Dr. Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for us in many articles over the years. Here, she counsels a husband who was shocked by, and feels helpless to deal with, his wife’s late-in-life gambling addiction.
Dear Dr. Ford:
I know that this is a site for women, but I don’t know who to ask about some issues that have developed in my marriage.
I am a 55-year-old guy who has worked in our small family insurance agency in the Midwest since I graduated from college. My wife began a travel agency when our daughter was in school “to have spending money and something to do.” Her business never made much money, but she did get to travel and was involved in the local Chamber of Commerce and was on the school board for several years. Our daughter now lives across the country and is doing well. I had hoped that this would be the time when Mary and I could spend more time together and begin to enjoy our lives more.
Mary was always lots of fun and full of energy, but lately she has gotten out of control. She has been drinking more and is easily angered. I assumed that some of this was due to menopause, so I have tried to be understanding. But I was contacted by someone at a bank that we have never used who told me that my wife had taken out a business loan and was in default. I have always been careful with our money. We own our home free and clear and have no debt. I have been saving money since I began to work so that we could be safe financially when we retired.
I went to the bank and found that she had tried to mortgage our house as well. The business loan was $50,000, and I can pay for this by tapping into our savings. When I tried to find out where the money went, she went ballistic. I then found out that she had been going to a local casino when she told me that she was out with clients. She has a serious gambling problem and has borrowed over $100,000 in total from friends and family members, none of whom ever told me until I found out accidentally.
I thought we had a relationship built on trust and shared values. I spoke to our minister, but Mary refused to join me in counseling. She told me that I am trying to ruin her reputation. I have tried to be understanding, but I am now really angry. Is her behavior in any way caused by menopause? What causes this kind of behavior? What can I do to get her to understand that her gambling is a disease that has taken away the freedom that we had before with our savings? And, if this is an addiction, can it be cured?
I can divorce her and not be affected by her debts, since I have had no part in this, but I still love my wife and I know that she loved me, at least until the last year. Now she is filled with anger, and I don’t know how she feels.
What should I do?
You are have rightly observed that your wife is falling down a rabbit hole and that you are in danger of going down with her. She needs to get help immediately—yet, like many people, she says she doesn’t want it.
It is very difficult to be the spouse in a situation like this, because not only does she have no control—you have even less.
Though menopause and the mood changes that accompany it sometimes precipitate the need for excitement, your daughter’s leaving home may have also opened up a need in your wife for something “more.” However, there’s a lot of evidence that suggests that for many people, gambling is, pure and simple, an addiction, and must be approached like one. For example, brain imaging studies have shown that the certain areas “light up”—in a way that resembles the brain images of addicts—when a gambler is playing. Once a player is in action, it is almost impossible to interrupt her; she is much like a drinker on a binge, and, as with other addicts, there is no such thing as “just one”: the only treatment is cold turkey.
My recommendation for you is that you join an Al-anon group as soon as you can. This group, begun for the families of AA members, provides support and strategies for dealing with addicts. Its strategies are designed to teach you how to stop “enabling” the self-destructive behavior so the addict will realize that she must save herself. Secondly, I would consider an intervention, which involves gathering a group of the addict’s family and other intimates together to confront her about the harm her addiction is causing. A professional often facilitates in an intervention with an addict; he or she would take your wife to rehab then and there.
There are rehab programs that focus on gambling, and no matter how costly treatment may be, it is cheap compared with the amount of money your wife is spending. This is a very serious problem that will not get better on its own. As the Al-anon groups have found, many spouses have to threaten divorce or actually leave in order to persuade their loved ones to save themselves. You must have great compassion for your wife: She is in the grip of a disease out of her control, so something has to really shake her up to realize that she must face this or lose everything. For both of your sakes, your staying there, watching her destroy herself and going down with her, is not an option.
Dr. Cecilia Ford
Cecilia M. Ford, Ph.D. , is a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York with over 25 years’ experience in the treatment of eating disorders, body image problems, sex, and marriage therapy. She also counsels and coaches women on dating and relationship issues.