Coping With Another Person’s Gambling Problem

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Maria suspected that something was going on with her husband but didn’t know what. He was taking a lot of phone calls behind closed doors. He often seemed frantic to intercept the mailman before the mail was delivered to their house. And his interest in the outcome of various sporting events seemed to intensify in the last few months. What could be going on?

It was only after the bank threatened to foreclose on their house that Maria learned that her husband had a sports gambling addiction that had drained their finances. Until then, she didn’t know that such a condition existed and assumed people just gambled with money that they could afford.

Unfortunately, Maria’s predicament is not uncommon. Indeed, the plight of the concerned others of a problem gambler — which could be friends, coworkers or various family members — can be very challenging. The more they can learn about this poorly understood addiction, the better they can cope for themselves.

Signs of Problem Gambling

The first thing that can help concerned others who have a vague notion that something is going on with their family member, spouse or friend is to learn the signs of gambling addiction. Some of the more common indications of an underlying gambling problem include increased frequency of gambling, increased amount of money gambled, gambling for longer periods of time than planned, bragging about wins but not saying anything about losses, pressuring others for money as financial problems arise, lying about how money is spent, escaping to other excesses (alcohol, drugs, sleep, etc.) and denying that there is a problem. Additional signs of problem gambling may include frequent absences from home and work, excessive phone use, withdrawal from family, personality changes (such as increased irritability and hostility) and diversion of family funds. It’s also important to realize that problem gambling can affect anyone regardless of race, culture, sex and financial standing.

Gambling Addiction is often a Co-Occurring Addiction

Comorbidity is the term used to describe the existence of concurrent disorders in an individual. Studies have shown that people who struggle with gambling disorders tend to have other psychological problems such as depression, anxiety and substance-use disorders. For example, a survey in Psychological Medicine reported that 96 percent of lifetime compulsive gamblers also met lifetime criteria for one or more of the other psychiatric disorders assessed in the survey. If a significant other or friend in your life suffers from one type of addiction, be aware that that puts them at higher risk for gambling addiction. 

Realize You’re Not Alone

It can be difficult for the concerned others of gamblers to come to grips with the situation. They may question their role and feel they are responsible. They may be in disbelief as they learn that bank accounts and retirement savings have been wiped out.

It’s important to know that you’re not alone. With an estimated 6 million of the general population at risk for developing gambling addiction, there are many people who find themselves in the orbit of a gambler. Organizations such as Gam-Anon provide assistance and comfort to those affected by someone else’s gambling problem. It provides a way to share experiences, gain strength and create hope in coping with the problem gambler.

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Concerned others often feel like that they cannot tell friends and, in some cases, family, about the situation. Keeping the secret becomes yet another stress. In addition to Gam-Anon, one way to alleviate some of the stress of keeping secrets, as well as the shame and isolation, is to connect with a trusted community elder or faith leader, who can help support concerned others.

Importance of Communication

Frequently, family members are in denial. Some family members, not fully understanding the severity of the situation, think that they are helping by bailing out the gambler, yet they are not seeing the ramifications it has for the spouse. Additionally, lack of communication is emotionally straining and isolating for concerned others.

A big part of recovery for both the gambler and family is honesty and trust. The lies and broken trust from the problem gambler can be difficult to repair. However, it’s an essential part of a gambler’s recovery to be honest and to have open communication. Most people benefit from having someone to facilitate those initial conversations.

How to Start a Conversation with a Problem Gambler

Talking with someone you know about a potential gambling problem can be difficult. It’s important to remember that you can’t stop someone from gambling; only they can make that decision. Choose the right moment to have the conversation, and speak in a caring and understanding tone. Make sure that you hear what the other person is saying.

To start the conversation:

  • Tell the person you care about them and that you’re concerned about their actions.
  • Tell the person exactly what they have done that concerns you.
  • Tell the person how their behavior is affecting other people and be specific about what you expect from them (“I want you to talk to someone about your gambling”) and what they can expect from you (“I won’t cover for you anymore”).
  • After you’ve told the person what you’ve seen and how you feel, allow them to respond and listen with a non-judgmental attitude.
  • Let the person know you are willing to help, but don’t try to counsel them yourself.
  • Give the person information, not advice.
  • Encourage them to call the toll-free helpline.

For specific advice on how to approach a problem gambler, call the Minnesota gambling helpline at 1-800-333-HOPE to talk with a certified counselor. The helpline operates 24-hours a day, seven days a week. All calls are confidential.

Talking to Children

The children of problem gamblers often receive less attention and nurturing at home as a result of the amount of time the parents spend gambling. This can lead to feelings of abandonment, anger or depression, and the children may blame themselves for problems in the home. This can result in the child withdrawing or acting out.

Children who grow up in a household with a problem gambler are also at higher risk of developing a gambling problem later in life. Having the love and support of a caring adult will improve their chances of living a more balanced life.

Children often get confused about their feelings for a parent who has a gambling problem. That’s why it’s important that they understand that gambling is only one part of their parent’s overall behavior, and that it’s okay to love someone even though certain things they do are upsetting.

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To help avoid these problems, children should be told about their parent’s problem in an age-appropriate way. The key points of the conversations should include:

  • A parent/loved one is struggling with a gambling problem, but they still love their family.
  • It is not the child’s fault that there is a problem, and they are not responsible for fixing it.
  • There is a problem, but adults are taking care of it.
  • They can feel better by talking about their feelings.
  • Treatment for their parent is available and works.
  • If the child is old enough, discuss upcoming lifestyle changes; however, reinforce the message that it is not the child’s responsibility to worry about the family’s finances.

Children need to feel safe and secure. This is accomplished, in part, by establishing a sense of structure and consistency in their lives through regular routines and activities. Parents can help by spending more time with their children and making sure they have people in their lives who they can feel “safe” talking to – even when those people are not the parents themselves.

Protecting Assets

Unfortunately, by the time families discover their loved one’s gambling problem, financial losses may already be significant. Bankruptcy or failure to make mortgage payments, car payments, college tuition, etc., may be part of the new reality. Families need to protect themselves before the gambler can deplete their family assets. Limiting or prohibiting access to family assets may be the first necessary step to take if the family hopes to rebound.

Another protection that families can take is the use of software that blocks access to gambling sites. Northstar Problem Gambling Alliance offers one such tool, Gamban, at no cost to Minnesota families who are interested. The subscriptions are effective for one year, can include up to 15 devices per household, and can block tens of thousands of online gambling sites.

Financial Counseling

For families whose finances have been wracked by a problem gambler, developing a personal financial recovery plan is an important first step. Such a plan should include:

  • Comparison of expense and debt obligations with income.
  • A list of debt (creditor, balance, payment, status and timeline).
  • Devising strategies to change income, change expenses or both when expenses exceed income.
  • Identification of a trusted family member or friend to assist management of personal finances.
  • A resource list of current, reliable and free financial references.
  • Follow-up consultation with a financial counselor during transition to life after treatment program.

There is Hope, and Treatment Works

The most important thing to remember if someone close to you has a gambling problem is that there is hope —for you and the gambler. Minnesota provides treatment for both gamblers and affected others, usually at no cost. Take the first step by calling the Minnesota gambling helpline at 800-333-HOPE.


Bill Stein for Northstar Problem Gambling Alliance. For more information about problem gambling in Minnesota, visit northstarpg.org.

Last Updated on March 10, 2021

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