The role of denial in the life of a compulsive gamblerWritten by Tom Raabe
What's inside this article
"Denial," like its peer in pop psychology, "co-dependency," has been worked to death in the last couple of decades and can now be applied to nearly any situation, however remote from actual psychological contexts, without drawing the least little notice. But it is a true phenomenon, a psychological concept that is more than real for those living with gambling problems. Dr. Robert Custer, considered the trailblazer of modern gambling diagnosis and treatment, writes: "In the psychiatric context, denial means refusing to acknowledge something to oneself, getting oneself to actually believe that there is no danger at all."1
Obviously, the gambler himself can exhibit denial, and in fact probably luxuriates in it for many years – it is, after all, a mental framework that allows him to continue gambling while the structures of what was once a happy personal and family life burn merrily on. He lives amidst the smouldering rubble created by his own gambling, and yet refuses to see the problem for what it is. Open confrontations are met with rationalizations – "Oh, sure, honey, I gamble. But 85 per cent of all Americans gamble" – and dissimulation – "It's not the gambling that's the problem, dear. It's these bills!"
Not seeing the real problem
Tom Coates2, at his credit-counselling agency, sees many clients who come to him seeking financial solutions to what is a behavioural problem. One couple he counselled, both compulsive gamblers, put themselves into six-figure debt by borrowing against their pension, their cars and their home; maxing out as many credit cards as they could; securing a couple of home equity loans; and borrowing all they could on signature loans, and then revolving that money around – all to support their gambling habits. They faced, they said, not a gambling problem but a debt problem. "That's a window into the mind-set of the addicted gambler who's in denial," he says. "They are denying that they've got a real problem. They may have a lot of manifested problems around them because of it, but they don't recognize, at least in their conscious mind . . . that [gambling's] the real issue, and so they’re wanting to deal with the manifestations and not this core issue. "
Unfortunately, it is not only the gambler who often flounders in denial, but the spouse and family too. Denial is a chameleon, capable of frequently changing its appearance, and as such is sometimes difficult to identify. But in all its many forms it is a technique used to explain away, minimize, justify and rationalize the problem gambling. The spouse may remain in this state of denial for years, until some incident related to the gambler, often quite dramatic, throws her back into reality. The simplest form of denial is to insist that the gambling per se is not happening. Sometimes this is done despite clear evidence or firm testimony to the contrary from friends and relatives.
Discounting the severity
More complex is the rationalization that admits that he gambles but discounts the severity of the gambling: "Sure, he plays blackjack, but he goes only on weekends." "He only buys lottery tickets." Or the spouse decides to look on the bright side – it could be a lot worse, after all. "The kids have school supplies and clothes." "He's not running around with other women, anyway." "After he stopped drinking, I didn't want to take from him all his joys in life."
Another fruitful area of deception is explaining why he gambles, under the false pretense that to know is to understand: "He gambles because of the way he was raised." "If he didn't have such an overbearing boss, he wouldn't need to blow off steam at the casino every once in a while." "If people in her church treated her better, she wouldn't be so lonely, and wouldn't feel the need to go to bingo so often." Or the spouse can get philosophical: "If gambling weren't so readily accessible in our society, he wouldn't gamble at all" – which may be true, but doesn't change anything.3 Some spouses treat the problem as an intellectual dilemma, "an interesting social phenomenon affecting everyone but [themselves]."4
Increased gambling, increased denial
As the gambling increases, so does the strength of the denials. Denial, like gambling itself, grows incrementally, so that an excuse raised early on in the process prepares the spouse's reasoning for further, and gradually greater, deceptions. The result is that, later in the process, the spouse is "no longer dealing with reality as reality," Custer writes. So great is the spouse's fear of reality, of the truth that she in fact has married a man with gambling problems, that she has shelved all her standards for testing reality. "So she makes one compromise after another with reality, hoping blindly that somehow things will work themselves out and that everything will be all right."5
Although in the short run denial seems to serve a purpose – it does keep family amity at least ostensibly intact and permits the family to conduct their daily lives in a quasi-normal way without anxiety, depression, shame or anger overwhelming them – in the long run it is counterproductive.6 It obviously does nothing to solve the problem; on the contrary, it exacerbates it. The gambler takes solace in the fact that he can fool his spouse that he can get away with his gambling. When the spouse takes his side, in effect going along with him in his gambling behaviour by denying reality, she is only encouraging him. The family or marital harmony the spouse thinks she is rescuing with her rationalizations and excuses turns out to be a mere peaceful pause in a plot that is inevitably approaching a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.
Gambling problems are what they are; they are not debt problems or financial problems or budget problems or money management problems. They are gambling problems, and they will remain so until something is done to correct them. They won't fix themselves. Not seeing them for what they really are does nothing to change any of that.
1 Robert Custer and Harry Milt, When Luck Runs Out. Help for Compulsive Gamblers and Their Families (New York, Facts on File, 1985), p. 123.
2 This citation from Tom Coates comes from his telephone interview with the author, August 24, 2000.
3 Linda Berman and Mary Ellen Siegel, Behind the 8 Ball A Guide for Families of Gamblers, rev. ed. (San Jose: to Excel Press, 1998), pp. 96-97.
4 Berman and Siegel, p. 97.
5 Custer and Milt, p. 129.
6 Edward J. Federman, Charles E. Drebing, and Christopher Krebs, Don't Leave It to Chance: A Guide for Families of Problem Gamblers (Oakland: New Harbinger, 2000), p. 54.
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