"Six months ago, I kicked my husband out of the house," said Kim, 37. "Nick is a compulsive gambler, and though I've adored him for twenty years, I can no longer be married to him. Except to discuss our kids, Nick and I have barely spoken — he's living in an apartment across town. Last week he called to tell me he'd gone to Gambler's Anonymous. He promises he's going to stick with it this time, and he begged me to let him move back in. I don't know what to do. How can I ever trust him? I thought asking Nick to leave was the hardest thing I'd ever have to do, but healing our marriage seems impossible.
"We met when I was 16. My family had just moved to New England from Montreal. I'm the youngest of four girls; my sisters are all far prettier and smarter than I am — and I was finding it hard to make friends. Nick was a senior. Handsome and charming, he was clearly the smartest, most popular boy in high school. It was love at first sight for me, and I was astounded that a guy like him, who could have any girl he wanted, was actually interested in someone like me.
"After one date, we were inseparable. Though my parents wanted me to go to college, I couldn't wait to settle down with Nick and raise a family. We married two months after I graduated from high school. By then, Nick had a job in the ticketing and reservation office of an airline, and I was a secretary for a businessman in town. I thought my dreams had come true.
"For a while, they had. Nick's family welcomed me with open arms. We moved into a small house down the street from his folks, and his mother treated me like the daughter she never had. She was always there to help out, and when the kids came along — Kelly is now 17, and Sean is 13 — she volunteered to baby-sit so I could keep working. She was generous with her money, too, popping over regularly with shopping bags filled with new clothes for the kids.
"Nick put in long hours on the job. His shifts changed every few months. He took lots of overtime and, since airlines are round-the-clock operations, he could conceivably be working at all hours of the day or night. When he told me that he had to stay late, there was no reason not to believe him. Besides, Nick has always been able to talk me into anything.
"But I started to get increasingly anxious about money. We never seemed to have any, even though Nick was working all the time. If I dared ask about it, he'd fly into a rage. 'That's my job,' he would shout. 'The home is your job. That's the way my father did it, and that's the way I do it! The bills are getting paid, aren't they? You have food on the table, right? So leave me alone!' I was never allowed to see his paychecks. Whenever we were low on cash, Nick had a ready explanation. I learned not to ask too many questions, or he'd unleash his temper. I thought we were happy. But clearly, our problems started long ago, and I chose to ignore them.
"For years, I convinced myself that things really were all right. After all, my husband wasn't a goof-off, or an alcoholic like my father was. Actually, I didn't realize until I was well into my twenties that Dad had a drinking problem. My sisters and I adored him, in spite of his outbursts. Mother always made excuses for him, anyway. She always forgave him: 'Oh, Daddy didn't mean that,' she'd tell us. She insisted we all love each other, never fight or argue. Peace at any cost was her motto.
"So, like my mother, I whitewashed my life, literally. I became a cleanliness fanatic. The kids were immaculate, the house was immaculate. I could calm myself that way for a while, but then I'd start to feel anxious again and start yelling at my kids. Of course, Nick was the good guy. He'd come home and say, 'Guess where we're going? Disney World!' Kelly and Sean would be so excited, and my stomach would churn. Where, I wondered, did the money for this trip come from?
"Then, one night, my worst fears came true. Nick came home and told me he had gambled too much at the dog track. He explained that it was near his office, and he had stopped off with the guys — just once — to try his luck. I asked how much he had lost, but I never got a straight answer. It was enough, he said, that we had to take out a second mortgage on our house.
"I was hysterical, but Nick was so remorseful and promised it would never happen again. So we took out a second mortgage and I tried to forget it happened.
"This became a pattern. Things would be fine for a while, then I'd notice that money I was sure I had deposited in our joint account was gone. When I asked Nick about it, he always had a ready answer. And, like I said, if I even hinted that I thought he was gambling, he'd deny it vehemently. My daughter told me, just recently, in fact, that Nick used to ask to borrow money she'd earned from her after-school baby-sitting job. See, she was covering up for him, too."
"I never thought of Nick's gambling as an illness. I just thought there must be something wrong with me, something I wasn't doing or giving him. I fooled myself into believing that each time was really the last time. If I ever mentioned anything about gambling, he'd accuse me of blaming him for one mistake for the rest of our lives.
"But I found a bank statement stuffed in the drawer that proved he'd squandered the money we had gotten from a home equity loan — money earmarked for Kelly's college education. I told him he had to go to Gambler's Anonymous to get some help. He refused, but the children and I started going anyway once a week to Gam-Anon, a support group for families of compulsive gamblers.
"Those meetings opened my eyes. I can't describe how relieved I felt to hear the stories of all these other people whose problems were so much like mine. I realized that compulsive gamblers always have a ready answer or excuse for what they do. They can charm a dog off a meat truck. And I realized I was actually encouraging his addiction by denying it. These people gave me the strength to do what I should have done a long time ago: Give Nick an ultimatum—get some help or leave.
