In this paper we adopt a resource and process-focused view of recovery from problem gambling based on family systems (e.g., Bertrand, Dufour, Wright, & Lasnier, 2008; McComb, Lee, & Sprenkle, 2009) and clinically-oriented communications theory and research (e.g., Seikkula & Arnkil, 2006; Winslade & Monk, 2008). We locate problem gambling, and recovery from it, as being nested or anchored in habitual relational practices (Dreier, 2007; Heritage, 1984; Schatzki, 2002) that can involve, to varying degrees, a recovering gambler’s relationship partner. Couples, in other words, can have their ways of relating become unintentionally and habitually shaped by problem gambling. Such couples can be differentiated from those who make recovery a shared project by intentionally relating in ways that both support recovery and break with the relational habits associated with problem gambling. In no way are we suggesting that one’s relationship partner causes problem gambling or recovery from it. Nor are we suggesting that recovering problem gamblers must solely rely on their partners to succeed with recovery. Instead, we will examine features and potentials of the problem gambler’s primary relationship as a context from which recovery can be attempted, as a couple’s project. For practitioners, we adapt this view to suggest ways of counselling recovering problem gamblers.
Problem gambling as a feature of relational life
Recovery from problem gambling often begins under desperate circumstances (Nixon & Solowoniuk, 2006). The compulsive or addictive components of problem gambling can bring the gambler to financial ruin, severe health or mental health concerns, even suicide (James, 2005; Mintoft, Bellringer, & Orme, 2005; Smith & Wynne, 2002). If the problem gambler has not already separated from her or his primary partner, it is not uncommon for that relationship to be characterized by conflict or alienation (Hodgins, Shead, & Makarchuk, 2007; Korman et al., 2008; Porter, Ungar, Frisch, & Chopra, 2004). While problem gambling negatively changes the gambler, other negative changes can affect a couple’s interactions and understandings (Tepperman, Korn, & Reynolds, 2006). These relational understandings are anchored in the interactions in which they acquire their familiarity (Heritage, 1984). For couple and family therapists, such anchored activities recur in patterns of interaction that can become routinized, even anticipated (e.g., Bateson, 1972; Hoffman, 1981) as the couple’s social reality. Thus, problem gambling and its effects can play a role in fostering unintended patterns of relating and understanding within couples (Hammond, 1997; McComb et al., 2009).
Partners in couples often become habituated to their interactions with and understandings of each other, even more so when one or both of them develop a gambling problem. Such interactions can become further entrenched and harmful when associated with re-enactments of prior traumatic experiences, pre-dating, or occurring earlier in, the couple’s relationship (Lee, 2009). Learning about a partner’s problems with gambling, for example, is often a breach of trust and intimacy in areas such as a couple’s finances (Dickson-Swift et al., 2005). Conversations about such problems can be fraught with seemingly irresolvable emotions and impasses – even violence (Korman et al., 2008). Verbal conflicts over a partner’s problem gambling and its effects often develop into harmful vicious cycles akin to what Tomm (1991) has described as pathologizing interpersonal patterns. Failed conversations about difficult topics can atrophy into problematic relational patterns of avoidance because the potential for conflict can seem too great (Miller et al., 2003). John Shotter (1993) described such patterns as «conversational realities,» wherein either partner’s preferences for relating become unintentionally subordinated to, or obscured by, understood habits of interaction.
For couples who have endured problem gambling, and are attempting recovery (Ferland et al., 2008; Ingle, Marotta, McMillan, & Wisdom, 2008), a seemingly gravitational pull to such patterns can be daunting to overcome. Parenting and household co-management (or failures of co-management) can become other sites of conflictual or atrophied interaction (Dixon & Wetherell, 2004; Knudson-Martin & Mahoney, 1998; Sonnenberg, 2008), compounding recovery efforts by the couple. Stopping problem gambling can seem challenging enough; repairing relationships, being able to turn to them for support, and sharing in recovery efforts can seem beyond the capacities of partners (Hodgins et al., 2007; Ingle et al., 2008) – though not for all couples attempting recovery together (e.g., Bertrand et al., 2008).
