Recognizing the Signs of Compulsive Gambling in a Spouse

How can I tell if my husband's recreational gambling is becoming a serious addiction? At first it was just an occasional poker game with his buddies, but a few months ago he exchanged this activity for weekly outings to a casino. Twice in the last month he has called in "sick" so he could make a mid-week gambling trip, and some of his closest friends no longer seem important to him. He assures me that he's just relaxing and enjoying himself, but I'm feeling very anxious about the changes I'm seeing. Is it possible that he's become a compulsive gambler?

It sounds as if your husband is in denial. Granted, it’s a trite, overworked phrase, but clinicians agree that it accurately describes an actual psychological phenomenon. Dr. Robert Custer, a trailblazer in the field of gambling diagnosis and treatment, says that denial, in the psychiatric context, “means refusing to acknowledge something to oneself, getting oneself to actually believe that there is no danger at all.” It’s a very common mindset among those who struggle with an addiction to gambling.

Unfortunately, the gambler isn’t the only one vulnerable to the deceit of denial. It can affect his spouse and family, too. That’s because denial, like a chameleon, is capable of changing its appearance, making it sometimes hard to identify. Whatever shape it takes, denial is always a technique for explaining away, minimizing, justifying, or rationalizing negative or destructive behavior. In its simplest form, it insists that the problem doesn’t exist – that the gambling isn’t really happening. In other cases, like yours, it argues that the problem isn’t as serious as it seems – that, after all, things could be a whole lot worse. In either instance, it makes the situation worse by short-circuiting candid self-evaluation and putting off necessary treatment.

The first thing you need to do, then, is take an honest look at yourself. Make sure that you’re not being fooled. A gambler’s spouse can sometimes remain in a state of denial for years until some dramatic event suddenly jerks her back to reality. You don’t want to let things slip that far.

If after giving it some careful thought, you’re still convinced that there are valid reasons for believing your husband’s behavior to be compulsive – or if you even suspect that this might be true – sit down with him and confront the issue head-on. Insist that he consider the possibility that he has a serious problem and that it’s becoming too big for him to handle on his own. Suggest that he get some kind of professional help. If he’s unwilling to listen, see if you can enlist the help of an objective third party. This might be a pastor, a relative, or a male friend; someone who agrees with your assessment of the situation and who would be willing to support you and help to strengthen your case. If all else fails, try to pull together a group of trusted friends 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.

How can you know for sure whether your husband’s gambling is becoming compulsive or pathological? Here are some tell-tale signs to look for. A pathological gambler will exhibit – but not necessarily admit to – at least five of the following ten behaviors:

  • Is preoccupied with gambling (i.e., preoccupied with reliving past gambling experiences, handicapping or planning the next venture, or thinking of ways to get money with which to gamble).
  • Needs to gamble with increasing amounts of money in order to achieve the desired excitement.
  • Is restless or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop gambling.
  • Gambles as a way of escaping from problems or relieving dysphoric mood (e.g., feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, or depression).
  • After losing money gambling, often returns another day in order to get even (“chasing one’s losses”).
  • Lies to family members, therapists, or others to conceal the extent of involvement with gambling.
  • Has made repeated unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop gambling.
  • Has committed illegal acts (e.g., forgery, fraud, theft, or embezzlement) in order to finance gambling.
  • Has jeopardized or lost a significant relationship, job, or educational or career opportunity because of gambling.
  • Has relied on others to provide money to relieve a desperate financial situation caused by gambling.

Focus on the Family’s Counseling department can provide you with a list of local referrals to professionals working in this field. For more information and a free over-the-phone consultation, contact our counselors.

In the meantime, you may find it helpful to consult Tom Raabe’s book House of Cards: Hope for Gamblers and Their Families.


If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.

Boundaries in Marriage

Gamblers Anonymous


How to Avoid Enabling a Spouse’s Gambling Addiction

How to Help a Compulsive Gambler


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