Originally written for The EFT Community News, 31st Issue Fall 2016
One day a woman walked into my office and said “I think my husband has a gambling problem.” She seemed timid and exhausted. However, when she spoke she revealed an inner strength, a desire to protect her family and her sanity. She embodied familiar traits of a partner reaching out for help when the other partner seems lost to the compelling grip of a gambling addiction:
• Lost and alone, looking for answers and a plan.
• Burdened with thoughts of helping her family through the darkness of impending bankruptcy and homelessness.
• Confused by her own emotions – one moment longing to connect and help him recover and the next, angry and disgusted by the lies.
• Conflicted by devotion to her partner and a need to protect the children.
• Feeling desperate about losing her husband and their dreams to the blackjack table.
Before discovering EFT and the healing impact of secure connection, my primary methodology was that of a gambling specialist. At that time I believed that addiction treatment alone could help her husband. When I discovered Sue Johnson, however, I found what I believe is the missing piece to addiction treatment – attachment. I began to see that in the absence of secure connection a partner struggling with an addiction lacks the fundamental elements for healing – the emotional support of a partner and the ability to communicate pain and reach for support and comfort. I saw the trap of isolation in which the couple was stuck: He faced the addiction alone in the same way that she felt alone in her fight to save the family. He then began hedging his bets in their relationship and she experienced abandonment.
The perspective of attachment and EFT gave me a new lens. I began to see how addiction was part of a couple’s negative cycle: The more he turned to the Blackjack table for comfort and happiness, the more hurt and angry his partner became. The more guarded and angry she became, the more he turned away from her to his quick fix for the comfort of winning. The harder she tried to pull him away from gambling, the more he experienced her as cold and controlling, and the more he would pursue the high of winning. Desperately alone and afraid, she could not communicate in ways other than justifiable anger. He escaped more and more to the casino.
Partners become caught in a cycle of blaming and escaping. For example, one partner, trying to protect the family from further financial loss manages the bills and requires the problem gambler to report spending. The gambling partner avoids discussions about money, triggering the other partner’s fears that he has been gambling. She pushes for the conversation. He defends and becomes accusatory and the interaction ends in an explosive argument with another escape to the casino. EFT solves the connection conundrum and gives therapists a path to help couples move beyond the content of financial and family responsibilities into the process of delineating and de-escalating the cycle which has taken over their relationship.
Philip Flores’ view of addiction as an attachment disorder supports the EFT approach. He notes that it is impossible to regulate one’s own affect for any extended time and argues that people who have difficulty maintaining emotional closeness are more likely to substitute behaviors such as gambling, sex, or drugs to cope or distract from the feelings of discomfort or emptiness. Partners unable to reach to one another to help regulate fear, pain and discomfort, cannot disrupt the habitual pattern of escape to addictive highs and they remain unable to end the addiction cycle. With EFT I can help partners recognize their cycles of blaming and escaping as code for broken connection. They can battle the addiction together when they are not stuck in isolation.
De-escalation of the negative cycle is seen when the gambler is able to get that his spouse’s push for information is an attempt to reach him for reassurance and he can begin to share his needs for comfort and support. The non-gambling partner, in de-escalation also begins to grasp that her partner’s avoidance is about his guilt and pain for hurting her rather than wanting to pull away from her. He can begin to share his vulnerability and pain for betraying her. She can also begin to share the panic and worry that triggers her to become angry and demanding. Together they disclose the lies, confront the betrayal and share the pain of isolation beneath their negative cycle of distancing, demanding, avoidance and addictive numbing. The frame of EFT, deepens understanding, acceptance and empathy, creating a safe context to help partners defeat addictive patterns and to become one another’s primary source of comfort and support.
With EFT couple therapy, I see hope for the exhausted and isolated woman who walked into my office. I have a picture of how I can work with her and her partner to combat addiction with a growing emotional connection. Together we can explore the couple’s emotional patterns and how gambling fits into their cycle of mis-attempts to find secure connection. Together we can reshape the relationship by accessing and disclosing vulnerable emotions and each partner’s needs for understanding, connection, and protection. Their new goal becomes one of finding a refuge in one another’s emotional support, to replace the cyclic pattern of distancing through gambling and fighting against one another.
Damon Dye, EdD, LMHC, BACC