"It hasn't been easy, but I've managed. At this point, I don't know how I feel. How can I ever be sure this won't happen again? I told him that the only way I'd even consider getting back together was if we first went for marriage counseling so we could at least learn to speak to each other like human beings. I love him but I don't know if I can live with him. Is there any hope for us?"
"I've been living a lie for years," said Nick, 38. "But I've learned my lesson. I've changed, and I want us to be together again.
"To me, lying was always second nature. I grew up in a small town not far from here, and as far back as I can remember, I rarely told the truth. It was a knee-jerk reaction, a way to protect myself, I guess. I remember my father whacking my younger brother and me around if we did or said anything that displeased him, even something as minor as being late for dinner. He was an iron worker, a real physical guy, and he'd hit us with his hand or a wooden paddle. I felt so protective toward my brother that I'd race home from school or bring him with me when I hung out with my friends, just to get him out of the house in case Dad came home in one of his bad moods.
"Dad was an alcoholic, and a violent one, too. My mother didn't do much to stop him, either. Theirs was a pretty traditional relationship, no question about it. Dad gave my mother a certain amount of money to run the house, and that was it. I wasn't close to either of them. I can never remember talking to my father about anything of any substance. He wasn't around a lot and was private with his own time. I know he had a regular card game going at his club and, though he made a good salary, from time to time, money would be tight. At one point, when my father lost his job, we had to move in with relatives for a few months. I assumed he gambled, but no one ever talked about it. Neither of my parents ever shared their feelings, and I certainly didn't think they cared very much about mine. Though I was captain of the football team, neither one ever attended a game. But I had a close group of friends, guys I'd grown up with. They were a second family.
"When I was a freshman in high school, I took a job as a stock boy in a department store. I worked after school and on weekends so I could have the kinds of things my friends had—new clothes, a new baseball glove, money to go to the movies. After high school, I wanted to be a teacher, but my father wanted me to be an engineer and he refused to help me with tuition unless I went to the college he wanted me to go to. I felt I had no choice, but my heart wasn't in my studies. At the beginning of my junior year, I dropped out. I found a job with an airline; the salary was good and the benefits were excellent. Since Kim and I planned to get married, I thought it was a good move.
"The first few years, I did well. I moved up fast, and by the time I was 25, I was in charge of a department of one hundred and fifty people. I'm not sure what happened to me then. Maybe I can't handle success. I started to feel overwhelmed. I had a hard time delegating, and there was too much work for me to do. I hated to reprimand people — and having to fire someone, forget it. I couldn't do it. I developed an ulcer.
"I started to get anxious about money around the time Sean was born. I felt tremendous pressure to give my children a better life than I'd had. I also lost touch with my old friends since my hours were so different from everyone else's. When I worked the 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift, I fell into the habit of stopping off at the dog track on the way home.
"At first it was a lark, something to do. I felt less lonely at the track. I would catch the last two or three races. The first couple of times I won decent money — two nights in a row, I came home with more than five thousand dollars in my pocket. The next night, I gambled it all away.
"That became a pattern. Winning, losing, winning, losing. All the time I was betting, I was trying to pay off the bills, too. When I was short, I'd get cash advances on my credit card to use at the track. Or I'd borrow from my mother, even daughter once or twice. I didn't want Kim to know. I was secretive and defensive, and when she confronted me or asked about money, I'd clam up or lash out at her. And I adamantly denied that I was gambling.
"As time went on, I got deeper and deeper in debt. Of course, I lied through my teeth and told her I'd never do it again, but all I was waiting for was another chance at the track.
"I did attend one Gambler's Anonymous meeting, but I didn't stay until the end. I thought the program was ridiculous. 'I'm not as sick as these people,' I told myself. When Kim laid down the law and kicked me out, I was indignant at first. But I knew she was right. I started going to GA after work in the evening and vowed to stick with it — and I have. But I can't make Kim believe that I've changed for good. She keeps throwing my past mistakes back in my face. She blames me for everything. When she does, I can't help getting mad. I'm afraid it might be too late to save our marriage, but I want to try."
The Counselor's Turn
"Though Nick insisted he'd changed — if he hadn't already been going to GA meetings, we would have insisted he begin — I knew it would take a long time, and require a lot of changes on both their parts for Kim to feel that he had. As I do with all couples, even those who are living apart, I asked Nick and Kim to make a commitment of at least three months of weekly counseling. By that time, couples usually hit upon at least one issue that makes them both want to throw up their hands and call it quits. However, if they can get past this point, they usually have enough confidence as well as the essential tools to cope with problems as they arise.
"I wasn't surprised that Nick and Kim were attracted to each other. Kim saw her charming, handsome father in Nick. And in Kim, Nick found all the love, acceptance and appreciation for his accomplishments that had been missing from his childhood. However, because of their childhood experiences, any show of anger — whether it was their own or their partner's — was frightening and to be avoided at all costs. One of the early goals was to help them both recognize when they were angry, and then to learn to deal with that anger in a constructive way.