Dreier’s study of families when they were not in therapy (2007) highlights contrasts between the weekly therapeutic hour and what occurs beyond it, by focusing on family interactions and shared activities outside of therapy. Revealed are complex, recurring, social interactions on matters which preoccupy families, interactions which bear little resemblance and sometimes run counter to what might be focused on in therapy. The upshot of Dreier’s analyses is that clinical initiatives with families, however well intended or discussed, too often fail to find any traction in families’ non-clinical interactions. Dreier offers grim reminders of what well-intended people (i.e., therapists as well as clients) can be up against when trying to address clinically relevant concerns as a feature of relational life. Their obstacles to change were not so much failures of intentions or resolve, as they reflect engagements in and preoccupations with other projects and interactions unrelated to their therapeutic intentions and efforts.
Dreier is one of an increasing group of theorists (Latour, 2005; Schatzki, 2002), researchers (Buttny, 2004; Gubrium & Holstein, 2009) and clinicians (Pain, 2009; Tomm, 1991) who examine human concerns as being nested in situated relational practices. This way of thinking is not new. Bateson (1972) described addiction in related cybernetic terms, as recurring inside closed loops of particular interactions and logics consistent with them. Situated practices are interactions which recur between people, often in taken-for-granted ways. For ethnomethodologists (e.g., Heritage, 1984) such interactions often become routinized into anticipated social realities beyond partners’ agentive efforts to alter. What comes to be taken for granted in partners’ lives is a convergence of their habits of interaction and the meanings attributed to them. Should partners embark on recovery from problem gambling as a shared project, such meanings and behaviours often have become so habitual that they «choreograph» their interactions beyond either’s intentions.
Relational stories of problem gambling and recovery
Situated relational practices, like those we have been relating to addictive problems like gambling, find their meaning and animation in stories or cultural discourses (e.g., Gardner & Poole, 2009; Humphreys, 2000; Man-kwong, 2004). Hence, partners not only attribute meaning to behaviours like gambling or their partners’ actions with respect to gambling, their meanings and interactions become intertwined in storied or discursive ways (Diamond, 2002; Freedman & Combs, 1996; Strong, 2011).
Such cultural stories and discourses are readily recognizable and accessible, providing distinct ways of understanding and relating to activities such as gambling or recovery. By analogy, Wittgenstein (1953) may have described them as being their own «forms of life». Twelve step groups, for example, not only offer ways of understanding and talking about addictive behavior, they furnish familiar plotlines for living as someone in recovery (e.g., Koski-Jannes & Hanninen, 1999; McGowan, 2003; Weegman & Piwowoz-Hjort, 2009). However, there are many cultural stories and discourses that can anchor understandings people live by with respect to problems considered addictive (Raylu & Oei, 2004; Reith, 2007). Recovery as a couple’s project often requires addressing unsuccessful stories or discourses partners live by without awareness of enactable alternatives (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). Problem gamblers and their partners can interact around problematically familiar story plotlines they can’t step out of.
What we have been describing are not the products of eccentric individual thinking by gamblers and their partners. Different and often conflicting positions (e.g., Harré & van Langenhove, 1999; Monk, Sinclair, & Smith, 2004) can be taken up by partners from the kinds of cultural discourses or stories we have been describing. One partner may draw from a cultural discourse or story that sees a failure of willpower, while another may see mental illness, for example. As with many psychological phenomena (e.g., Danziger, 1996), how gambling should be understood and responded to has been a source of considerable clinical and scientific debate (Reinarman, 2005; Rossol, 2001; Suissa, 2005). Popularized in today’s media, there is an array of meanings, stories, or discourses partners can draw from in making sense of both gambling and recovery. So, unsurprisingly, a significant challenge facing couples, involves partners extricating themselves from conflicting (and unsuccessful) discourses or stories to find mutually preferred stories, discourses and ways of interacting helpful for their recovery projects.
Sadly, partners can become as coordinated in their conflicts or forms of avoidance as they could be in shared projects of recovery (e.g., Hammond, 1997; McComb et al., 2009). Moreover, such unsuccessful and unrecognized coordinations – habituated interactions fuelled by uncoordinated stories or discourses – can relationally challenge frontline clinicians or well-intended couples. Such conflicts or avoidances acquire their intractability, as much for what gets said or understood as for how partner responses are communicated (tones of voice and gestures are our first language so to speak). An either/or-ness that fuels, sustains and exacerbates conflicts or avoidance in couples, is often seen as personality or principle driven, as a failure of dialogue, or as what Vico centuries ago (1999/1744) described as «linguistic poverty». Inadvertently and counter-intuitively, in trying to address concerns as chronic as problem gambling, partner’s stories and discourses – their individual discursive positions – can become problematically coordinated, ensnaring couple in unpreferred «conversational realities» (Shotter, 1993).
