Gamblers’ Families at Risk Too

By: Bruce Jones

Gambling addiction can lead to domestic violence, which can lead to gambling addiction. A most vicious cycle.

A growing body of research shows a high correlation between domestic violence and gambling. As a counselor, I see the confluence between the two frequently. After all, what do couples most often fight about? Money. And what does gambling addiction often provoke? Arguments over money. These disputes can escalate into abuse – physical, emotional, sexual, legal – all forms of domestic violence, now also referred to as intimate partner violence.

A team of researchers at the University of Nebraska medical school looked at data about people admitted to emergency rooms because of domestic violence. They found that when the person’s partner was a gambling addict, the odds of intimate partner violence increased 10.5 times. Another study by the same institution found that problem gambling created as much risk for domestic violence as alcohol abuse.

Numbers collected at the University of Toledo found that incidents of domestic violence or intimate partner violence occurred in more than 60 percent of families dealing with gambling addiction.

No doubt that problem gambling damages families. Gambling addiction creates chaos, financial and legal problems, and imbalances in sharing household responsibilities and caregiving for children or other family members.

The same researchers who studied emergency room admissions concluded that those who are perpetuating family violence and/or caught in addiction display many parallel behaviors and outcomes. These include the inability to control impulses even in the face of adverse consequences, tolerance and withdrawal, involvement of the entire family, preoccupation or obsession and defensive reactions such as denial, minimization and rationalization.

I see these parallels all too clearly as both a gambling counselor and a therapist who works with male batterers. Both issues trace to the human fixation on power and control. Economic abuse means overly controlling family monies, emotional abuse keeps people from questioning my behavior, etc. There’s even a documented link between problem gambling and hyper sexuality. It activates the same receptor sites of dopamine and serotonin.

When people come to Maryhaven for help with gambling addiction, whether it’s for themselves or a loved one, we ask them a series of questions that helps us determine what we refer to as their “theory of mind.” We ask the gambler about their gambling habits. How often? What is your game of choice? What do you think about while gambling? Have you ever considered suicide?

We have another set of questions for family members and loved ones. It begins by asking, “Do you feel safe?” It continues on in order to explore the financial and emotional impact of their partner’s gambling. This information guides us in helping families develop strategies to cope with their loved one’s illness – starting first, last and always with the need to protect themselves physically as well as financially and legally.

Sometimes we encourage them to join Gam-Anon or other support groups that help family members learn tough love, healthy boundary setting and how to protect any children or other loved ones.

Another challenge is now emerging. Domestic violence may actually lead to a gambling addiction – but by the partner of an abuser. One study found evidence that gambling often serves as a coping mechanism, especially by women seeking to escape unhappy relationships. It’s one of several studies that support the view that men gamble for enjoyment and to win while women gamble to escape. Gaming venues such as casinos, riverboats or bingo halls become a refuge from violence.

While often intertwined, gambling addiction and domestic violence require separate but coordinated treatment. Acts of domestic violence can lead someone into the criminal justice system which now provide intervention and counseling for batterers. Gambling addiction requires treatment for the individual and their loved ones, how to change and manage the dynamic of their relationship and build healthy relationships going forward.

Maryhaven can help you or a loved one dealing with gambling addiction or another mental health challenge, in addition to substance abuse. And we’ll help you deal with them in a comprehensive, coordinated and caring way. Let us be your holistic behavioral and addiction health specialists and treat all illnesses simultaneously.

Call 614-324-5425 or contact us confidentially online today.

About the Author

Bruce Jones

Administrative Coordinator LSW, LCDC III, NCGC II

Bruce is a Licensed Social Worker (LSW) and a Nationally-Certified Gambling Counselor Level II who has worked for Maryhaven since 2000. He saw the need for gambling services in Central Ohio in 2009 and asked Maryhaven to apply for a private grant from the Columbus Foundation to target help to those struggling with gambling addiction. The state then supplied funding after his vision was verified with the amount of clients seeking services that first year and Bruce has been working with individuals, family members, and communities ever since.


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