How to Help a Compulsive Gambler

How can I come alongside a compulsive gambler and encourage him to take steps to overcome his addiction? After observing my husband's behavior, seeking out the opinions of pastors and friends, and researching the issue on my own, I've come to the conclusion that he has a serious problem in this area. I'd like to help him if possible, but I have no idea where to begin. Can you offer any advice?

You’re up against a stiff challenge. Like the addict of almost any other description, a gambler usually isn’t interested in mending his ways until he “hits bottom.” Only when the fantasy evaporates-when he finally comes to the realization that the one big, elusive win is not “right around the corner” and that, even if it were, he would simply blow it on more gambling-will he be ready to seek help. Until then, there’s probably little you can do or say to persuade him to give up his habit. You can confront him, of course, and enlist friends and family members to back you up. You can even precipitate a crisis, if necessary, by offering him an ultimatum: “Either the gambling stops or I’m moving out.” But in the end you can’t force him to change. He has to make that decision himself.

Your role for the time being is to hold him up in prayer and watch for signs that he might be willing to reach out for assistance. When that day arrives, the central question becomes “What next?” You should prepare for that eventuality by equipping yourself with answers.

It’s worth mentioning here that there are a rare few gamblers for whom nothing comes next. They, like their fellow “rare few” alcoholics or drug addicts, simply quit “cold turkey” and move on. That’s not to say that there isn’t any fallout for these individuals. They will almost certainly find themselves beset by a host of financial, emotional, and relational problems incurred during the course of their addiction. These consequences of their behavior have to be resolved, but the gambling itself they leave behind without looking back.

But this is the exception, not the rule. Many, many more gamblers need organized, professional help to point them in the right direction and lead them down the path toward recovery. They need therapy of some sort, either with a skilled, trained therapist, a support group, or both. It’s usually best to combine these two methods of addressing the problem.

Ideally, there are several things you want this therapy to do for the pathological gambler. Among the most important are the following:

    • Successfully identify and treat any related and co-occurring disorders like substance abuse.


    • Help the gambler devise strategies to replace and replicate the perceived benefits of gambling. In other words, if gambling has provided him with an outlet for escaping his problems, reducing his anxieties, or achieving an emotional “high,” then he needs to find more constructive ways of meeting these needs.


    • Help the gambler take more responsibility for his actions, including the damage he has done in his relationship with his spouse and family. Therapy should motivate him to acknowledge and address such issues as betrayed trust, broken lines of communication, and especially the financial havoc he has caused. He should actively seek to remedy these wrongs.


    • Debunk all the erroneous beliefs the gambler harbors about gambling, such as his view on how luck operates and how he can manipulate the odds by means of his own “system.”


    • Augment the gambler’s emotional skills, problem-solving skills, interpersonal skills, and relapse-prevention skills.


  • Address underlying issues such as depression, the gambler’s relationship with his parents, his views of success and failure, and any other psychological problems that may exist.

The principal goal of this type of therapy is simple: it’s to change the gambling habit and reverse the destruction it has caused in the gambler’s life and in the lives of the members of his family. Focus on the Family’s Counseling department can provide you with a list of local referrals to professionals working in this field. If your husband does reach the point where he is willing to seek professional counseling, we highly 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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Breaking Free From Addictions

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