Gambling in Suburban Australia

Research Report – March 2019

8. Relationship harms

This chapter presents participants' reports of relationship dysfunction, family violence and intergenerational transmission of gambling harms. A recent report on the social costs of gambling in Victoria found that of the $7 billion that gambling costs Victoria, $2.2 billion could be attributed to family and relationship problems (Browne et al., 2017). Previous research with separated parents has found that gambling involvement generated safety concerns for around 8% of these couples (Kaspiew et al., 2015).

A profile of the relationship status of participants who gambled and significant others is provided at the outset of this chapter to contextualise these harms. In the current study, data on family violence emerged during the course of interviews with people who gambled and significant others from open-ended questions about harms. This may mean that more participants in this study experienced domestic and family violence than was reported to researchers as specific questions relating to domestic and family violence were not asked of all participants.

Almost all participants who gambled in both sites reported negative effects on their relationships as a result of their gambling.

These results are reported under the following themes:

  • relationship demographics
  • guilt and distrust
  • relationship and other stressors
  • effects on children of people who gambled.

While this study did not seek to deliberately explore or quantify instances of domestic and family violence, a range of forms including coercive and controlling behaviour, physical and verbal assault and emotional and financial abuse were reported by some participants. For some people who gambled, abuse was multidirectional, with both perpetration and victimisation sometimes experienced. Reports of domestic and family violence were overwhelmingly - but not exclusively - reported by women. Reports of these experiences will be the subject of a future paper.

Participant codes

Quotes from participants reported in the results section are coded to provide anonymous context with reference to the site (1 and/or 2), study categorisation (person who gambled [G], significant other [SO], local resident [LR], Vietnamese local resident [LRV] or professional [P]) and gender [M] or [F].

8.1 Relationship demographics

Half of the female gamblers (eight) interviewed in Site 1 reported being separated or divorced at the time of interview. Of these, one attributed gambling and four reported domestic violence as the cause of their relationship breakdown. In one case, the former husband of a recently divorced participant had committed suicide due to gambling problems. Of the eight female gamblers in partnered relationships in Site 1, six reported experiencing significant conflict and dysfunction in their relationships. In summary, almost all of the female participants who gambled and had experienced harm in Site 1 (14 of 16 females who gambled) had experienced a partner relationship breakdown or were persisting with very strained relationships.

Half of the male gamblers in Site 1 (four) were single or separated/divorced. One of these men reported that gambling was the main reason for his relationship breakdown. One of the four men in a relationship described that it was under considerable strain due to his gambling.

Of the four significant others in Site 1 who were partners of people who gambled, all reported having experienced relationship strain. Half were still in a relationship with the person who gambled, and the other half had separated at the time of interview.

In Site 2, all four females who gambled reported being single or divorced. Of the two women who had experienced divorce, one reported that this was due to her gambling problems.

Over two-thirds of the males who gambled (10) interviewed in Site 2 were single or divorced. Three of these men were single, under 24 and still living at home with their parents. One separated man reported gambling as a major reason for his relationship breakdown. Of the six men partnered in Site 2, one reported experiencing considerable relationship strain due to gambling, and one reported a previous relationship that had broken down due to gambling.

Of the four significant others who were partners in Site 2, three had either separated for a period of time or considered separating and all described substantial strain on their relationships due to gambling problems.

Relationship stress, including family disruption, conflict and breakdown, was reported frequently by people who gambled and significant others in both Site 1 and Site 2. However, it was more common among people who gambled in Site 1 to describe gambling as ruining their lives:

My family broken, everything. (1GM)

8.2 Partner relationships and other stressors

Some participants who gambled described difficulties in establishing new relationships or maintaining functional relationships due to ongoing gambling harms. This participant described the conflict in a new relationship:

[I] didn't tell him I was gambling. And then obviously there were issues, financial issues … Obviously the arguments, the trust … Now we're still battling everything and don't know whether we are going to be able to actually get the relationship back on track because of my gambling. (1GF)

When he met me he knew I had a gambling problem so he tried to help me escape it ... Over time I would go back to gambling, for periods of time and he would find out and then - yeah, then there'd be massive wars at home, of course. (1GF)

Case study 1 demonstrates how stress, grief and family violence, combined with easy access to gambling venues, led to the development of a gambling problem for this participant in Site 1.

Case study

Diane,10 who gambled in Site 1

'I had so much stress in my life at the time that I was not coping. My daughter passed away only a few weeks after I gave birth to her. The grief I felt at this time was overwhelming and that's when I first started to distract myself with poker machines. But at that stage I wasn't really hooked.

