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March Gambling Madness–The Addict and the Co-Dependent

More money is wagered on March Madness than on the Superbowl–an expected $9 billion this year.  Perhaps that’s why March is Problem Gambling  Awareness Month.

Betting on March Madness, or other office pools throughout the year, is socially acceptable.  More than that; it’s cool, trendy, and sociable. And that’s true even though the “professional gamblers” are, as always, out there to take advantage.  The family or friends with close involvement to the gambler–often referred to as the co-dependent–dreads the highly publicized March event.

For problem gambler and their families,  March Madness exhibits the painful rather than the “cute” sense of “madness”. Pathological gamblers hide the secret of their destructive urges, lying about losses, while boasting about big gains, which simply stoke the compulsion to “go again” as soon as possible. Preoccupied with past gambling adventures, or planning the next one, they can’t concentrate on work, friends, family, or chores.  They  destroy close relationships, manipulating spouses, family, and friends to obtain money. They beggar their relatives, wiping our credit cards and may turn to stealing to feel their habit.

Pathological gambling is defined by persistent and recurrent patterns of maladaptive gambling behavior, resulting in impaired functioning, poor quality of life, and high rates of bankruptcy, divorce, and imprisonment.  Suicide attempts are common, reported in 17% of people in treatment for pathological gambling (Petry and Kiluk, 2002).  And that doesn’t count lesser forms of self-injury, such as banging one’s head or fist against the wall.).

Depressed or anxious people may experience gambling as significant symptom relief, viewing the risk of financial distress or criminal activity (stealing, embezzling, writing bad checks) as a comparatively minor setback.  When the gambler attempts to cease or limit his impulsive behavior, he or she may become irritable and distracted. If someone close to him or her tries to set limits, the blaming, anger, and deceit increase.


A indicator of the addictive nature of the compulsion is that huge losses  increase gambling activity.  Rather than teach the gambler an avoidance lesson, the loss urges the addictive person to make bigger bets to “get back to even.”  Perhaps losing is in a strange way satisfying, because the guilty gambler feels he deserves the punishment. Compulsive gamblers who lose large sums at the beginning of a gambling session often imagine that the entire loss could be recouped with a single large win at any moment. Their distorted thinking assures them that statistics are in their favor; if they’ve lost 10 times, they mistakenly believe the odds favor the next round.

Pathological gamblers may have abnormal reactions to stress.  A 2004 study by Brown, et al., found that such individuals were depressed (“negative pre-gambling valance”) before gambling. The kicker is that their mood significantly decreased if they lost but did not significant improve if they won. In other words, they lose emotionally even those few times that they win the money.

An additional ingredient in the pathological strew is impulsivity.  Impulsive individuals tend to be highly response to positive reinforcement (winning) but rather insensitive to punishment (losing). They have difficulty imagining negative outcomes. They also seem unable to divide their attention among competing stimuli, and therefore may be unaware of internal warning of restraint and danger (Adams and Kushner, 2004)

Individuals with addictions tend to share two common features: 1) being chronically under- or over-aroused, and 2) having experienced childhoods that led to feelings of inadequacy, rejection or guilt (Grant and Kim , 2002).  Perhaps these 2 features keep the the co-dependent (responsible spouse, relative, child, friend) more committed. The co-dependent feels needed, feels sorry for the gambler, hoping to compensation for the painful childhood by giving unconditional love.

The sad truth is that  you can never be in a healthy relationship with a pathological gambler.  The most important “relationship” in the addict’s life is with gambling.

When the co-dependent strategy fails, the co-dependent feels like a victim, becoming angry and resentful.   This individual is the fixer, the enabler, the excuser, the one who picks up the pieces of the gambler’s chaos, the one feels he or she owns the problem.  He or she lies for the gambler, pays the debts, makes up for the losses, and denies the evidence. The co-dependent believes the excuses, forgives, sets up new limits, which are inevitably broken. The tearful reconciliation scenes provide temporary respite, although both the addict and the co-dependent know deep inside that they only finished the more recent round of blame, guilt, and tearful promises to do better.

Why doesn’t the co-dependent leave before the money is gone and the stealing has gotten dangerous? Some of the same reasons the gambler stays stuck. Low self-esteem, self-blame, victim mentality, and often a family history of alcholism or other impulsive behaviors.  In a couple relationship, fear of being alone.  When the addict is a child or sibling, fear that the gambler will become depressed, publicly shamed, divorced, fired, imprisoned, or suicidal. And over-riding them all, fear of accepting the reality–that the person you love is in a diasatrous downward spiral that only he or she can control. Admitting you have no control over that outcome is the scary first step.

Because pathological gambling involves illegal or immoral behaviors, shame and secrecy often prevent or delay treatment.  The gambler may not be aware that he or she is struggling with a known disorder which has treatment options. Those options include group programs for impulse control and medications used for opioid addictions. Talking treatments seem to help initially, as the patient experiences relief from the secrecy, but impulsive patients often do not follow through on recommendations. Anti-depressants and 12-step programs haven’t demonstrated significant benefits.

The co-dependent, however, can benefit significantly from both individual and group coaching, including 12-step co-dependency meetings.  The co-dependent can change his or her life by accepting, setting boundaries, detaching, realistically evaluating what s/he can or cannot control, and making new choices.

One thing that surely doesn’t work is trying to control someone else’s pathological gambling.  While it’s critical to find out if someone you love is lying about his or her whereabouts and taking money out of bank accounts, credit cards, or even your personal stash, you won’t be able to stop the addict by cutting up the credit card, closing the bank account, or checking his or her pockets for receipts.  A compulsive gambler will find another source.  Confrontations, guilty admissions, and promises to reform are part of the pathological pattern. You need support to avoid getting sucked in. Take a look at some warning signs in my  series of blog pieces, “Getting taken to the Cleaners, the Poorhouse, or Worse–To Jail.”

Divorce will prevent future gambling debts from devastating your credit, but, sadly, it won’t release you from the debts racked up during the marriage. Debts are joint marital obligations, and the gambler isn’t going to have the goods when the creditors come knocking.

If you suspect or know you’re involved with a pathological gambler, this is a good month to ask yourself why you’re looking the other way.  It’s time to get some coaching help. You can’t tell anyone else what to do, but you sure can decide what actions you yourself are willing to take.

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