Three major themes and six sub-themes were derived from the thematic analysis (Table 2). Each theme will be explored individually, using verbatim quotations from women with lived experience of IPV linked to a male partner's gambling (WMG) and women with lived experience of IPV linked to their own gambling (WWG) to illustrate the concepts.
Theme 1 Commitment to Integrated and Collaborative Responses
Individual level responses
At the individual practitioner level, most women highlighted the importance of working with practitioners who understood and addressed the intersecting barriers faced by women seeking support for gambling related IPV. Women seeking help for issues relating to their own or their partner's gambling, may not seek help for IPV, and vice versa, hence practitioners need to be alert to both issues. As highlighted by one woman seeking help for problem gambling, women valued practitioners who were alert to indicators and able to offer skilled assistance or a warm referral:
“She was helping – like she was being a financial adviser. And when she realised how much I have to pay for…it was a bit, you know, unfair, so she suggested to see a lady over there [domestic violence counsellor].” (Narelle, WWG, age 20–29)
In many cases, women did not initially identify economic abuse as IPV, or recognise the links between problem gambling and IPV. Individual practitioners who were attentive to these issues and sought to address both problems, helped women gain new insights into their situation and receive appropriate support. As noted by one woman who sought financial counselling to help cope with her partner's gambling problem “…it was the counsellor that first suggested that it was domestic violence…up until that point, I just couldn't accept it, or couldn't really believe it." (Stacey, WMG, age 30–39). Similarly, another woman found out about economic abuse through her financial counsellor, who suggested she seek support for IPV. Even though her partner stole from her and demanded her pay packet in front of customers she noted: "...I wasn't even aware that finances were part of the abuse." (Janet, WMG, age 40–49)
Practitioners who were sensitive to the intersection of gambling and IPV were able to assist women experiencing both issues. One woman with lived experience of IPV relating to her own gambling, highlighted how a visit to a relationship counsellor with her partner helped her understand that IPV was not acceptable in any situation, and that IPV was an underlying cause of her gambling problem. When her partner used her gambling problem to justify his abusive behaviour, "… the counsellor said to him 'There is never any excuse to hit a woman, there are no buts'." (Amber, WWG, age 30–39). Assessment of the clients' situation, and the identification of gambling as a trigger and reinforcer of IPV, ensured she was able to obtain appropriate support for both issues.
Adopting an integrated and holistic response ensures all major issues impacting detrimentally on the client are known from the start. While programs often work on single issues, for example, problem gambling or IPV victimisation, counsellors who were alert to multiple health issues were reported as being extremely helpful. This is illustrated in the following quote, where a social worker who was committed to addressing a woman's gambling problem and IPV concurrently used a more holistic approach:
“They said, "if there's any issues you have, we would like you to tell us about them, so that we can help you with your life". I told them everything. They said, "the more we know, the more we can assess whether we can help you." (Jacky, WWG, age 60–69)
Organisation level responses
At an organisational level, integrated services (e.g., those that offered IPV, gambling support and mental health services in the one agency), and services with strong external links to other services were valued by women. In many cases, this ensured that women did not have to continually repeat and thus re-live their traumatic story to every agency. For one woman, having Child Protection services and Parenting Alive programs linked to her counselling was very helpful in supporting her and her children. Another woman found that referrals between Child Safety counselling, Act for Kids programs and Journeys for Women assisted in rebuilding her life with her young children. Several different services connected to her counselling helped one woman draw up a safety plan and eventually leave an abusive relationship:
“[We] went through everything and he [the counsellor] sort of prepared me and we talked about all the things that I'd need to consider…how to deal with it all, so that was a really crucial factor…I couldn't have done any of it…if it weren't for the counsellor…I thought I was working to try and change my partner and it ultimately got to the point where I felt uncomfortable enough that I wanted to change…I didn't want to be in that situation anymore.” (Jody, WMG, age 20–29)
As noted earlier, many women came to services with risks they were not aware of or did not have a name for. At an organisational level, structured risk screening tools seemed to offer an effective, non-threatening way for practitioners to ask about risk so that all major issues were identified. Several women spoke highly of service experiences which included a comprehensive assessment of health issues. Carol recounted a positive experience accessing a women's health service for IPV related issues:
"The first session was spent completing a screening tool which seemed to cover everything, you know, mental health, drugs, relationships as well as the DV. I was quite surprised they asked about gambling, I thought to myself "this service knows what they are doing", and they didn't judge or criticise me when I told them about my gambling." (Carol, WWG, age 40–49)
Finding free services, such as counselling and gambling help services, was particularly valued by women in this study. Economic abuse had left many women with no spare funds, hence the cost and accessibility of some services often deterred women from seeking help. One woman explained how she was able to access free support through a gambling help service to help her cope and recover from gambling related IPV:
“If I go through Relationships Australia about the gambling, I can get it for free, the counselling, whereas I couldn't get relationship counselling for free. So, one of the reasons I went through the gambling avenue was because it was free.” (Janey, WMG, age 30–39)
Protective service models that had a permanent base, such as Relationships Australia and Centrelink-sponsored counselling, were found to be very helpful as they were perceived to have reliable and stable funding cycles. This meant that the women could anticipate some continuity of support in their recovery. By returning to the same service and not having to relive their abuse by repeating their story "...because it takes about five sessions out of the ten sessions to get your family tree down, or whatnot, you know." (Skye, WMG, age 20–29); they could move forward with their healing.
