How to Avoid Enabling a Spouse’s Gambling Addiction

How do I know if I'm "enabling" my spouse's compulsive gambling problem? I don't want to do anything that might encourage his behavior. And while I'm on the subject, what exactly does it mean to be an "enabler"?

“Enabling” is essentially any action that makes it easier for the addict (in this case, the gambler) to pursue his addiction (gambling). It’s an unwitting, well-meaning, but nonetheless destructive response to a loved one’s addictive behavior. There are three basic categories of “enablement:” covering up and covering for the gambler; attempting to control his behavior; and cooperating with him. Let’s take a closer look at each of them.

Covering up and covering for the gambler. Addictions of all kinds are progressive in nature. If your husband is a confirmed compulsive gambler, as you say, then it’s only a matter of time before his escalating condition lands him in some serious trouble. A person with gambling problems will eventually fray his relationships at work, with friends, or in the extended family. Your husband’s addiction may cause him to miss time on the job or alienate relatives by reneging on family responsibilities. When this happens, you may be tempted to intervene by calling his boss to excuse his absence or by taking his side when a family member criticizes his behavior. Cover-ups can also take the form of bail-outs, such as assuming his family duties and responsibilities or fronting him money to pay a gambling debt. If you cover up for your husband in these and other ways, you’ll only be putting off the natural consequences of his gambling and indirectly green-lighting further destructive behavior.

Attempting to control the gambler’s behavior. One of the principles of addiction treatment is that the addict himself must hit bottom before he can begin the grueling journey upward. Once gambling reaches the addiction stage, the gambler is no longer in control of his own actions. At that point, he can’t be helped unless he decides that he wants to be helped. This means that if you try to step in and control your husband’s gambling, your efforts will probably prove ineffective and possibly even counterproductive. Spouses of gamblers have been known to try every trick in the book – everything from hiding the car keys to filling up the calendar with social obligations to withholding sex. There’s only one thing to say about such schemes and ploys: they don’t work. They may even provide your husband with an opportunity to blame you for his behavior or to become angry with you for meddling, in which case he may go off and medicate his pain with a fresh round of gambling. Even the threat to leave him, though it’s usually employed as a last resort, is likely to have the same effect. A gambler in the throes of his addiction would probably be relieved to see his wife walk out the door.

Cooperating with the gambler. The last way a spouse can enable gambling is by becoming a direct or indirect participant in the problem. It’s not uncommon for the spouse of a gambler to develop a taste for gambling herself. When this happens, the gambler is usually quick to tap into this enthusiasm and use it in ways that compromise his wife and justify his own behavior. After all, if she’s willing to join him at the casino, how can she blame him for working the slot machines or playing a little blackjack? On the indirect side, it’s also possible to enable your husband’s addiction simply by taking gambling-related phone messages or otherwise facilitating his gaming activities.

If you know that your spouse has a serious problem with gambling, you should confront the issue head-on. Urge him to get some kind of professional help. If he’s unwilling to listen, see if you can enlist the help of an objective third party – a pastor, a relative, or a male friend who agrees with your assessment of the situation and who would be willing to come alongside you in order to strengthen your case. If all else fails, try to pull together a group of friends and supporters who can help you stage a formal intervention. You may want to include a licensed counselor or therapist who specializes in this kind of activity.

Focus on the Family’s Counseling department can provide you with a list of local referrals to professionals working in this field. If you do decide to seek professional counseling, we strongly recommend that you do this together as a family. The most successful addiction therapy programs take a family systems approach that involves intensive evaluation and a series of counseling sessions offered in an environment of community and accountability. For more information and a free over-the-phone consultation, don’t hesitate to contact our counselors.


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Boundaries in Marriage


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