Recovering from Dishonesty

As relationship therapists, we have no doubt all seen relationships affected by dishonesty. Some lies are big, devastating, extremely damaging to relationships, and difficult to recover from (think infidelity or large hidden expenditures). Some lies are tiny and kindly-meant, and usually don’t cause harm (think “You look great in that skirt” or “Of course, I love your new haircut”). But today I want to focus on another type of lie, which resides somewhere between these extremes. I’m referring to untruths or omissions that spring from a desire to avoid conflict. 

Conflict-avoidant lies don’t spring from ill will. The person telling the lie, or avoiding telling the truth, is probably thinking along the lines of “What they don’t know won’t hurt them,” or “This isn’t a big deal. It’s not worth the argument, so I just won’t mention it.” Ultimately, the purpose of this type of untruth is to avoid “getting in trouble” or having a hard conversation. One partner is making a unilateral decision about what to share based on their own emotional comfort. 

While this is certainly a flawed approach to relational connection, it is not generally done with an intention to cause harm. In fact, the avoidant person may tell themselves they are doing their partner a favor. But conflict avoidant lies tend to repeat and compound until the interpersonal challenges and dynamics that led to them in the first place are dealt with and resolved.

Very often, clients come to therapy for the express purpose of dealing with manifestations of conflict avoidant deception. Perhaps they’re coping with the aftermath of discovering untruths, or trying to address the conflict-avoidant partner’s lack of follow-through. 

It is easy to focus on the person who tells lies as the primary problem. But in my experience, that approach backfires more often than not. 

For one thing, the client is probably braced to feel shamed in therapy. They have all their defenses firmly in place.They know they lied, or failed to follow through again and again, and probably are not proud of it. It is hard not to take a parental tone. But if you do, the therapy will stall or explode. On the other hand, if you minimize the lying, the hurt spouse will feel betrayed and misunderstood by you!

Untangling this systemic dynamic is more complicated than helping the clients make a repair. Shifting the pattern of avoidance is the key to success. Here’s how I approach this kind of situation:

  • Help the clients reframe the dynamic. Identify conflict avoidance as the underlying issue, not deception for its own sake. Once the conversation is about conflict avoidance, it is easier to help each partner identify their own part in the dynamic, without either blaming the hurt party or shaming the avoider.
  • Ask each of them a pointed question or two to help them identify their contribution to the problematic interactional pattern. For example:
    • What do you do that makes it hard for your partner to open up to you and tell you the truth?
    • What could you do to help your partner feel comfortable telling you a hard truth?
    • Do you want them to share hard things with you, even if you feel uncomfortable, angry, or sad as a result? How will you manage your emotions about it?
    • What do you do that makes it hard for your partner to trust you? 
    • How would it benefit you to open up about hard things more often?
    • What kind of person do you aspire to be in your relationship, and why does that feel important to you?
    • Do you have any role models of people who talk freely about difficult topics and come through it feeling more connected and stronger as a team? What would that look like? If you were in a relationship like that, what would you be doing differently?
  • Consider what lie-inviting behavior might be at play. Once your clients have considered these questions, you have a way of discussing the whole relational system: not just the deception, but also any reactivity on the part of the other partner that may be contributing to the problem. Maybe they tend to roll their eyes, get sarcastic, angry, dissolve into tears, or make sweeping catastrophic statements. Their partner is much more likely to share openly with them if they dial back whatever reactivity is coming across a sign of danger and leading their partner to shut down and go underground with their thoughts, feelings, and preferences. 
  • Help each partner identify something they want to change about their interactions around the problem. For instance: 
    • “I want to listen better, and not get so angry when my partner tells me something I don’t want to hear.” 
    • “I want to start sharing small things I disagree about to give us both some practice feeling uncomfortable, so I can learn how to talk about hard things together.”
    • “I want to remind my partner it is ok if I feel uncomfortable. I still want to hear the truth.”
    • “I want to remind myself that I want to be an honest person, even if it is uncomfortable for us both, because that will lead to us creating the kind of marriage I would be excited to be a part of.”

Most of what I know about lies and deception I learned from Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson of the Developmental Model of Couple Therapy. They have produced a lot of great work about the systemic dynamics around lies. In fact, they wrote a whole book about it, which I highly recommend! For more information about various types of lies and how to work with them in therapy, see Tell Me No Lies: How to Stop Lying to Your Partner–And Yourself–In the 4 Stages of Marriage.

Spotlight on Hinges: A Polyam Relationship Role

One of the most common polyam relationship structures is a V. That describes one person (the center point of the V) with two partners (each end point of the V). Those two partners may have other relationships, or they may not. But for our purposes, we’re just considering the V shape. In particular, I want to talk about the person at the center of the V, also known as the hinge. 

The hinge role comes with particular challenges. It requires a very sophisticated ability to consider and balance the needs and desires of two different individuals, who may or may not know each other, and may or mat not like each other, while still maintaining one’s sense of self. It is very easy for hinges with weak emotional boundaries to end up in a situation in which they’re just running back and forth, trying to please everyone and meet everyone’s needs. In addition to completely exhausting themselves, this strategy tends to create a sense of instability and insecurity in both of their partners. The saying “you can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time” is very relevant here. This is a situation that can really benefit from strength and leadership.

