How do behavioral addictions affect a marriage/partnership?

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Behavioral addictions, which include pathological gambling and sex addiction, affect not only the addict but also the addict’s partner or spouse and other family members. Much like substance abusers, behavioral addicts often perpetuate their actions with manipulative and deceitful behavior much to the detriment of themselves and those close to them.
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Behavioral Addictions and Relationships

Behavioral addiction causes a person to lose control of the impulses that lead to negative actions. The most common behavioral addictions include gambling addiction and sex addiction. Less common but prevalent impulse control disorders include kleptomania and pyromania and addictions to food, computer and Internet use, shopping, and exercise.

Behavioral addictions are far less common than substance addictions. There remains a significant debate among mental health professionals as to whether such impulse control disorders should even be technically classified as addictions because they do not involve the consumption or use of a chemically addictive external stimulant.

According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy in 2015, approximately twelve million American adults have some form of sex addiction. It also is believed that as many as two million Americans are pathological gamblers, meaning that they lie about the frequency of their gambling and place bets with little or no financial backing to cover the costs, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling.

While all instances of addiction can have negative consequences on interpersonal, family, and professional relationships, few impulse control disorders are as corrosive to marriages, partnerships, and families as gambling addiction and sex addiction. Each of these disorders can have extreme effects on the foundations of trust and security. Like substance abusers, many behavioral addicts fail to see the negative ramifications of their actions on those closest to them until after severe damage has been done.

Neurological Similarities to Substance Abuse

The neurological causes of behavioral addictions remain unknown to medical professionals and sociologists alike. A widely held theory states that behavioral addicts become hooked on the euphoria-producing chemicals in the brain that impulsive behaviors such as gambling produce. These patterns of addiction are similar to the neurological stimulation experienced by those under the influence of drugs.

Sex Addiction

Sex addiction is classified as the inability to control sexual thoughts, impulses, and behaviors. Exhibitionist and voyeuristic behavior are both symptomatic of sex addiction, as is sexual promiscuity. Some sex addicts habitually seek sexual gratification through sexual interactions with others, often including those outside their partnership. Other sex addicts require constant immersion in sexually explicit material such as pornography.

The proliferation of online sexual material makes Internet sex addiction one of the fastest growing segments of sex addiction. Because many sex addicts engage in inappropriate extramarital relationships, violation of trust is the most frequent negative impact sex addiction can have on marriages and partnerships. An addict’s preoccupation with sexual activity also can lead to the neglect of family, professional, and social responsibilities.

Much like substance abusers, sex addicts often distance themselves from those closest to them for reasons of both shame and defense of their addiction. Undisclosed promiscuity by sex addicts also may put them and their unknowing domestic partners or spouses at higher risk for sexually transmitted disease. Research has shown that sex addicts also respond to confrontation about their sexual activity through verbal and physical abuse of their partners. Children also are harmed by the consequences of sex addiction. Domestic stability and the safety and well-being of loved ones are often of little or no concern to those with a sex addiction.

While sex addiction often leads to the dissolution of domestic partnerships and marriages, research indicates that spousal support in the sex addiction recovery process can be helpful in eliminating such behaviors. Sex addiction treatment plans focus primarily on ceasing risky sexual behavior through close monitoring, examining the root causes of the desire for ritualistic sexual behavior, deconstructing the underlying motivations of sexual fantasies, and coping with the emotional despair and shame that often results from deviant or risky sexual behavior.

Gambling Addiction

Gambling addiction is classified as an obsessive preoccupation with betting money in hopes of achieving financial rewards in return, no matter how slim the odds. Compulsive gamblers partake in any number of gaming activities, from sports betting to casino gaming. Because legalized gambling has been one of the fastest growing industries in the United States since the mid-twentieth century, incidences of compulsive gambling have continued to rise.

Forty-seven of the fifty US states now allow some form of legalized gambling, while twenty-eight states now have casino gaming. Many state governments face severe financial burdens, expanding payrolls, and dilapidating infrastructures, making them unable to refuse the tax boon that the gaming industry provides to state budgets.

Whereas the majority of people gamble infrequently for pleasure, an expanding number of Americans views the slim odds of gambling as a reasonable path to financial stability. As part of their never-ending quest to increase profits and attract customers, many casinos now have theme parks, golf courses, and amusement rides, and many gaming cruises include stops at these attractions. The result is a family-centric gaming experience, where gambling no longer takes place away from spouses, partners, and children, but becomes a group experience. The concept of gambling to please one’s partner or children ends up supporting gambling as a way to mask a lack of self-esteem and the daily stresses of raising a family. These circumstances, coupled with the neurological effects of gambling on the brain’s pleasure centers, often lead to impulsive gambling.

Most compulsive gamblers participate in several avenues of gambling activity simultaneously. The proliferation of Internet-based sports betting allows bettors to place wagers on hundreds if not thousands of sporting events taking place all over the world from the comfort of home. Much as sex addiction shakes the foundations of interpersonal trust and intimacy, pathological gambling can jeopardize the financial stability of a marriage or domestic partnership, often without the knowledge of the gambler’s partner.

Unlike substance abuse, which often involves years of abuse before the addict admits to having a problem, pathological gambling can swiftly snowball from a difficult-to-control compulsion to a ruinous problem in a matter of days, as compulsive gamblers seek that one final payoff. While certain financial peril may be the most obvious risk that the gambling addict poses to his or her partner and family, the downfall is not always swift. Many partners of gambling addicts learn to adapt to the behavioral addictions of their spouses, even to the point of enabling their partners’ impulsive behaviors. The stresses of covering up a partner’s compulsive gambling problem are often detrimental to the entire family.

Hiding the behavior of a compulsive gambler from family and friends only delays the consequences of the behavior. Attempting to control gambling through moderation is simply a way of supporting an addict’s habit.

The rise in impulsive gambling has been paralleled with the founding of several nationwide advocacy programs designed to provide resources for intervention and treatment. Among these programs are the National Council on Problem Gambling and Gamblers Anonymous.


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Wilson, Meg. Hope after Betrayal: Healing When Sexual Addiction Invades Your Marriage. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007. Print.