A year later I fell pregnant again, and my son was born with a severe disability. I was caring for him while still grieving for my daughter and it was so hard. On top of this, my husband, struggling with his own grief, started drinking, and became quite violent towards me. I believe it was depression and his way of dealing with his own grief. I tried to get him help but he didn't want to talk about it.

It was like something would just snap inside him … I just had to find ways to get out of the house as much as possible, so I started to go to the pokies pub near our house and that's when things really started to escalate with my gambling.

The stress and the fear went on for a decade until he [husband] died from a chronic illness. During this time I feared for my son's safety - and my own. My husband was so manipulative that he isolated me from my family and friends. Did I think about taking my boy and leaving? Yes. But with the ongoing manipulation and mind games, I believed my husband when he told me that I would never see my son again if I left him.

When my son was at school or the day centre, I didn't have to worry about him, but all I wanted to do was have some time to myself and forget about all this stuff that's going on. So, you know, it snowballed. I'd start with $5 and end up taking a $100, $200 or whatever, and think nothing of it if I lost it all; which I did, more often than not.

It wasn't a case of wanting to win the money, it was more about just filling in the time and you know, sort of, as I said, the lights, the sounds and just cutting yourself off and forgetting. I mean, in my world I would never hear the words, 'You're a winner'. My life was full of doubts and putdowns. Everyone is in their own world there at a venue. They don't care about anyone around them; they are fixated with their own machine.

At lunchtime or on the way home I'd stop and have a go at the pokies. There were lights and noises and just this environment of you didn't know what time it was, where it was, it was just, you and the machine.

As my wider family had no idea about the violence that my husband subjected me to, I had no one I could talk to about it. They all thought he was fine but he was a 'chameleon' that could appear to be many things to many people. It comes back to the gambling being an escape from extended family not being able to understand disability, from being anywhere near the violence and manipulation at home.'

In Site 2, participants were more likely to report having resources available to work through relationship problems; in some cases, managing to save them. For instance, some couples described seeking private psychological help to manage their relationship crisis.

Two female gamblers in Site 2 who screened very high on the Problem Gambling Severity Index (PGSI) scale11 - 20 and 25 respectively -reported multiple significant life stressors. One of these women experienced an abusive and violent childhood and is now a single parent of an adult child. The other woman has been a long-term carer of a parent and experiences an ongoing mental illness. In contrast to Site 1, all four female gamblers interviewed in Site 2 reported receiving ongoing support from family and, in some cases, from friends:

You know look, if I need counselling, like I'm going to go and get it. Mum was great, like mum was really, really happy that I had taken that step … My mum's really supportive … My brother is, you know, reasonable too. (2GF)

But I did like, share with my friends … I told them everything so that's why they were like, nah, you should stop [gambling]. So, they were the ones who were like, supporting me … I've got another friend who I talk to and she's the one like … 'you know you need to stop, like don't go with her [another friend who gambled]', kind of a thing. (2GF)

While some male gamblers in Site 2 also experienced similar severe life stressors to those described here; overall, most reported having fewer chronic stressors and greater family and community supports than experienced by participants in Site 1 (see section 5.1).

Case study 2

Darren,12 who gambled in Site 2

This male who gambled is a survivor of domestic violence and was homeless at the time of the interview, couch surfing with friends in Site 2. He reported having sought refuge from grief on the death of a parent and intimate partner violence in venues:

'Well I grew up in a pretty rough housing commission. Domestic violence. Family. This is in [interstate] and my father was an alcoholic. Died when I was [still at school] and then I lived with my grandparents and my mum. But then my mum died of cancer when I was in my early 20s … and I was looking after her for a year or two and when she died I think I started gambling around that period … It was bad after my mother died 'cause I did gamble too much and I became homeless … I got on Valium like a few years ago. Which sort of worked for the depression. Like especially when my mum died as well … [Some years later] I was in a bad relationship then with a girl who ... it was a really bad domestic violence relationship but with her with me. The opposite [of what you usually expect]. So, I went to the police a few times and did this and that but we had to break up and it was great when we broke up ... That was a really stressful relationship. I think that may have triggered gambling as well … It's really hard to find a job these days for someone my age. Like I'm [over 40] now. So, I find it harder and harder to get interviews, which is annoying. So, and I really want to work so I don't gamble, do you know what I mean? So, it's been tough.'

