because someone gambles, however, doesn’t mean they’re automatically going to be addicted to something else, but the patterns of behavior are already established – particularly if one or more of the gambler’s parents had a problem with alcohol, drugs and/or gambling.
There are, of course, many gamblers who do not become otherwise addicted, saying that no other activity or substance gives them the kind of euphoria, excitement or “high” that gambling does.
Children And Gambling
According to research, early exposure to gambling in the family plays a big part in whether or not children and teenagers resort to gambling themselves. Seeing a parent constantly involved in gambling, hearing about the “big wins” or losses, parental attitudes toward gambling – all have an effect on young minds. In fact, research shows that children may develop more problems related to gambling than adult gamblers. Many adolescent children report being preoccupied with anything to do with gambling well in advance of developing their own gambling problem. Adults who seek treatment for their gambling problem often say they began gambling at an early age.
It’s not difficult for children and teenagers to gamble, either. Many states permit children under 18 to gamble. Internet gambling and sports betting are easy for young people to do, and they’re all over the Web, being the most tech-savvy generation so far. According to research reported by the National Council on Problem Gambling, “a vast majority of kids have gambled before their18th birthday.”
What Can Be Done
If you are the spouse of a problem or compulsive gambler, or a family member, there are some immediate things you can do.
- Seek help – Your spouse or family member may not be ready to get treatment or counseling to address his or her issues and compulsion to gamble, but you certainly can take the initiative. You don’t need to go through this alone. There are thousands of others out there who are in the same situation. They can help you through the tough times. Join a 12-step support group such as Gam-Anon, whose members come together in weekly meetings held across the U.S. to support and help each other. Their purpose, according to the Gam-Anon website, is three-fold:
- To learn acceptance and understanding of the gambling illness
- To use the program and its problem solving as aids in rebuilding our lives
- Upon our own recovery, to give assistance to those who suffer
- Educate yourself – Learn as much as you can about gambling addiction and what you can do to cope with your family member’s gambling. Good resources are available at the National Council on Problem Gambling, which also operates a 24-hour confidential national helpline at 1-800-522-4700. There are also links to state problem gambling services, many of which have their own hotlines.
- Get professional counseling – There is individual and group counseling therapy available for families of the compulsive gambler. Whether or not the gambler decides to seek help for his or her obsession, family members can benefit from counseling. Through such counseling, the spouse and family members can learn to take better care of themselves and their financial situation, feel better about their lives, regain their self respect and become more confident in making decisions. When and if the gambler decides to get treatment, the spouse and family members become a critical part of the gambler’s recovery. Learning how to adjust to a non-gambling lifestyle, the spouse, family members and gambler in recovery can put their lives back in order. Family therapy can support this ongoing process.
- Ditch your guilt – You are not the cause of your spouse or family member’s gambling addiction. But you can – and should – do all you can to encourage the problem or compulsive gambler to get help. Whether or not the gambler is ready to do so should not deter you from seeking help.
- Maintain your love and understanding – Gambling addiction is an illness, and it can be treated successfully – if the gambler fully commits to the process. It may take some time for the gambler to come to the realization and acceptance of this need, but he or she can benefit from your continued love and understanding until such time. This does not mean enabling the gambler’s habit. It does mean that you tell the gambler that you love him, that you will always love him – but that you will not be an accomplice in furthering his or her gambling.
In the end, the family can recover from the negative consequences of a problem gambling. It may be difficult, but finding ways to cope with the havoc the gambler’s behavior has created is far better than trying to struggle through the quagmire alone. Think of the lives that may be saved – the emotional as well as physical – by getting help. Reach out today and stop the turmoil that out-of-control gambling has brought to your family.