Gambler's wife won't bet he's reformed

CAN THIS MARRIAGE BE SAVED?

January 15, 1995|By From Ladies' Home Journal Los Angeles Times Syndicate

"Nick is a compulsive gambler, and though I've adored him for 20 years, I can no longer stay married to him," says Kim, 37, her voice shaking. Except to discuss their two children, Nick and Kim have barely spoken since he shocked her with the announcement that he had lost $5,000 at the races. "We had to take out a second mortgage on the house to pay for that mistake," she recalls.

For the last six months, he's been living in an apartment across town. But last week, he called to tell her he'd gone to Gamblers Anonymous and promised he will never gamble again. "He begged me to let him move back in," Kim reports. "But how can I ever trust him?"

For a long time, Kim persuaded herself that she and Nick were happy. "But clearly, our problems started long ago; the signs were there, and I chose to ignore them," she now admits. Nick put in long hours at his job in a shipping and packaging company, and his shifts changed every few months. He took lots of overtime and, since his company is a 24-hour-a-day operation, when he told Kim he had to work late, she had no reason not to believe him.

But by the time her younger child was 2, she started to get increasingly anxious about money. Though Nick was working all the time, they never had enough. If Kim dared ask about it, Nick flew into a rage. "That's my job," he would shout. "The home is yours. Leave me alone."

She was never allowed to see his paychecks or the bank statements. Whenever they were low on cash, Nick had a ready explanation, and Kim learned not to ask too many questions. In time they fell into a pattern: Things would be fine for a while, and then Kim would notice that money she was sure she'd deposited their joint account was gone. If she even hinted that she thought Nick was gambling, he'd deny it vehemently.

But eventually Kim found a bank statement stuffed in a desk drawer that proved Nick had squandered the money they had earmarked for their daughter's college education. "That's when I lost it," Kim says. "I gave him an ultimatum: Get help or leave." She still loves him, but she doesn't know if she can live with him.

Nick, 39, knows he's been living a lie for years, but swears he's learned his lesson. When Kim kicked him out, he was indignant at first. "But I knew she was right," he admits. He started going to Gamblers Anonymous after work in the evening, and, though he's stuck with the program, he can't make Kim believe he's changed. "She keeps throwing my past mistakes back in my face and blames me for everything." Nick is afraid it might be too late to save his marriage, but he wants to try.

Breaking an addiction

"As in any relationship where trust has been broken, Nick and Kim must rebuild their marriage from the foundation up," says Joanne Gaffney-Bennett, a marital therapist in Brookline, Mass. Kim has been burned too often to trust her husband freely again, and it's going to take a lot of time and work to re-establish that trust.

However, before they can begin to work on the marriage, it's vital for couples like Kim and Nick to understand about addictions in general. Mental health professionals believe the addicted partner should join an addiction recovery group, and his spouse should join a related partner's group. There they will learn that anyone growing up in a family with addictions, especially if the addiction has not been addressed, is also at high risk for developing an addiction.

Children of addicted parents try to avoid pain by using a mechanism they believe is under their control to mask their true feelings and help them make sense of an unpredictable world: The child of an alcoholic may become an alcoholic, too, or the caretaker of an alcoholic. Or he may become addicted to other substances (food or drugs) or activities (gambling, sex, even work).

Because he didn't know that there were skills he could learn to deal with stress, Nick used gambling to camouflage inadequacies and create a false sense of power and control. Understanding this helped Kim be more compassionate about the obstacles Nick has to overcome.

However, when any addiction is at the root of marital problems, each partner's recovery needs may be very different. It's unhealthy for someone like Nick to dwell in the past. After making amends to people he has offended, he needs to focus on, and live in, the present. Kim can't do that. She has been so damaged by his deceit that she needs to talk, over and over again, about her pain and what she is still feeling. Nick must learn to listen and empathize, without reacting defensively or angrily.

It's also important for partners to identify how each plays a role in the addictive process and understand themselves and their own feelings better. Nick and Kim found much help and support through Gamblers Anonymous and its related group, Gam-Anon, for families of compulsive gamblers. To find a group near you, call (213) 386-8789, or look up Gamblers Anonymous in your phone book.

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