Rather than trying fruitlessly to please everyone, hinges will need to proceed with the expectation that at times they will have to disappoint one or both of their partners. They will need to be able to get clear about what they believe, separate from their partner’s expectations for them, and take responsibility for their own preferences and choices rather than pass the buck. Think of the uncomfortable tension between partners that can arise from a statement like this: “Susie needs me to be home this Friday, so I have to cancel our date.” Compare that to this: “Susie and I had a good talk the other night, and I realized I have not been present enough in that relationship lately. I decided I want to spend Friday with her this week. I’ll miss you, but I think this is the right thing to do.” This is a challenging balancing act, and it requires tons of differentiation of self.

If you are working with a hinge, assess the aspects of differentiation of self. Identify which skills they are struggling with, and help them grow in those areas. Signs of insufficient differentiation in hinges include:

  • People-pleasing behavior or avoiding the hard conversation
  • Deception or lies of omission 
  • A “my way or the highway” stance
  • Excessive anxiety about situations in which partners’ interests conflict 
  • Lack of willingness to recognize personal choice, and take responsibility for decisions

If you are working with a hinge who is struggling, you have an opportunity to make a big difference in the relationship system. Depending on how the hinge handles things, they can bring a lot of stability to the system, or they can end up sowing tons of chaos. Provide your clients with psychoeducation about why differentiation is essential to successful polyamory. For more on building differentiation of self, check out these past posts: 

Three Aspects of Differentiation of Self: Part One

Three Aspects of Differentiation of Self: Part Two

Three Aspects of Differentiation of Self: Part Three

Dealing with “New Relationship Energy”

New relationship energy, or NRE, is a concept that comes from the polyamory community. It refers to that heady, overwhelming, crushy feeling that you get in the early stages of a new relationship, when every train of thought gets rerouted to refer back to the person you’re crushing on: “Oh, I’d love to see this new movie…I wonder if Marie likes it…” 

New relationship energy can be a wonderful thing. It’s a delightful feeling, and it helps you bond closely to your new partner. The world would be a duller place without it. But it’s also a powerful force. Often, people just don’t know how to control their impulse to be with somebody when they’re so driven to think about them, contact them, and be near them all the time. As you can imagine, this can cause some problems in polyamorous relationships if the partners don’t have some good strategies in place for how to handle it. 

Imagine you’re in a committed polyamorous relationship, and your partner has just started seeing a new person. They’re head-over-heels, completely obsessed. They might be able to keep a larger perspective in mind, strive to be as considerate as possible, and enjoy the NRE while still being a committed, responsible partner. 

On the other hand, they might get so caught up that they lose sight of the larger picture, in which case things can get a little annoying. Here are a few common ways I see this go awry: 

  • Phone snubbing. It’s no fun to be sitting across the table from someone who is busy texting with their crush. 
  • Mentionitis. Every conversation turns back to the person: “This meal is so delicious…I bet Marie would like this!”
  • Not honoring commitments. Maybe they end up changing plans at the last minute to accommodate the new person’s schedule, or maybe shared commitments start to slip their mind because they’re so focused on the new person. 
  • Being unreachable. This is a very common one: they’re out on a date with the new person when a crisis comes up at home, but they’ve turned off their phone or are ignoring it, meaning their partner doesn’t have help dealing with whatever is happening on the home front. 
  • Breaking agreements about safer sex. This is a bad one. Sometimes people get so caught up in the excitement of the new relationship that they don’t abide by the shared agreements they’ve made about safer sex. This is a real betrayal, because it puts their partner at risk, as well as other partners their partner may have, and the trust in the relationship suffers greatly. 

When NRE is causing problems for a polyamorous partnership, I make sure that my clients know that this phase is chemical and transitory. I say to them, “What’s going to serve you best in the long run? How do you want this to end up? Could you possibly place your need at this moment aside a little bit to attend to your relational contract with your spouse for the purpose of reaching the goal that you want, which is a stable open relationship?” Sometimes a stronger challenge is needed: “It’s not reasonable to expect your partner to show up for you, when you’re not showing up for them,” or  “It’s not reasonable to expect your partner to feel good about you, Marie, or polyamory when you’re breaking agreements.”

I also help the other partner self-regulate as much as possible. It certainly helps if they’ve had NRE experiences of their own and are able to chuckle over mistakes they might have made when caught up in the early stages. It also helps if they have other partners to lean on during this time. If they are able to do it, I truly believe the best strategy is to give their partner a lot of space and minimize expectations or commitments. I call the the “give them as much rope as possible” strategy. I ask: “Out of all the relationships you have ever had in your life, how many panned out into stable, long term situations?” The answer is usually one, or two. Then I say “So, what are the chances this thing with Marie is going to turn into something long term?” Then I offer a challenging piece of psychoeducation: “The one surefire way I know to make NRE last a really long time is to place limits on how much or what kind of contact people can have with one another. Longing obsessively is hot, and on the other hand, spending a little too much time with someone and discovering they are not so sexy after all is much less hot. Under restrictive circumstances, I’ve seen the spark of new love last YEARS rather than weeks or months. I know what I’m suggesting would be extremely challenging. I’m just saying, there is a risk to placing limits on your partner’s NRE. And there is a high likelihood of a good payoff if you give them a lot of rope.”

The one thing we can say for sure is that the NRE won’t last–eventually their partner will have to come back down to earth. Hopefully, it will be a learning experience, and they will be able to resolve to act with more consideration in the future. In most every successful polyamorous relationship I see, both partners have very good manners and act with consideration and thoughtfulness for one another. That said, when there are lapses, they almost always involve NRE. Help your clients manage their impulsivity, and keep their eye on the long game.