As published in The Doctor Weighs In, August 18, 2016.
“I thank my wife for not giving up on me.”
“There is always hope.”
“My husband is addicted and it’s taking over his life.”
In the United States, addiction affects two-thirds of every family. In fact, most everyone you meet knows someone who either has an addiction or knows someone who has been impacted by addiction. The statements above were taken directly from a website that supports spouses and family members who have loved ones who share the same addiction. Through the website, they share experiences and gain support from others who understand their feelings of frustration and helplessness—a fairly typical position for anyone who has ever loved someone with an addiction.
But, these folks are not experiencing what we typically think of when we think of addiction. Their loved ones aren’t addicted to drugs or alcohol. Nor are they shooting heroin or stealing money to buy drugs. They aren’t concerned that their loved ones will drive drunk and kill themselves or someone else. And, they aren’t sitting up all night long worrying about where their loved ones are—if they are safe or if they are dead or alive. They know exactly where their spouses are. They are sitting in front of a computer screen mesmerized, lost, and completely enveloped by their addiction to multiplayer, fantasy video games. And these addictions are every bit as real as addictions to meth, alcohol, or opioids.
In 2014, Dr. Jason Northrup and Dr. Sterling Shumway published a phenomenological study that explored the experiences of ‘Gamer Widows’—women married to men who were addicted to World of Warcraft (WoW), a multiplayer fantasy game. The fascinating study sheds light on the complicated nature of addiction and how addiction to substances and addiction to behaviors are eerily similar and connected.
World of Warcraft is a massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPGS) wherein players control an evolving avatar interacting with other players in a fantasy environment. Players must subscribe and pay in order to play. Since its release in 2004, millions of people have subscribed to play WoW. The number of subscribers reached its peak in 2010, at 12 million. Although WoW subscriptions have decreased since then, they currently stand at 5.5 million. That’s a lot of people. An analysis from 2013 on the amount of time people play WoW reported that 58% of subscribers played 20 or more hours a week with 28% of these playing 30 hours or more. That’s a lot of time.
The results of the study tell a heartbreaking story of relationship demise and desperation. For example, all of the women interviewed expressed changes in their marital relationship including an increase in conflict and a decrease in emotional and physical intimacy as their partners spent more and more time playing. They also identified changes in themselves including feelings of anger, resentment, and stress. These gamer widows also noticed distinct changes in their husbands’ behavior namely isolating themselves (except for their WoW friends) and protecting their gaming time by manipulation and lying. Most compelling is how these women identified their husband’s behavior as an addiction. Below are some direct quotes about their perception of their partners’ gaming addiction²:
“I would define it as something that takes over your life, something that the addict sees as more important than anything else in life and sacrifices anything to get/do more of the addictive behavior.”
“Gaming is just as bad as illegal drugs…maybe more so because there isn’t a lot of physical evidence of the addiction.”
“I believe they should carry warning labels, just like tobacco and alcohol.”
“I hate [MMORPGs]…I think they are horrible.”
The time, obsession, destruction, resentment, anger, and stress is relatable to anyone whose life has been impacted by addiction. The experiences of these women are not isolated to gaming alone. Many people relate to being addicted to or loving someone addicted to a host of other behavioral or process addictions. These can include behaviors surrounding sex, love, gambling, shopping, internet, food—including eating disorders, exercise, and self-harm.
There is growing evidence that certain types of behaviors, especially when accompanied by obsession and compulsion, mirror substance addiction in multiple ways.
More simply put,
“Behavioral addiction, such as internet addiction, is similar to drug addiction except that in the former the individual is not addicted to a substance but the behavior or the feeling brought about by the relevant action.”¹
My clinical experience is that individuals usually suffer simultaneously from both a substance and behavioral addiction. Having this duality of addiction is exponentially treacherous and complicates staying in recovery and finding meaningful help.
Individuals, spouses, families, communities, peers, and professionals need to be aware that the brain disease of addiction can and often does manifest in multiple ways—substance and behavior. The hope is that recovery, when engaged in well, has the potential of healing addiction in all of its manifestations over time. Remember there is always a community of people and professionals willing to help. For example, those struggling with gaming addiction can reach out to On-line Gamers Anonymous or World of Warcraft Anonymous and begin their recovery journey right now. As you do, remember that finding recovery from one manifestation of the disease does not mean that it will not manifest in another way or in a different form. Be vigilant and keep reaching out for help.
Dr. Thomas G. Kimball, Ph.D., LMFT, serves as the Director of the Center for Collegiate Recovery Communities and holds the George C. Miller Family Regents Professorship at Texas Tech University. He is co-author of the book, Six Essentials to Achieve Lasting Recovery, Hazelden Press. He is also a Clinical Director with MAP Health Management, LLC. Follow him @drtomkimball.