Looking upon recovery from problem gambling as a couple’s project
The term «couple’s project» conveys a sense of intended and coordinated efforts by partners in addressing problem gambling together. Given the emotional stakes that can feature in such projects we turn to another challenge of relational life such couples face: the discursive challenge of managing finances and households. This context, like recovery from problem gambling, can be a highly contested aspect of relational life. For there to be a «couple’s project», both partners need to willingly commit to new ways of coordinating their understandings and interactions. This differs from making one’s partner responsible for one’s efforts in the project (a common concern regarding systemic therapy; e.g., Bertrand et al., 2008); instead it builds on shared intentions in resourceful ways yet to be identified and used by couples.
To illustrate such a potential couples’ project, consider how couples «discursively manage» (Dixon & Wetherell, 2004; Elizabeth, 2001; Sonnenberg, 2008; Vogler, Lyonette, & Wiggins, 2008) their finances. Partners differentially evaluating and making use of their financial resources is a common concern presented to couples’ therapists (Aniol & Synder, 1997; Papp, Cummings, & Goeke-Morey, 2009; Shapiro, 2007). In some couples, partners adopt separate ways to manage their finances (Ashby & Burgoyne, 2009) which can be problematic when children or shared debt are involved (Kroska, 2008; Pahl, 2005). Finances, like other important features of couples’ lives together, are «discursively managed» through partners’ conversations, decisions, and subsequent actions (Elizabeth, 2001; Sonnenberg, 2008). To discursively manage their finances successfully, they need to identify and agree on common priorities (or coordinate differences in priorities) through negotiations that enable them to live within finite resources. Sustained dialogue in these challenging aspects of being a couple helps partners not only stay within their financial means but can keep this aspect of living together mutually acceptable.
Problems arise for couples in areas like discursively managing finances when dialogue fails, and differences cannot be talked through in ways acceptable or equitable to both partners (Knudson-Martin & Mahoney, 1998). Failures in dialogue often have to do with power tactics, such as partners’ being imposing, avoidant, or threatening in the conversational work required to discursively manage a couple’s finances (Elizabeth, 2001; Kroska, 2008). Couples often develop particular understandings and relational habits (social practices; Schatzki, 2002) that compromise how they address inescapable conversational challenges such as managing finances. Potentials for conflict or avoidance in couples can occur at the best of times, but with increasing numbers of couples and families living paycheck to paycheck financial crises have become more common (Conger et al., 2010). Should couples have experienced prior problems in discursively managing their finances, a financial crisis added to these problems can push couples to the brink when trying to talk through such a crisis to an agreeable solution (Gale, Goetz, & Bermudez, 2009; Gudmundson, Israelsen, McCoy & Hill, 2007; Papp et al., 2009).
Recovering from problem gambling often begins when gamblers are in financial crises (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 2004; Ferland et al., 2008; Koski-Jannes, 1998). Partners too are pulled into the financial crises and challenges in managing it (Kalishuk et al., 2006). While primary recovery efforts belong to the abstinent gambler (Nixon & Solowoniuk, 2006), the couple relationship has often been compromised in other areas where important discursive co-management is required (Black et al., 2006; Dickson-Swift et al., 2005).
Intentions and identities in couples’ recovery conversations
If conversations of couples, where a partner is trying to recover from problem gambling, have become stuck, new understandings and interactions are required. However, such recovery efforts often take place in contexts of conflict or alienation, failing social or relational practices, mistrust and financial ruin. Partners’ stuck meanings and interactions prior to recovery often seem fused in irreparable ways, with relationships often ending before or just as recovery is about to start (McComb et al., 2009). While beginning recovery can be sparked by partners’ concerns (Hodgins, Makarchuk, el-Guebaly, & Peden, 2002), and recovery can be derailed for many reasons, problems in recovering problem gamblers’ relationships are cited as one reason why recovering gamblers fail at recovery (Hodgins & el-Guebaly, 2004; Ingle et al., 2008).
