Responding to a Spouse’s Addiction

By Greg Baer M.D.

March 10, 2017

“A woman wrote to me and said, “My husband has quite a gambling addiction, and it’s destroying our family. What can I do? I feel like just accepting and loving him would be condoning his behavior, which would be wrong.”

My answer follows, addressed to her and to all partners of addicts.

This isn’t about gambling alone, nor is it solely about the addict.

First, what is your role here? Your husband is out there gambling away money that is also yours. Does that affect you? Sure, it does, so his behavior is very much your business. You have a right to take steps to stop what he’s doing. He’s being selfish and unloving, and he’s affecting you in a detrimental way, so it would also be natural for you to jump in and attack him and control him.

Attacking never works, so how can you keep yourself from attacking him for his behavior that is hurting your family? It gets a lot easier if we understand why is he gambling. Gambling gives people a feeling of power, excitement, pleasure, even praise. When you walk into a gambling establishment and you have money, everybody starts paying you attention. It's a predictable and powerful way of buying affection. So you get a lot out of going into a gambling place—and it’s immediate.

This was all just an intellectual concept to me until once I accompanied a gambler friend into a casino. We were greeted by a man at the front door who smiled and spoke my friend’s name from memory as he said, “It’s nice to have you back. Welcome.” As my friend gambled, partially clothed women offered us food and drink. We were instantly popular, and I observed that other gamblers were even more popular as they spent more money. My understanding of the allure was growing.

Sure, it’s a sleazy way of selling Imitation Love, but all that attention feels better than no attention at all, and you need to understand that as you interact with your husband. He's empty, he's alone, he's afraid, and he doesn't feel loved. So he goes out with his money and tries to buy love. Then when he's already feeling empty and unloved, you come along and say—with your words, your tone, and your behavior—“I hate your gambling, and you have to stop that right now."

How do you think that affects him? The more you nag at him, the less loved he feels and the MORE likely he becomes to go out and buy more Imitation Love. I would bet that you’ve already noticed that when you are most angry, he disappears to the casino. The more you nag him and push him, the more he gambles—exactly the opposite of what you want. The same is true with any form of addiction: gambling, sex, money, power, whatever: the harder you push an addict, the more empty they become and the more they use their addiction to reduce their pain.

Now does this mean you have to accept what he's doing? No. There's only one solution to this problem. The problem is rooted in the lack of Real Love, so the solution is found in loving him. At this point many people say, “But if I just love him (the addict), essentially I'm saying that I condone his behavior.” That is silly reasoning used to justify nagging.

People really aren't as stupid as we often suppose. Your husband already knows gambling is wrong. He feels the impending bankruptcy both financially and morally, so if you begin simply to love him where he is—addiction and all—he really will know that you're not condoning gambling He already knows without a doubt how you feel about this subject, doesn't he? Haven't you made it pretty clear? So he's got that.

Now let’s change your perspective and approach entirely. Suppose you sit down with him and say, “Up until now I thought I was loving toward you, but now I see that I haven’t been loving. Instead I've criticized you, nagged you, controlled you, and told you in a million ways I don't love you by being impatient with you. I've been wrong to do that. I'm not going to nag you about gambling anymore. That was wrong. Instead, I'm just going to love you and support you."

The more loved and supported and cared for that he feels at home, the less likely he will be to go out and gamble. Really. It might take a while, and it might not work, but it can’t be worse than what you’re doing now. It is not now your responsibility to cure his gambling problem, nor is it your fault that he is gambling, but since the only solution is real love, you're probably the best chance he's got to escape this addiction.

As he feels loved, he may begin to be more honest with you about his addiction. He may reach out to 12-step programs, or Real Love groups, or other forms of support. But he’ll do all that much better as he feels loved.

I repeat that you're not condoning his behavior, just loving him, which is the most effective solution to the pain that drives his addiction. What we're afraid of is that if we don't reach in and take hold of something—if we don't control it—we won’t get the desired result. But we’re not in charge of results in other people. Our own loving is the goal. What we really want is a loving relationship. We don't want to control another person. If you love them, you will get the best results, better than using anything else. I promise.

Now, what if you unconditionally love him—finding all the love you can, as described on—and his gambling continues on a path of destruction? At some point—which only you can know—you may need to simply leave him. Some people are motivated by love to find a solution to a lifetime of pain. Other people, however, require far more pain—to “bottom out,” in the language of 12-step programs—before they’re motivated to seek a real solution.

Real Love in Marriage

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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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