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During the pandemic, I came home to the U.S. from living abroad to move in with my boyfriend of three years. I love every minute with him; he’s intelligent, comfortable to be with, has a great sense of humor, and is unconditionally supportive of me. I’d happily be stuck on a desert island with him for all eternity.
Unfortunately, finances are not among his skills. I convinced him to sell his house that I hated, and we used the money from that sale to buy a tiny home in cash. He took the rest (upwards of $10K plus another $7K that his generous and supportive parents gave him to help finance our move to a new home) and gambled it online trading stocks and crypto. He’s honestly terrible at this, and I cried when I heard his plans. I had hoped he would either invest that money properly or just save it. This is the third time in recent years that he’s lost money betting on options and crypto. At this point, he has lost all but $3K, which he keeps circulating in the account. I think he would add more if he could.
He says that he trades because he wants to quit his job and have another source of income. He’s 40 and runs a business (along with two other owners) that’s been forced into debt by the pandemic. He made about $35K to $45K last year, while I mostly supported the household; I have a lot of earning power and a very intense but steady job in tech that pays six figures. (I also have a lot of student debt from graduate school and no family to speak of.)
How he spends his money would not be my concern except that I do eventually want to have a family, ideally with him. But because of his business tanking and his unsuccessful gambling (though he refuses to use that term), I am afraid that a life with him would leave me with all our bills. When he’s not trading online, he’s playing internet chess. I’ve tried talking with him about his trading and how I see it as an addiction, but he continues to be obsessed with it.
What gamble should I make? Leave my soul mate to seek a more financially responsible person who may or may not exist? I’m at an awkward age for investing in a new partnership with someone, which could put me at the end of my 30s before I’m sure we’re a good fit for having children. Plus, I can’t imagine that I would like any person more than my boyfriend, and leaving him because of his financial situation seems callous. What should I do?
You probably don’t want to hear this, but my immediate reaction is RUN. This man sounds like a wonderful person with a serious problem that you cannot fix for him. I’m truly sorry that you’re in this position, but if you stay with him — and especially if you have children — his issue will become yours, and you’ll be fighting it in some form for the rest of your life.
If your boyfriend has a gambling disorder (which is what it sounds like, although a mental-health practitioner can provide a proper diagnosis), then he will need professional help. Defined by the DSM-5 as a “persistent and recurrent problematic gambling behavior leading to clinically significant impairment or distress,” gambling disorders afflict an estimated 20 million Americans. Many people dismiss it as a compulsion driven by poor self-control, but in reality it’s a brutal illness that requires treatment, usually with medication and therapy. Those who do find relief (which involves acknowledging the problem in the first place) often suffer from relapse. “Even once you get out of the addiction cycle, it’s easy to fall back into it, so this will be a lifelong concern,” says Dr. Sonya Lutter, a certified financial therapist who researches the connections between mental health and money.
That said, it also sounds like you really love this man, and I can understand why it feels premature to walk away before you’ve tried to help him. You can’t solve his problem, but you can offer a lot of valuable support and encouragement for him to get the care he needs. More on that in a minute.
In the meantime — and this is important — do not merge any part of your finances with your boyfriend’s. I would even encourage you to take steps to protect your money from him. You should get comfortable with the likelihood that you will be the breadwinner — and even the sole earner — in the household for as long as you’re together. If you eventually get married (which, to be honest, does NOT sound like a good idea at the moment), I recommend signing a prenuptial agreement and keeping your accounts as separate as possible.
Again, I don’t mean to sound dire. But if he can’t be trusted with his own money, then you certainly shouldn’t trust him with access to yours now or in the future.
Now for the part where you can try to help him: The first step is for him to realize that his behavior is problematic in the first place. This is different from you telling him it’s bad — he has to believe it himself. You mentioned that this is the third time in recent years that he’s lost money betting on options and crypto, so there’s plenty of evidence that his actions are self-destructive. He needs to know that if he keeps it up, it’ll be harmful to both of you and the life you want to build together. But you’ll want to tread carefully — trotting out his failures will add to the shame he probably feels about his losses (on top of his failing business), and that will likely backfire.
“Generally, if someone is addicted to something, they’re not going to admit it off the bat,” says Dr. Preston Cherry, a financial therapist and professor of financial planning. “Instead, it’s an acceptance process that requires patience and empathy.” He advises setting aside some time with your boyfriend to start talking about your future more generally. “Plan it in advance so that he doesn’t feel like you’re springing the topic on him, and try something like, ‘Can we schedule some time to talk about us and what goals we want to work toward together?’ You want to introduce these topics in a positive, forward-thinking manner without being accusatory or attacking.”
When the time comes for this conversation, be curious and open. Ask about how his business and his trading make him feel without passing judgment. “Make it clear that you are available for him to talk about these things,” says Dr. Cherry. “Part one is to offer your support and kindness, and part two is to explain how his behavior is making you feel — and from there to suggest that he get some professional help.”
There’s a good chance that he will reject these overtures at first. You mentioned that you’ve tried to talk to him about this before; it might be that he feels criticized or thinks that you don’t fully “understand” him. To be clear, this is not your fault. But it may take some extra work to get him to open up. “You want to roll with his resistance, not try to educate him or convince him that your way is better,” says Dr. Lutter. “Make a script that you can stick to, like, ‘What went into that decision? Can you help me understand? Can you tell me more about that?’”
Your goal is not to “fix” him, Dr. Lutter adds. “That absolutely will not work. We see this in addiction studies over and over again.” Rather, you can help him identify some of the triggers that are feeding his actions and act as a facilitator if and when he is ready to explore treatment.
Ultimately, your boyfriend is the only person who can change his behavior. I think you know this, but part of you may also be hoping that your relationship is strong enough to break him out of this cycle. Unfortunately, that’s not how gambling disorders work. He can still be a great person who is worthy of your love and support, but until he addresses these problems, he can’t be the life partner it sounds like you want.