Theme 2 Therapeutic Support
Person-centred, trauma-informed support
Women who had very positive service experiences frequently spoke about the value of services being non-judgmental, sensitive to their situation, and trauma-informed. Women frequently talked about feeling guilty or responsible for their situation, irrespective of who had the gambling problem. They particularly valued being able to talk about their harms without being judged. As one woman who sought financial help for economic abuse noted:
“The people I talk to and been in contact with, they were all wonderful. There was not a speck of judgment or criticism or anything that – they were all so understanding and really – you could just feel that they tried everything to help…” (Noel, WMG, age 50–59)
Women also described being provided with trauma-informed support in favourable ways. Following several distressing sessions with a private psychologist, one young woman commenced treatment with a Head Space counsellor who tailored the sessions to her unique needs and circumstances:
“I met him the first time, and he said, "Is this useful?" Nobody ever asked me that before. They just said, "See you next week." But he said, "Is this useful?" And I had to think about it, and I said, "Actually, yes. Yes, I like listening to you. I like talking to you". And the other thing I felt about seeing him was I felt upbeat when I came out. I'd feel hopeful, and he would have given me things, interesting things, to try, that I could report on the next time I saw him.” (Andrea, WWG, age 20–29)
In a similar vein, the following woman highlighted the value of person-centred approaches that focus on achieving personal aspirations and are tailored to her needs. Other women were also key advocates of moving beyond a crisis response, and supported the idea of long-term approaches to help recover from trauma:
“.... there are some really good programs, I'm participating in one at the moment…where you actually participate in bush therapy and equine therapy, and they're fantastic therapeutic processes. We need programs that are future focused…moving forward with and putting the trauma behind you.” (Joe, WMG, age 50–59)
A person-centred approach is critical in the context of gambling related IPV. All women who identified as having a gambling problem spoke at length about the attraction of gambling venues and how gambling functions as an escape and a survival tool,"...when the violence and the emotional abuse would erupt, I would leave the house, because I had no friends or family around me. So I would actually go the pokies and that's where I would stay. I was never coming home. I didn't want to be at home.” (Sheila, WWG, age 60–69). Practitioners who were able to explore the role gambling played in helping to cope with or escape IPV, and who encouraged alternative solutions, were rated highly by women.