"At Gam-Anon meetings, Kim realized how badly she had been hurt by Nick's addiction. She had been burned too often to freely trust her husband again. As in any relationship in which trust has been broken, Nick and Kim will have to rebuild their marriage from the foundation up.
"I suggested they try to tune in to their own bodies when they're upset. What physical reactions did they notice? Kim realized that anger makes her anxious: Her stomach churns, her heart races, and she squirms in her seat. Assuming she's to blame for their troubles, she either keeps quiet or gives in. Nick tends to pull away emotionally and physically when angry. His body language is indicative of this: He crosses his arms, gets a distant, glassy look in his eyes, or glances anxiously around the room. When pushed to his limit, he explodes in rage.
"Once they could recognize the early signs of their anger, they set about learning to deal with anger that arose in the middle of their often incendiary discussions. I cautioned them not to fall into the blame-game trap, as so many couples do. It doesn't matter who's right and who's wrong. "You don't have to debate each other or try to have the last word in every conversation. But you do have to listen and try to empathize with what your partner is feeling," I advised.
"To help Kim and Nick listen to and empathize with each other, I taught them a structured speaking and listening technique called 'The Dialogue,' developed by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and director of the Institute for Relationship Therapy in Dallas and New York City. This is a tool every couple can learn and follow in their own conversations at home. The technique can be especially helpful for couples dealing with addiction problems. In such cases, partners' needs may be very different, yet they must talk calmly to each other.
"For example, Nick was told at GA — quite correctly — that he must forget about the past and live in the present. Kim couldn't do that. She had been so damaged by his deceit that she needed to talk, over and over again, about her pain. Nick had to be able to listen, empathize, but not react defensively or angrily. Though it sounds simple, it's not. Few people really know how to listen to another person and feel what they are feeling, without jumping in with their own ideas, opinions or hidden agendas. Couples like Kim and Nick, who have been fighting for years, are so locked in their adversarial roles that fighting becomes the only way they can relate to each other. They don't know how to handle differing opinions about even the most elementary things: which restaurant to eat at, which TV show to watch.
"The Dialogue is a highly structured communication technique that couples can use to discuss issues large and small. There are three key parts to the dialogue: mirroring, validation and empathy. Here's how it works: Pick a time when you can talk uninterrupted — a Dialogue can take five minute or an hour, depending on what you need to discuss. The person who has something to talk about begins by expressing his or her thoughts to her partner. The listener then has to mirror word for word what their partner has said. (No paraphrasing; use the exact words.) Then the listener says, 'Did I understand you correctly?' The speaker says, yes, no, or has the chance to add other thoughts. If at any time the conversation becomes heated, they must stop talking for a few minutes and resume when things have calmed down.
"In the second part, the listener must validate — that is, acknowledge — their mate's feelings. Instead of saying, 'you're crazy,' or 'that's not the way you should feel,' the listener makes it clear that he or she has heard and followed the speaker's words. This doesn't mean the listener necessarily agrees; in many cases, he or she may wholeheartedly disagree. It simply means that the message has gotten through. The listener could also say, 'I see how you may feel that way.'
"The third and most difficult step is empathy: The listener must imagine the world through the speaker's eyes. For example, if a wife is angry that her husband fails to do something he has promised to do, he can say, 'That makes sense to me. I know that when someone promises to do something, but fails to follow through, I feel hurt, too.' To empathize doesn't mean you have to agree — the husband may not think he did anything wrong — but you do have to understand the situation from your partner's point of view.
This process will prevent every interaction from becoming a 'him' versus 'her' battle. It allows a couple to experience and understand angry feelings, instead of running away or ignoring them. Nick and Kim found the technique especially useful when they had to talk about volatile money matters — buying a car, renting a new apartment (their home was eventually foreclosed due to Nick's gambling debts and Kim had to move out), making a budget. Kim found this very painful, since it brought back a rush of memories. But with some coaching she was able to say, 'I feel threatened. I was so naive, and you took advantage of me over and over again.'
"Nick listened, repeated back verbatim what she had said, and empathized with her anxiety and frustration without reacting defensively. 'I can imagine you felt really scared and alone,' he said. Kim melted. For the first time, she felt he understood. Nick, too, learned to express his feelings to Kim whenever he felt he was being unjustly accused or if he was overwhelmed by stress and responsibilities. 'Instead of running to the track, I talk with Kim,' he told me at one of our last sessions.
"Learning to share feelings and experiences in this way helped Kim and Nick develop an intimacy long lacking in their marriage. After four months, Kim invited Nick to move back in. I see Nick and Kim periodically, and they are both continuing to attend meetings of their recovery groups. 'Just like an alcoholic can never have one drink, I know I can never place one bet,' said Nick. 'It's too easy to slip back. But you know, I have more confidence now. I don't have the urge to gamble anymore — I don't need it.'"
"Can This Marriage Be Saved" is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's case is based on true events, though names and other details have been changed. "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is a registered trademark of Meredith Corporation.