8.3 Guilt and distrust

The consequences of a loss of trust due to money being diverted for gambling, often without the knowledge of other household members, were reported to be ruinous for some relationships. Participants who gambled commonly reported experiences of relationship dysfunction triggered by gambling, in some cases leading to separation or divorce. In addition to financial distress, the loss of quality time and energy to invest in building and maintaining constructive relationships was also part of the relationship harm associated with gambling. One person who gambled described that her gambling addiction meant she had no room for anything else in her life, including relationships:

It completely takes over your life ... Your whole mind and body is consumed by gambling. (1GF)

Participants who gambled also described the heavy burden of their guilt due the scale of their losses:

All that money's gone ... There are times when the guilt does come back … It just weighs me down … I can't seem to get rid of that guilt. (1GF)

For many, the loss of trust of partners, family and friends continues to have a major effect on lives, even when the person has discontinued gambling:

Total distrust … This wasn't the person that I thought he was ... Every time he stepped out of the house, I'd be questioning what he was doing and where he was going. (1SOF)

Even in instances where families remained supportive, the trust had been lost:

Finally, of course ... they found out. And I mean, they were mad, they were hurt, they were disappointed … By then, I was thousands and thousands of dollars in debt too ... So, even though I knew my family … [was] pretty much dying because of … my gambling, it wouldn't make me stop ... They haven't disowned me ... [but] whenever I borrow something [they say] ... 'Just make sure you don't sell it' ... It still is sort of painful you know, little jabs. (1GF)

Many professionals and people who gambled spoke about breakdowns in family relationships:

I was lying to her where I was. I wasn't going to work and lying where all the money went and I was borrowing money from family and friends to fund it all and yeah, … I'd started stealing money out of her purse, I stole money from my mother-in-law out of her purse and things like that. And then … she asked me, 'How come you got no money? Why are you always asking me for money?' and she goes, 'If there's something wrong, just tell me' and I said, 'I can't tell you'. I was ashamed and we had a son, you know, a 12 month old. And I don't know, one night I felt really depressed, really sad about who I became and the stuff that I'd been doing behind everyone's back. And I got up and left the household and left my wife, left my child because I didn't want them to be exposed to the monster that I've become. (2GM)

8.4 Family harms: Effects on children

The adult children of people who gambled described the impact of growing up in a family where a parent had a gambling problem:

Huge, huge impact ... [Dad was] always looking for a way to sort of gamble and borrowing money from myself and my brothers, my mum struggled to pay bills … [I didn't feel] that financial security as a child. (1SOF)

Remember 'cause I was a young child and it affected me as a child. I had a nervous disorder because my dad would always be yelling at the TV or yelling at the horses because when he wouldn't win, he would yell. Not particularly at Mum but yell at the TV and swear and say, 'F'ing idiot' to this - to a jockey or whatever it might be. And yeah, he would lose big amounts of money. And Mum used to give Dad the rent money to pay and all the bill money to pay and he started to gamble that money and Mum never knew until she was $6,000 in debt and they wanted to evict her ... And the car got repossessed, they started to take possessions off Mum. (1GF)

The concerns of participants who gambled in Site 2 were often centred on the lost time with children:

I've lost things that money can't buy. You know, time with my son … I missed his first few steps, missed the first few words that he spoke … I think about that a lot. (2GM)

Another father who gambled in Site 2 described his guilt at not being able to contribute substantial gifts for his daughter's wedding:

My daughter got married last year and I felt embarrassed that I didn't have enough to really give her … Dads are supposed to shower - you know, gift some money on their daughter. You try and you think Christ, if I had that money that, you know, I gambled, I could've, you know, done something a bit better for her. (2GM)

Participants also described that some children missed out on activities. A partner of a person who gambled described that her husband's gambling problem developed part way through the expansion of their family of five children, meaning their younger children had greater limitations on their activities than their older siblings:

The younger kids didn't do swimming lessons ... Whereas [the oldest children], when they were their age, they had lessons ... I didn't go out of my way to put them into lessons and … extracurricular activities … we limited those [to save money]. (2SOF)

Difficulties managing time when gambling were also reported, with a mother who gambled in Site 1 describing being late to collect her children from activities:

He was only young back then … but I'd keep an eye on the time so I know, 'Okay, I've gotta go back to go pick him up' … Although a couple of dads there, they would just sort of wait with the kids [after soccer] until their parents came so they were pretty good. So, I would come [eventually]. (1GF)

Another participant who gambled described how she and her husband would gamble overnight at the casino after finishing shift work in the city, sometimes forgetting to take their children to school in the morning:

Slowly, slowly, we don't go home [after work] no more. Sometimes it's already like this time, nine [am], and we still there … Sometimes my kids I forgot, 'Oh I have to bring them to school' or something, we are still there. 'Where are you?' [the children would ask]. (1GF)

Participants who gambled and their partners also reported trying to protect their children from gambling-related harm:

Like I'd try and um not let the kids see me the way - you know, feeling upset and miserable. Um, very hard, very hard. (1GF)

