Compulsive gambling is a widespread problem of addiction. There are thousands of compulsive gamblers in Canada, and gambling doesn’t just affect the gambler. Its far-reaching consequences involve the lives of spouses, children, friends, extended family, employers and co-workers, but the hardest hit is the immediate family.

Spouses and children don’t just suffer the material deprivation that accompanies compulsive gambling; the rates of divorce, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect are much higher in families where one or both adults have a gambling addiction.

Material deprivation

A gambler, in the throes of his* addiction and obsessed with winning the jackpot is no longer thinking clearly. He is in the grip of such a powerful mental obsession that he can no longer discern between right and wrong when it comes to gambling. He will bet his paycheque, mortgage the house and sell whatever he can to get money; he’ll borrow from family, friends and loan sharks; he will embezzle from his workplace, write bad cheques, steal money from the kids’ piggy banks, cash in bonds and retirement savings, max out all his credit cards and still be in denial that he has a gambling addiction. There will be nothing left for food, clothes, rent or mortgage payments, so his family goes without the basics, living way below the poverty line – not because there isn’t enough money but because all the money has been gambled away.


The divorce rate among families in the grip of compulsive gambling is high. The tension between spouses is palpable. As the gambler loses more and more, feelings of fear and shame increase. He becomes angry to cover up his fear and shame. He becomes withdrawn, elusive and terse. He may experience mood swings – elation when he wins, sullenness when he loses. The spouse, frustrated beyond bearing and also fearful, is constantly confronting the gambler about the pile of unpaid bills, the calls from creditors, about his lying and covering up.

Unable to cope with this perceived constant "nagging," the gambler gets angry in an attempt to intimidate his spouse into silence. The tension and anger escalate. The house feels like a war zone with each spouse on the enemy side. The groundwork has been laid for either spouse to seek "solace and understanding" outside the marriage. Divorce can seem like the only option. Unable to withstand the chronic chaos, the couple split up, leaving in their wake many lives destroyed and broken. And still the gambler may continue gambling.

Domestic violence

Few gamblers see that gambling contributes to the problems they face. The constant inner tension that a compulsive gambler lives with is crushing. Many gamblers drink in an effort to reduce this tension. Many "blow up" regularly to relieve the pressure, like a pressure cooker left on the stove too long.

Gamblers are masters at blaming external circumstances and other people for their troubles – and the spouse is the prime target for blame. Living with a compulsive gambler is like walking blind in a minefield. You never know when you’re going to step on a bomb. You never know when he is going to explode and what the damage will be. Maybe dinner was served too late or too early. Maybe you didn’t say hello the right way. Maybe you weren’t supposed to say hello at all. Maybe the kids were too loud or too quiet. Either way, you never know from one day to the next what his mood and temper will be, so you live in fear of his explosive rage. Sometimes that rage leads to a slap, or a punch, or rape.

Sometimes his rage leads to verbal abuse: name calling, harsh criticism, swearing and out-of-control yelling. All the while the gambler is blaming you for the way he is treating you. You don’t know what you’ve done, but after a while you begin to believe him. Maybe he’s right and you’re wrong. You begin to doubt your perception, thoughts and feelings. The abused spouse learns that once the storm has passed, the gambler is always very sorry, and promises not to do it again. They learn that a few "normal" days will follow until the next time. And there’s always a next time.

Child abuse and neglect

The constant strain, the constant financial pressure and the emotional highs and lows that gamblers experience take a toll on their ability to function maturely. Children of compulsive gamblers are vulnerable to physical, emotional, and verbal abuse and neglect. It is not uncommon to hear that children were left in locked cars in the parking lot of a casino while their parent was gambling.

Like the spouse, the children are prime targets for the gambler’s rage. He has no psychological buffer that allows him to take a step back and re-group. His rage is always just beneath the surface and it takes very little for it to erupt. Parents know that raising children is not always easy and we all reach the breaking point at times. The difference, however, is that a healthy parent can discipline their anger and use it constructively. A compulsive gambler does not possess this type of discipline if, indeed, he ever did, and so the gambler’s rage, fear and frustration get dumped on his children who are unable to protect themselves against it. Growing up in this kind of environment is profoundly damaging to a child’s sense of self, sense of safety and trust, and sense of well-being. They are the innocent victims of a debilitating addiction through no fault of their own.

Families need help if they want to change. The spouse will need many types of support including financial, emotional, psychological and spiritual. The road back to health isn’t easy, but staying isn’t easy either. It will take time for the wounds created and compounded by compulsive gambling to heal.

© 2010 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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