Sharing lived experiences of gambling related IPV through group counselling or a support group, was a crucial part of the healing process for many women. While these women were initially reluctant to attend group sessions (citing concerns about confidentiality or fear of discrimination), connecting with others in similar situations and sharing advice helped reduce their social and emotional isolation. One woman seeking help for IPV related to her partner's gambling recalled:
“I started sharing my story, and once I'd said enough of my story and I got all that out into the open…I was doing a lot of listening and I learnt from other people's experiences.” (Jacky, WWG, age 60–69)
As evidenced by the women's stories, current conceptualisations of problem gambling are damaging and can impact on help-seeking. For some women experiencing a gambling problem, attending a support group helped to lift the veil of secrecy, to challenge some of problem gambler stereotypes, and to reduce self-stigma:
“That was a very therapeutic thing for me too because I was speaking with people and we were starting to realise that we were normal people. We weren't people with two heads, this social, retrograde, homeless, toothless wonder who frankly what can you do to help, they're buggered anyway.” (Mandy, WWG, age 20–29)
Most women in the study struggled with the shame and stigma associated with gambling related IPV and frequently held themselves responsible for the situation. Several women benefited from attended Gam-Anon, which holds peer support groups for family members affected by problem gambling. These women spoke highly of this experience and found that engaging with others in similar situations was extremely helpful:
“Gam-Anon lets you get it out. That's the wonderful thing in that, and these people…When I told my story to people who understood, oh god, it's better than gold.” (Anna, WMG, age 40–49)
Theme 3 Instrumental Support
Support from the DFV sector
Women talked at length about the numerous bureaucratic hurdles involved in accessing housing support or refuges, especially in regional areas. Women impacted by economic abuse linked to their partner's gambling noted the critical importance of having access to emergency funds to secure safe and stable accommodation. A few women related beneficial instances of emergency help and other interventions facilitated through local DFV services. One woman noted:
“I had a lot of help from different emergency funds, for things like food and sometimes school fees and stuff when I have things sprung on me. I just didn't have any savings.” (Macy, WMG, age 30–39)
Women identified programs offering practical strategies and support as being particularly useful. Women were frequently coerced into handing over assets (for example, savings, jewellery, car and house) to fund their partner’s gambling habit, leaving them with no resources and trapped in situations of violence. The following comments provide clear examples of how women benefited from practical support from DFV services, such as clothing and household goods, when they had decided to leave an abusive partner. This support was critical because "if you're fleeing domestic violence, you're not necessarily going to leave with anything at all, except what's on your back.” (Shona, WWG, age 60–69). Furthermore, this woman also elaborated on how the service had helped her when in crisis mode:
“... they (DFV service) paid for the train ticket for me to get to Brisbane. They paid for everything. It's this type of support, the money, the practical stuff that's most helpful when you are in crisis mode.”
Safe refuge accommodation, material support for women in times of financial distress, supportive responses, and the availability of summary information collated from various relevant organisations were all identified as critical for women who had been left destitute by their partner's gambling. Many women also commented on the usefulness of working through a safety plan and exit plan with service providers:
“Yeah, the exit plan was most helpful. Even if it's a one-sentence exit plan, there's always some direction given, or provided, or to choose from, and it's always prosperous…because obviously I'm moving forward, compared to where I would have been at the beginning.” (Misty, WMG, age 30–39)
Support from the Gambling Help and Financial Counselling sector
Once they had discovered the extent of their partner's gambling and economic abuse, many women worked on ways to protect their own money and the household's finances. This was often extremely difficult or even impossible where their partner subjected them to violence if they did not give him full control over the family's money. Gambling often results in economic abuse and hardship; therefore, numerous gambling help services employ specialist financial counsellors. With support from these services, some women opened new bank accounts, increased the security on their accounts, and limited their partner's access to funds. These strategies helped several women to protect their finances when they were in the relationship.
Several women redirected their income into new accounts to keep it separate from their partner's money. For example, one woman reported:
“I separated my money. I opened up my own bank account. I've got my wages and my pension going into my own account in my own name but I still contribute to the bills…He was cranky and cross with me about that.” (Rachel, WMG, age 50–59)
Other women strengthened the security of their accounts, with some working with banks and banking apps to do so. For example, one woman said: "I've changed bank accounts with four different banks because of the security and I've told them what's going on." (Helen, WMG, age 50–59). One young mother described some strategies she had implemented while in a relationship with a man who had used her bank card for his poker machine gambling and online betting, stolen the Christmas money, and threatened her by choking and with a knife. Her priority was to ensure she could feed her infant son:
“When he's got paid it came in after midnight…so as soon as he walked out the door I would go online and transfer enough money for all the bills, you know, so he wouldn't gamble all of it.” (Harper, WMG, age 20–29)
For women impacted by violence linked to their own gambling problem, practical strategies offered by gambling help services (for example, support to identify triggers or minimise harm), were valued. One woman revealed how a gambling help service helped her navigate the self-exclusion process (where a person with a gambling problem voluntarily excludes themselves from specific gambling venues):
“The venue is only 100m away, the local pub. So, I'm a member there…we identified this as a trigger, and she [gambling counsellor] was able to help me exclude myself, and from another pub, which worked for quite a while.” (Stef, WWG, age 30–39)
In our study, economic abuse linked to gambling caused significant financial hardship. Working with gambling help and financial support services to identify and implement strategies to safeguard finances and manage debt was emphasised by many women.