Children in both sites were often aware and, in some cases, traumatised by what was happening within their family:

I had no food in the house for my daughter. She asked me if she could go live with her grandmother [which she did, age 14]. (2GF)

[Dad was] always looking for a way to sort of gamble and borrowing money from myself and my brothers, my mum struggled to pay bills … My poor little brother … my dad even owes him money and it's just shocking … I've even said … he should be kind of ashamed that he's borrowing money [from me] - A that I'm a parent; B I'm a single mum as well … [My younger brother] he'll audit things, which is something that I've done and he's doing it now … It's just really sad that a kid, like well he's 17 now, but even [when he was] younger had to sort of worry … there was never sort of that financial security as a child … It's not really fair - it's a level of stress that you don't really want for kids to grow up with. (1SOF)

They also observed the ways in which gambling affected their parents' relationship:

Then my dad blamed [my mother], that she was away [looking after a sick relative] and that's why he did it [blamed my mother] … He can't take the blame. (1SOF)

A now adult child whose parents had gambling problems described the neglect she experienced from her parents who she described were largely absent from her life due to their serious gambling problems. As a child she had been physically and sexually abused by those responsible for caring for her and unable to complete high school:

I actually tried to kill myself many times … I wanted help and I needed help and they sent me to a mental health institution for teenagers … I could mask all of [my symptoms of mental distress] and seem 'normal' … but what it did was it affected everything and I didn't actually finish my Year 12. (2GF)

Intergenerational gambling

Males who gambled in both sites reported the intergenerational transfer of gambling problems from their father to them. In Site 1, the majority of males who gambled (five of eight interviewed) reported a history of gambling problems in the family. In addition, they were more likely to report multiple chronic life stressors. Females who gambled in both sites reported parental gambling less frequently as a major factor influencing their gambling behaviour.

Males who gambled in Site 1, in particular, typically described gambling as embedded in their family and in some cases where they began gambling as a child and continued as an adult:

Well, I've done it since I was roughly six and a half or seven years old ... And like Mum and Dad, you know like they were interested in the horses ... And, of course, being a baby, Mum and Dad go with him like and take me. Now of course I toddled around and some of the bookmakers would, you know, give me a few bob bets. (1GM)

Another male participant in Site 1 reported gambling with his father as a child and talked about the implications of his father's gambling on the rest of the household:

My old man [does gamble] ... Back then, it did ... [cause] money issues ... blowing … money that was supposed to be for food on the table ... It was pretty bad. But nowadays it's more controlled, I guess ... Back then he used to take me as a little kid. Like, when I was say 10, 11, 12, whatever. I used to go with him. But I just never bet, obviously. But I started betting myself [eventually]. (1GM)

Three males who gambled in Site 2 (of 16 interviewed) also reported similar circumstances of gambling being embedded in their childhoods - of these, two were more mobile throughout their lives and were relatively new residents in the area. All three of these had experienced family violence as children and in their adult lives and all reported a loss of family bonds either through the death of a parent they were close to and/or a breakdown of relationships with family members.

8.5 Summary

The adverse ripple effects of gambling on the health, wellbeing and functioning of the whole family include harms to relationships that can culminate in family breakdown. Financial ruin and the intergenerational transfer of gambling harms to children demonstrate the legacy effects of gambling harms.

Most participants described adverse effects on their personal and family relationships as a result of gambling - people who gambled and their partners, children and parents frequently reported distrust and anxiety as a result of gambling. For those with greater financial and emotional resources, recovery was often possible, while for others the consequences were reportedly ruinous, resulting in family breakdown, separation or divorce.

Much more research is required to understand the relationship between gambling and family violence, including in relation to financial abuse. Women who gambled were more likely to report gambling on EGMs as a way to escape violence at home. For some families, gambling had been present across multiple generations demonstrating the enduring legacy of gambling harms.

Chapters 5, 6 and 7 have reported the harms experienced by study participants who gambled, and their families. Participants in both sites reportedly experienced a range of interconnected and often accumulating harms. For instance, the depletion of assets may have led to poor mental health, relationship problems, insecure housing and/or homelessness. The ripple effects on the health, wellbeing and functioning of the family and community are also described. While a range of harms were identified in both sites, the overall severity of harm was somewhat different between sites, with participants in Site 1 more likely to report experiencing crisis level harms.

10 A researcher worked with this participant to develop this case study, The name used here is a pseudonym.

11 The PGSI is a nine-item scale that is measured from 0 = non-problem gambler, 1-2 = low-level problems, 3-7 = moderate-level problems, 8-27 = high-level problems, 'problem gambler'.

12 The name used here is a pseudonym.