"I need to tell you something," he texted me.
My heart dropped. In my experience, those six words never lead to anything good. As it turns out, my intuition was correct and when I saw my boyfriend later that day, I knew from his red eyes and pale complexion that he was about to tell me something I wasn’t going to want to hear.
As thoughts of cheating swirled around my head, he blurted out: "I’m addicted to gambling. I can’t stop." Then he broke down.
I was shocked and confused. I knew he gambled every now and then – or so I thought – but so do most men who follow sport, I had assumed from the gambling adverts that pop up throughout the ad breaks of football matches.
He explained, through his sobs, that he had spent a lot of money gambling in recent weeks and felt as though he physically couldn’t stop himself. He said every time he lost a bet, he gambled more in the hope that he would win back what he had lost.
I was distraught. I had noticed some outgoings from our joint bank account to betting sites but had naively assumed it was a few small bets here and there. When I later looked down the account properly, I realised he had spent over £500 in just a couple of weeks.
He had gambled away our shared money – money we needed to pay the bills. He told me he was sorry and that he understood if I wanted to leave. I was upset and sad that he hadn’t come to me sooner, before things had got so out of hand, but I also felt extremely guilty that I hadn’t noticed something was off.
I decided to stay and support him. I encouraged him to close his betting accounts and keep himself busy, which he did.
It was only months later that I realised his problem went deeper. He had been moving money from my personal bank account to his own. Our financial arrangement was that all money was shared and belonged to both of us, regardless of whose account it was in. I was furious to realise that the amount he had gambled was far greater than I had previously thought.
I began to research gambling addictions in young men and the statistics were overwhelming. An NHS study published at the end of last year shows that half of all UK adults now gamble, with 29% of men aged between 25 and 34 reporting that they'd participated in online gambling. Alarmingly, men aged 16-24 were the age group most likely to be classed as 'problem gamblers', with an addiction rate of 1.9% compared to 0.4% for the rest of the population.
"These new statistics are a stark reminder of how common gambling is in our society," said Simon Stevens, NHS chief executive. "[It shows] how easy it is to become addicted, particularly with the aggressive push into online gambling."
London-based therapist Sally Baker says gambling apps have made it easier than ever to "convert young men's interest in sport into a financially ruinous compulsive behaviour." She explains that gambling apps have "reward stimuli" built into their structures, making use of appealing colours, timing and audio to make them harder for the user to put down. "[They] use enticing bonuses, special offers and free bets to encourage a mindset of 'chasing the money' to win back losses."
Since he first told me he was addicted to gambling, my boyfriend has had long periods of time where he has not gambled, followed by relapses where, once again, he has gambled away vital funds from both our bank accounts and his credit cards.
Each time he relapses, he is devastated. He tells me that he understands if I want to leave. At times, I have threatened to end things between us. I do understand that an addiction is a mental health problem and that when someone is struggling with their mental health, they need support – which my boyfriend has found in an online gambling support community. I count myself as one of the lucky ones. Not all gamblers are ready or willing to get help. Sally warns that if your partner is a compulsive gambler, "make no mistake, they will lie to you ... until they are ready to seek the specialist therapy they need to resolve this specific type of mental illness."
After a relapse, my boyfriend usually falls into a dark depression and struggles significantly with his mental health. Overall, he has gambled away over £3,000 of our money. For every pound he has lost, a small part of the trust we shared has gone for good.
Credit cards are often blamed for enabling gambling, allowing addicts to run up huge, interest-heavy debts. These days, they're only part of the problem. Smart technology, apps and the gamification of gambling is targeting a whole new generation of men.
If my boyfriend had not had access to betting apps on his smartphone, it is my belief that he would never have become addicted in the first place. He told me that he would never go into a betting shop but gambling on his phone became a hobby. It was "fun and easy" for him. Beginning with sports betting, it quickly moved to playing on gambling casino apps – and the addiction overtook him from there.
"Young men are the worst affected by the gambling epidemic and these figures are extremely concerning," he said. "The younger you start gambling, the more likely you are to become addicted. Online gambling poses a huge risk to a whole generation of young men."
After his first relapse, my boyfriend chose to contact a gambling support community which helped him to close all his betting accounts and ban himself for life by self-identifying as a gambling addict. He believes that this support system was crucial to his recovery and says that without it, he doesn’t know where he would be.
He also opted to give me access to his bank accounts, so that I could monitor what he was spending and where. This has given us both peace of mind and made it possible for us to move forward. Years after his first relapse, we are still in debt due to his addiction and he needs ongoing support. Gambling nearly destroyed his life and our relationship. But for now, we're getting through it.
Many may not have the same experience. For those out there who are struggling with a similar situation, Sally says that the most important person to protect is yourself. "Take control of all finances, be on alert. It is massively uncomfortable and corrosive." You should also consider this bitter pill: "With the best will in the world, it might not be possible for you to save the person you love."
However, she says, if you are intent on staying, it's vital you protect your mental wellbeing. "There are organisations to support the family and friends of gamblers just as there are for the friends and relatives of alcoholics." Whether you find solace in them or not, it's important to remember that you aren't suffering with this problem alone.
If you or someone you love is affected by problematic gambling, please reach out to GamCare, which offers support and practical advice for both sufferers of gambling addictions and their families and friends. GamAnon provides online and in-person meetings for partners and family members of compulsive gamblers.