Q&A: What does it mean to be "an enabler"?Written by Focus on the Family
Question: I’m married to a compulsive gambler and I don’t want to do anything that might encourage these actions. What does it mean to be an "enabler"? How do I know if I’m "enabling" his behaviour or not?
"Enabling" can be succinctly defined as any action that makes it easier for the addict (in this case, the gambler) to pursue his addiction (gambling). It’s an unwitting, well-meaning, but nonetheless destructive response to a loved one’s addictive behaviour. There are three basic categories of "enablement": covering up and covering for the gambler; attempting to control his behaviour; and cooperating with him. Let’s take a closer look at each of them.
Covering up and covering for the gambler. Addictions of all kinds are progressive and self-compounding in nature. If your husband is a confirmed compulsive gambler, as you claim, then it’s only a matter of time before his escalating condition lands him in some serious trouble. A person with gambling problems will eventually fray his relationships at work, with friends or in the extended family. Your husband’s addiction may cause him to miss time on the job or alienate relatives by reneging on family responsibilities. When this happens, you may be tempted to intervene by calling his boss to excuse his absence or by taking his side when a family member criticizes his behaviour. Cover-ups can also take the form of bail-outs, as in assuming family duties or responsibilities on his behalf or fronting him money to pay a gambling debt. If you cover up for your husband in these and other ways, you’ll only be deferring the natural consequences of his gambling and indirectly green-lighting further destructive behaviour.
Attempting to control the gambler’s behaviour. One of the axioms of addiction treatment states that the addict himself must hit bottom before he can begin the gruelling journey upward. Once gambling reaches the addiction stage, the gambler is no longer in control of his own actions. At that point, he cannot be helped unless he decides that he wants to be helped. This means that if you attempt to step in and control your husband’s gambling, your efforts will probably prove ineffective and possibly even counterproductive. Spouses of gamblers have been known to try every trick in the book – everything from hiding the car keys to filling up the calendar with social obligations to withholding conjugal favours. There’s only one thing to say about such schemes and ploys: they don’t work. They may even provide your husband with an opportunity to blame you for his behaviour or to become angry with you for meddling, in which case he may go off and medicate his pain with a fresh round of gambling. Even the threat to leave him, though it’s usually employed as a last resort, is likely to have the same effect. A gambler in the throes of his addiction would probably be relieved to see his wife walk out the door.
Cooperating with the gambler. The last way a spouse can enable gambling is by becoming a direct or indirect participant in the problem. It’s not uncommon for the spouse of a gambler to develop a taste for gambling herself. In such cases, the gambler is usually quick to tap into this enthusiasm and use it in ways that both compromise his wife and justify his own behaviour. After all, if she’s willing to accompany him to the casino, how can she blame him for working the slot machines or playing a little blackjack? On the indirect side, it’s also possible to enable your husband’s addiction simply by taking gambling-related phone messages or otherwise facilitating his gaming activities.
If you know that your spouse has a serious problem with gambling, you should confront the issue head-on. Urge him to 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.
If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.Our recommended resources
Free advice on marriage, parenting and Christian living delivered straight to your inbox