Against the odds - repairing marriage bonds

Problem gambling can shake every aspect of one's life – particularly a marriage, which can crumble under the weight of financial stress and betrayal. But Dr. Bonnie Lee says the relationship between gambling and marital stress isn't as straightforward as many assume.

"Most people think linearly, 'Look what problem gambling did,'" argues the assistant professor in the Addictions Counselling program in the School of Health Sciences. "They're less aware that maybe those problems were there in the first place."

Dr. Bonnie Lee believes repairing marriage bonds can bolster recovery from gambling addiction.

Lee, who uses marriage counselling to treat gambling addiction and other mental health symptoms, is researching the complex relationship between clinical problems such as gambling, depression and couple intimacy. There are many causes of addiction, but difficulties in one's relationships figure prominently. After the addictive behaviour develops, Lee explains that the addiction exacerbates relationship difficulties, and relationship conflicts worsen the addiction, creating "a vicious and defeating circle of cause-and-effect."

Her recent research substantiates this. With the assistance of three undergraduate students interested in clinical research, Lee analyzed transcripts from couple therapy sessions during the summer.

"These couples had problems in their relationships – I call them 'fault lines' – far before the gambling problems began."

The limited depth and range of their conversations precluded intimacy and their problems from being resolved.

The emotional distance between spouses ultimately creates lives of secrecy, of which gambling was an instance.
Without spousal support, a pressure point – usually a life transition like retirement, the birth of a child or job loss – could precipitate a gambling problem. Because the loss and deception only deepen the divide between spouses, the residual anger and lack of trust in the relationship can lead to relapse.

Lee thinks helping gamblers and depressed individuals in the context of couple therapy can pay huge dividends. By repairing the foundation of a couple's relationship, one makes available to both partners an invaluable life resource in support and understanding that bolsters recovery. However, success hinges on the willingness of both spouses to take part in counselling, and Lee is developing a way of recruiting the fearful spouse, a strategy that seems to be working well.

"Couple work is better done sooner than later before the marriage reaches the point of no return."