"I Know I'll Win . . . It's Only a Matter of Time."

Pathological Gambling — Another Hidden Addiction Unlike Others

By Marcia Robbins, PsyD, MFT


The woman talked about her former husband. “He was the sweetest, most lovable guy. He just spent all our money. We were in so much debt. I realized I couldn’t change him and had to leave for the sake of our future, mine and our children’s future.”

Think “puer eternal,” forever boy. Self-entitled, delusional, believing that he will win…it’s only a matter of time.

When I lived in Minnesota a few years ago I became licensed and went into private practice. Looking for a niche, I heard a radio interview which piqued my interest and motivated me to enroll in the sixty hour state approved training for pathological gambling intervention. In California I had treated many addicts and their families so was interested in adding another specialty.


The New Wave Training was spread out over several months to have time to process all of the learning. My instructors were both professionally trained and life-trained, as in the case of the founder of the Duluth, Minnesota Gambler’s Anonymous, a woman.

The Pathological Gambler

During the New Wave Training for therapists the founder of Gamblers Anonymous broke down my stereotypical view of the gambler as male. The ratio of male to female gamblers is five to one. Women gamble, too, but they tend to gamble for different reasons. Women tend to gamble for escape, usually with machines, pull tabs, or the lottery. Men tend to gamble for the rush, the excitement. Men tend to engage in casino card games, sports betting on the golf course or at the casino, race track and the stock market.


No one sets out to become a pathological gambler. Most women start gambling as adults whereas men often begin in childhood. Younger gamblers may emulate other gamblers they observe and begin to bet for small stakes at the golf course, may even bet for a peanut butter sandwich. They pitch pennies with other boys. They whet their appetite at All Night Grad Night parties where casino games are often set up for their entertainment. In college they tend to become involved in sports betting. It’s a rite of passage for young people to go to the casino on their 21st birthday.

Older gamblers may go to the casinos on buses with other seniors as part of senior outings. They may be lonely and find acceptance at the casino, gambling away their retirement funds as they become pathological gamblers.


One gambler remembered a time he came home from college with bad grades, and his father told him, “You’ll never amount to anything.”

Some people can gamble all their lives and never become pathological gamblers. They gamble for entertainment. Others can’t stop when they lose. When they win they play until they lose it all. The win lets them play longer. They believe in the big win, that it’s only a matter o f time. Often an early win spurs on that belief. Many want to be rich and see gambling as the only alternative. Many pathological gamblers suffer from underlying depression. The gambler masks the depression with a hopeful plan to gamble and win which diverts the depression and replaces it with the desire to win. Sometimes an earlier event, in childhood or adulthood, which caused the individual to feel less than adequate or see himself as a loser, the gambler strives to prove that he or she is really a winner. Therefore, the gambler will go to any extent and spend any amount of money to prove he’s lucky and a winner.

The Hidden Addiction

No matter whether they’re male or female, secrecy is universal for pathological gamblers. They hide their gambling money, they hide when and where they gamble. They become credible liars to explain the disappearance of money. They are masters of the withhold. They become devious at putting their hands on more money to feed their addiction. Pathological gamblers who have their own business or are commission salesmen appear to be able to continue the addiction longer because they can have a separate check cut that becomes their gambling money. They borrow money from all available sources, sell possessions like the family car and may eventually break the law in order to feed their addiction. They tend to run the family finances and are first to pick up the mail to avoid being caught. All of this activity keeps up their momentum of excitement and depletes their interest in a sexual relationship which affects the spouse.

When the gambler wins, the gambler continues to gamble. When the gambler loses the gambler continues to gamble. Nothing will stop the gambler. The gambler stops when he/she is caught or prevented from gambling. What stops the gambler? Maybe it’s the law. Maybe it’s the spouse. Maybe the gambler chooses suicide because of the mounting debt. Although the gambler can’t quit, he/she becomes worried, anxious and depressed over the losses, often suffering from insomnia. The suicide rate is very high for pathological gamblers.

The Family of the Pathological Gambler

The pathological gambler has a devastating effect on the family, similar in some ways to other addictions. For example, the spouse becomes a watcher, a controller, and an enabler. The spouse tries to figure out where the money is disappearing. Bills are due. They’re deeply in debt. Once the spouse catches the gambler draining their savings account or borrowing money, the spouse tries to control the gambler’s every move. But the gambler always finds a loophole to keep the gambling money hidden. Enabling can extend to bailing out the gambler by obtaining a second job and/or selling the family home to pay off the gambler’s mounting debts.

The spouse’s tension affects the children. The spouse becomes angry and resentful but hides his/her feelings. The spouse is ashamed to admit to friends and family that they’re in debt. As the gambler is secretive, so is the spouse. The spouse hides money in the house for emergencies. The spouse misses their sexual relationship when the gambler loses interest in favor of gambling. The spouse becomes depressed. The gambler is Mr. Chuckles, the puer eternal, playful with the children, while the spouse is the serious adult, trying to keep the family together. The spouse fills the role of the gambler’s parent. The spouse neglects his/her health and the needs of the children. Oftentimes the spouse of the gambler is also an addict, often an alcoholic.

The children become confused. The gambler may be generous with money while the spouse is frugal. The children fear the spouse’s angry outbursts and controlling behavior. The children often take on the roles outlined in alcoholic literature: the hero, the rebel, the clown and the lost child. Often, the children are unaware that one of their parents is a pathological gambler. They may side with the addict because he/she is more fun than the serious parent who is trying to keep the family together.


Both the gambler and the family of the gambler need treatment. Treatment modalities include inpatient programs with outpatient aftercare, family therapy, individual therapy, Gamblers Anonymous (GA) and GamAnon as a support group for families of gamblers. Very few pathological gamblers enter treatment or stay in treatment because of their unrealistic sense of self entitlement, grandiosity, delusional thinking and secrecy. One aspect of treatment for the gambler is financial counseling whereby the gambler makes restitution for all of his debts. Although the gambler may be resistant to treatment, the family is usually more receptive.

How Minnesota deals with Pathological Gamblers

The State of Minnesota reimburses licensed practitioners for their services to gamblers as well as gamblers’ families, even if the gambler does not seek treatment. The growth of the gaming industry in Minnesota by Native American tribes has been attributed to the increase in pathological gambling by people of all ages and ethnicity. Recognizing the addiction, casinos in Minnesota also provide funds for therapy to gamblers.


Hopefully increased awareness may generate a state funded program to provide assistance to gamblers and their families before the pathological gambler is part of the growing prison population and the family is homeless. You may contact the 24-Hour Confidential National Helpline for National Council on Problem Gambling (800) 522-4700.

Copyright © Marcia Robbins

Marcia Robbins, Psy.D., MFT has been in private practice over 25 years, specializing in the treatment of individuals, couples and families in the areas of addiction, sexual issues, trauma, domestic violence and anger management. Her office is located in Orinda, CA, in the East Bay area of San Francisco.

You can email her at DrMarciaMFT@AOL.com or call (925) 708-7748 or (925) 254-7649.