Despite good intentions, a conversational challenge facing couples making recovery a shared project is to separate from prior problem-patterned understandings and actions, and to reclaim shared and actionable intentions. Family therapists help couples make such separations, to prevent prior problematic patterns from sustaining unpreferred understandings and actions – as vicious cycles (Hoffman, 1981). Inside such insidious patterns partners develop associated understandings of each other’s identities; stories of identity that narrative therapists (e.g., Freedman & Combs, 1996; White & Epston, 1990) describe as «problem-saturated». Needed are ways to linguistically separate partners from identity and relationship stories which sustain problems, so that intended and shared relationship stories can be enacted by them (Winslade & Monk, 2008; Zimmerman & Dickerson, 1993). Inside such problem-saturated stories are identity characterizations partners feel compelled to justify or dispute, while their relationship suffers (Tomm, 1991). Recovery, as a couples’ project, needs ways beyond such old enacted stories, helping to newly align partners’ intentions and efforts behind enacting preferred identity stories – for each other, and for their relationship (e.g., Aston, 2009; Gardner & Poole, 2009).
Recent advances in «positioning theory» (Harré & van Langenhove, 1999; Winslade, 2005) highlight the linguistic separability of people and their understandings of each other and themselves. The social practices and patterned interactions described stabilize how one understands the conversational partner, and «correspondingly» responds to her or him. Becoming locked into either/or conflicting positions while losing sight of acceptable relational alternatives illustrates the pitfalls of positioning, and seemingly lost avenues of escape if too narrowly positioned. Such linguistically understood positions often get conflated with personality descriptions of one’s partner, or inferences about that partner’s intentions. Such descriptions, and the positions they animate, show people being servants of language, than masters of its judicious relational use. Hence, narrative therapists (e.g., Freedman & Combs, 1996; White & Epston, 1990) suggest that problems, not people, should be seen as the problem; preferred stories and new linguistic positions for advancing them are needed. People and relationships are seldom served well by a single story whose «truth» is fought over.
Addictive behaviours can be pathologized into addictive personalities; or in narrative therapy terms, a hopeless and problem-saturated story (Diamond, 2002). The problem gambler has often inadvertently self-identified with, and acts from such stories (Koski-Jannes & Hanninen, 1999) as if their intentions, and abilities to transformationally act on them, are irrelevant. Others close to the problem gambler develop stories (in ways Drewery, 2005, refers to as «position calls») about the problem gambler and the couple relationship; thus differences over such stories can compel patterns of conflict as partners justify and defend themselves from such stories (Tomm, 1991; Zimmerman & Dickerson, 1993). Good intentions to rally hope can seem hardly enough when juxtaposed with chronically failed, and hope-diminishing, interactions as a couple where problem gambling has overtaken relational life (Hodgins et al., 2007).
For couples who succeed at recovery without clinical assistance, the most important predictor is the problem gambler’s abstinence from gambling (Hodgins et al., 2002; Slutske, 2006). However, having often burned relational bridges with partners, the problem gamblers often bypass primary relationships (if they still have them), for others’ support in twelve step groups (Ferentzy, Skinner, & Ante, 2007), or online support communities (e.g., McGowan, 2003; Mudry, 2011). Thus, the recovering gambler is with fellow travelers, so to speak, and with them can find new understandings for addressing such concerns as cravings and relapses. Discursively managing concerns occurs differently inside a twelve step group (e.g., Pollner & Stein, 1996) than in the problem gambler’s primary relationship, if it exists (Nixon & Solowoniuk, 2006). Should a recovering problem gambler remain in this primary relationship, inescapable aspects of relational life must still be discursively managed (Kalishuk et al., 2006; McComb et al., 2009).
Conversations and recovery as a couple’s project
We have presented a case for considering recovery from problem gambling as a couple’s project. Our rationale stems from a view that relational life is often coordinated in unintended particular social practices or patterns of interaction from which unpreferred identity stories follow. By the time a problem like gambling needs to be addressed, it has woven its way into the very fabric of couples’ understandings and ways of relating, through patterns of conflict as much as through patterns of avoidance. Recovery typically begins out of varied crises that strain couples’ already problematic ways of relating. Traumatic experience often accompanies this critical realization and can itself become part of a couple’s failed attempts to address problem gambling (Lee, 2009). The kinds of recovery conversations couples staying together need, will clearly differ from those which have not succeeded, or from those exacerbated by conflict.
