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

Is It Possible to Revive the Spark After It Fades?

This is the final post in a three-part series on what happens to the “spark” in a long-term relationship. In the first post, I talked about why the spark of early passion tends to flicker out; in the second, I addressed how people can gracefully transition from the early stage of a relationship to a more mature stage, when it may be less ‘spicy’, but also more deeply intimate, with a more steady and enduring connection. This time, I’m answering this question: Is it possible to revive the spark after it fades? 

The short answer is yes–but reviving it won’t happen without some effort on the parts of both partners, despite the magical nature of passion. There is no step-by-step guide to success, but there are a couple of aspects to consider:

  1. Are there conditions in your relationship that discourage passionate connection? If so, you will have to address these in order to create conditions where something magical can happen.
  2. Are you approaching the problem in a way that ends up suppressing desire? Passion is a feeling, and thoughts, feelings, and actions are intimately connected. Expecting your partner to create your desire is not likely to succeed. Nor is simply waiting for desire to magically re-appear. You can roll up your sleeves and go to work figuring out how to fan the flames of desire through your own thinking.

Here are some examples of situations and ways of thinking that tend to kill desire. Think about your situation, or that of your client, and see which of these areas needs some attention in order to revive the spark:

  • Joined at the hip. If you and your partner spend almost no time apart, consult each other on everything, and/or have given up having individual interests, friends, and personalities, that is a situation where eventually the spark tends to disappear. Granted, it can be scary to give one another a little space, but consider the conditions that created the spark in the first place: you were just discovering one another, and had the opportunity to learn new things about each other every time you were together. You need to bring back a little of that distance–take a step back, so that you can actually see one another again. Give your partner a little space, and get a little fresh air yourself too. Take up a new hobby, and let your light shine. Passion requires a degree of novelty. You will each need to live a little in order to have the chance to discover some newness in one another. 
  • Too much distance. Conversely, if you are both completely absorbed in your own worlds, interests, jobs, etc., that is also a situation where you don’t have the opportunity to learn new things about one another. Go ahead and do you, but go check out how amazing your partner is when they are doing their thing, too. It might be hot.
  • No quality time. If every conversation revolves around chores, finances, raising the kids, or work, you will not get to experience one another as erotic beings. (Or maybe there are no conversations at all?) There is no substitute for spending time together. Have a dinner table conversation about something interesting, or give yourself a two-hour vacation and spend it holding hands and talking. You might hire a babysitter and go have an experience together so you have something new to talk about, or read a book aloud to one another. If you’re not spending high quality time together, that is the first order of business. You must figure out how to put aside the mundane or stressful day-to-day for a little while in order to let romance blossom. 
  • Constant pressure. This is a common dynamic in desire discrepancies: the higher-desire partner constantly pressures the lower-desire partner for more sex, more touch, more closeness, and the lower-desire partner constantly evades, avoids, and retreats. Each pushes the other into a more extreme pursuer/distancer dynamic, which is massively unsexy for everyone. Both partners will need to stop blaming their partner or the universe, and make a deliberate effort to shift their part in this dynamic. Start with a reality-based self-assessment: what are you telling yourself about yourself, your partner, or your relationship that is keeping you in the role you are in? What did you used to tell yourself, when things were hot? Start noticing the not-hot thoughts and challenge yourself to start thinking the way you used to, when you were more actively in touch with your love for one another.
  • Too much familiarity. Eroticism thrives on a bit of uncertainty. It loves novelty. Do you know all there is to know about your partner? If you think you do, there’s at least part of your problem. Get creative and get curious: What does your partner think about the thing you did together last weekend? What are they currently reading? What about it do they enjoy, and what about it do they not like so much? What dreams and desires do they have? Where would they love to go on vacation, and more importantly, why? What hobby or interest would they like to take up next, and why? If they took a class, what would it be about, and what is interesting about that to them? What is preventing them from doing more creative things in their life, if anything? What parts of their teenaged self do they miss, and what parts are they delighted they were able to leave behind? These are all examples of the infinite variety of questions that can start a new conversation. Take it upon yourself to be a brilliant conversationalist–by which I mean, stop talking about yourself and get curious about your partner. 

If you create the conditions for enjoyment of one another, you might find yourselves enjoying one another. Once you have those conditions in place, it is time to look at your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Rather than thinking desire and passion are outside of your control, start considering: What do you tell yourself to turn yourself off? And what might you tell yourself to turn yourself on? 

You are in charge of your thoughts, and your thoughts give birth to your feelings, including the feeling of not experiencing desire, and the feeling of desire itself. (For more about how to create shifts in thoughts and feelings, see my post on creating change in yourself.)

The strength of the spark will certainly fluctuate in a healthy long-term relationship. There will be plenty of times when you’re dealing with all the minutiae of everyday life, and things just don’t feel optimally sexy. But there can also be moments when you are suddenly struck anew by how special your partner is, and what a miracle it is that you get to spend your lives with one another.