Question: My husband has been participating in a weekly poker night with his friends. At first it seemed like an enjoyable activity that helped him relax, but lately he seems more "keyed up" and I’ve become concerned that he may be turning into a compulsive gambler. He says I’m worried about nothing. How can I be sure?


It sounds as if your husband is in denial. Granted, it’s a trite, overworked phrase, but clinicians agree that it accurately describes an actual psychological phenomenon. Dr. Robert Custer, a trailblazer in the field of gambling diagnosis and treatment, says that denial, in the psychiatric context, "means refusing to acknowledge something to oneself, getting oneself to actually believe that there is no danger at all." It’s a very common frame of mind among those who struggle with an addiction to gambling.

Unfortunately, the gambler isn’t the only one subject to the deceit of denial. It can affect his spouse and family, too. That’s because denial, like a chameleon, is capable of changing its appearance, and as a result it’s sometimes hard to identify. Whatever shape it assumes, denial is always a technique for explaining away, minimizing, justifying, or rationalizing negative or destructive behaviour. In its simplest form, it insists that the problem doesn’t exist – that the gambling isn’t really happening. In other cases, like yours, it argues that the problem isn’t as serious as it seems – that, after all, things could be a whole lot worse. In either instance, it exacerbates the situation by short-circuiting candid self-evaluation and deferring necessary treatment. 

The first thing you need to do, then, is take an honest look at yourself. Make sure that you’re not being fooled. A gambler’s spouse can sometimes remain in a state of denial for years until some dramatic incident suddenly jerks her back to reality. You don’t want to let things slip that far. 

If, upon reflection, you are still convinced that there are valid reasons for believing your husband’s behaviour to be compulsive – or if you even suspect that this might be true – sit down with him and confront the issue head-on. Insist that he consider the possibility that he has a serious problem and that it’s becoming too big for him to handle on his own. Suggest that he get some kind of professional help. If he’s unwilling to listen, see if you can enlist the help of an objective third party – a pastor, a relative, or a male friend who agrees with your assessment of the situation and who would be willing to come alongside you in order to strengthen your case. If all else fails, try to pull together a group of friends and supporters who can help you stage a formal intervention. You may want to include a licensed counsellor or therapist who specializes in this kind of activity. 

© 2013 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.

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