Discourse analysts (e.g., Edwards & Potter, 1992; Wooffitt, 2005) look upon conversations which are relationally performed, and what results from those performances. Discursively oriented therapists similarly see their talk as actively co-constructing or negotiating conversational relationships (Kozart, 1996; Roy-Chowdhury, 2006), processes and outcomes (e.g., Freedman & Combs, 1996; Strong, Busch, & Couture, 2008). Said differently, these researchers and practitioners take what happens in conversations seriously, seeing conversational junctures as sites where social reality is sustained or transformed through how people talk and interact (Schatzki, 2002). People negotiate with each other through their talking, to relationally accomplish things – even if those things are unwanted sameness (Pain, 2009). A person’s intentions or positioning often have little to do with those «accomplishments», as the experiences of well-intended people often lead to disagreements that, themselves, come to choreograph relations and future conversations. Missing in those cases are conversations that arrive at shared or coordinated intentions (Anderson, 1997) as partners talk from conflicting positions.
To discursively manage recovery from problem gambling together, partners often need help in recognizing, then stepping back from (or around) entrenched positions and the meanings and behaviors stabilized by them. Stories about problem gambling or partners’ troubled relationships can take on lives of their own, and those implicated by them can find themselves unwitting perpetuating these stories. Like any good story of overcoming adversity, successful recovery stories start from the same history as unsuccessful recovery stories, but their plotlines suggest different requirements for action and interaction, as prior storylines dominate less and less with time (Humphreys, 2000; Koski-Jannes & Hanninen, 1999). It is in the immediacies of recovery-oriented conversations and interactions that old positions and stories can be re-enacted (Wortham, 2000) or new «small stories» of identity (Bamberg & Georgakopolou, 2008) talked into being and significance. The problem gambler’s recovery-oriented actions, in accomplishments beyond couples’ conversations, remain important to the recovery project.
So, how might therapists join or help couples to discursively manage recovery as a couple’s project? We have referred mostly to entrenched conversational patterns and understandings, to help couples break from them, so far. The discursively oriented couples’ therapist is someone mindful of the «whats and hows» of couples’ problem interactions while focused on negotiating small and immediate details of therapeutic conversation (Strong, 2006). Earlier we discussed the often charged interactions in and from which couples discursively manage shared finances. Critical for the success of such conversations are intentions sufficiently talked through and coordinated so as to enable partners common parameters for managing their finances. Problems emerge when the financial intentions and actions of either partner cannot be talked through or acted upon within parameters each can accept.
Mapping out what are unacceptable and acceptable parameters for each partner’s contributions to recovery can become part of the couple’s therapeutic challenge, as is their ability to act within acceptable parameters (McComb et al., 2009). This helps to name and make explicit the formerly implicit ways of interacting and understanding possibly choreographed by problem gambling. Said differently, such maps can help to make clear the patterns and understandings each partner and the relationship is separating from, and the effects such patterns have had on their relationship, while also helping to chart an acceptable way forward (White, 2007). They can also help to chart the individual, yet coordinated efforts each partner can make with respect to repairing the relationship, while supporting a process of recovery. For example, they might target topics where they can learn to talk through differences, where formerly they avoided or conflicted over them – one challenge among others they might take on with a therapist’s assistance (e.g., Bertrand et al., 2008; Ciarrocchi, 2001; Lee, 2009; McComb et al., 2009). From our perspective, guiding couples’ decisions regarding seeking therapy is their assessment that differences over areas important to recovery are discussable with a therapist, recognizing that this does not absolve the problem gambler from her or his own efforts to address problem gambling.
Couples need to separate from the choreographed understandings and interactions that problem gambling brought to their lives.
We have presented a case that, for couples who stay together after problem gambling, recovery can at least in part be seen as a couple’s project. Couples’ recovery projects involve partners’ intended efforts to separate from relationships choreographed by problem gambling. The choreography to which we refer involves the patterned and often taken for granted interactions and understandings that overtake couples, fostering limiting understandings of one’s partner and relationship. From shared intentions, couples tackling recovery as a shared project, need to separate from the choreographed understandings and interactions that problem gambling brought to their lives. This requires conversations that first identify these unintended interactions and understandings, and their effects on the relationship. Then couples, with therapists’ assistance, can take a stand for coordinating their intentions behind which partners can join or align in their particular recovery efforts. Seeing recovery as a couple’s project, we have drawn from a view of relationships and communications associated with discourse analysts and discursively oriented family therapists. Problems like gambling can compromise the key means by which couples successfully negotiate and coordinate all aspects of relational life, including one or both partners’ recovery from problem gambling.
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