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.

Helping Your Clients Find the Courage to Make a Vulnerable Disclosure

Have you seen this scenario play out in your therapy room? One partner gathers their courage and shares something vulnerable, or reveals a secret, or a private desire. And then their partner feels hurt and freaks right out with a big emotional response.

The hurt partner’s feelings are usually perfectly understandable. But, at the same time, it is also understandable that their partner has not been eager to share deeply. It’s hard to come clean or get vulnerable when you have reason to expect an intense, dramatic reaction in response.

I think a really beautiful differentiated stance for any relationship is “I really want you to be honest with me, and I promise not to punish you for anything that you tell me.” That’s a big ask for a lot of people. It’s a courageous promise to make, and a difficult one to keep. But that’s the kind of courage that a differentiated relationship ultimately requires.

“Not punishing” means not blowing up, not sulking, not seeking revenge, and not holding a grudge. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have and acknowledge your feelings. But discussing your feelings and responses is an art form, especially when you don’t want to discourage your partner from honestly talking to you about hard things.

Some conflict-avoidant partners need a lot of encouragement to open up, and part of effective encouragement is getting skilled at managing reactive emotions in the face of distressing disclosures. One strategy might be to make a pact to thank one another for sharing, try to access curiosity, and hold the reactions and/or responses for a later time.

Or you could try saying something like “I’m having a bunch of feelings here, and I want you to know. I don’t need you to change anything, and I’m really glad you told me that, I just need a little time to think and adjust.” Compare these responses to “How dare you say that to me?” or “Don’t ever bring that up to me again.” One opens the door for further conversation and increased depth and connection, and the other slams the door shut and makes further sharing much less likely.

Taking the leap to the differentiated stance of welcoming disclosures, no matter how challenging, requires you to answer to this question: Do you want to know your partner? Really know them? Or are you ok with only seeing the sanitized, people-pleasing facade most of us present when we aren’t ready to really get vulnerable?

The facade might make for fewer uncomfortable feelings–at least for awhile, until something comes up that must be discussed. Many people can have a whole relationship without uncomfortable disclosures. But when the rubber meets the road, those relationships often end. Long term, healthy relationships, full of evolution, growth, and change, require deep trust in one another’s ability to share, and also to hold steady and get curious when the other shares.

This is the kind of challenge that calls on both partners to be their best selves: brave, patient, and compassionate.Think of it as the “growing pains” of a relationship moving towards differentiation. If a couple can get through it, they will emerge with a stronger, more resilient connection than ever before.