When Partners Encourage Each Other To Lie

Of course, we all want our partners to be honest with us. But, at the same time, there may be some things we just don’t want to hear.

There’s a concept in the Developmental Model of Couple Therapy: “lie-inviting behavior.” What this means, basically, is that if you flip out when your partner tells you something uncomfortable, you’re sending them a message. Without meaning to, you’re saying “Next time, either don’t tell me at all, or don’t tell me the truth.”

Flipping out in any of its forms–yelling, crying, storming out, shutting down, name-calling–probably won’t stop your partner from doing or thinking the thing you don’t like. It will almost certainly stop them from bringing it up to you, however. That leaves you with a choice: would you rather do your best to withstand the discomfort in order to be able to hear the truth? Or would you rather push your partner to go underground, in exchange for feeling more comfortable?

If you want to truly know your partner, then you will need to be prepared to hear them talk about what is true for them, and what their perceptions, feelings, and desires are. If this is what you want, you will need to show your partner that you’re capable of handling hearing their truth. It’s your partner’s responsibility to be honest–but you can make that more likely by listening without judgement, holding steady through difficult emotions, and framing your responses as being about you, your feelings, beliefs, and the meanings you have learned to make. It’s particularly powerful if you can find it in yourself to thank your partner for telling you the truth even if it was hard for you to hear.

If you’ve been very upset in the past when your partner has told you a difficult truth, you may want to take the time to make a repair. You can go back to your partner and say, “I realize that my reaction to what you said may have made it hard for you to talk about this topic. I want you to know that, regardless of what I said in the heat of the moment, I appreciate that you trusted me enough to tell me the truth. I want you to be able to be honest with me, even about difficult topics, and next time I will do my best to take it in stride.”

If you’re a therapist, keep your eye out for lie-inviting behavior. Holding steady through a difficult conversation is a real differentiation-of-self challenge. I like to tell my clients that their efforts will be rewarded with the deeper intimacy that comes from truly knowing one another. Most of us want that, and being able to tolerate the discomfort of having differences is a big part of creating that closeness.

Working With Secondary Partners

Last week, I wrote about a common pitfall that can crop up in poly relationships with a primary/secondary structure. This week, I’m going to be sharing some of my strategies for working with secondary partners.

Being a secondary partner in a polyamorous relationship can be rough. For those not versed in poly lingo, that means being in a relationship with someone who has another relationship that they consider “primary” and prioritize over their relationship with you. Not all poly relationships have a primary/secondary structure, but many do.

Being a secondary partner can work really well for some people–for instance, people who have a lot of other things engaging them in their lives (like creative projects, demanding careers, or other relationships). It can also work well for people who like their freedom and autonomy, or for those who aren’t interested in having a primary commitment, relational obligations, or a time-consuming connection in their lives.

At the same time, being a secondary partner can be very challenging. It often involves sitting with uncomfortable feelings, like uncertainty, jealousy, and loneliness. Dealing with lots of discomfort is nothing if not an invitation to examine desires, goals, values, and dreams. It can be an opportunity for self-discovery and personal growth–while also being demanding and sometimes painful.

When you have a client who is a struggling secondary partner, it can be a challenge for therapists too. We live in a culture with a strong bias toward monogamy, and it is easy to hear about this kind of relational uncertainty and/or distress and leap to the assumption that the clients problems would be easily solved by leaving their poly partner. However, this “solution” side-steps several important things, including:

  • The client has chosen to be in this relationship and presumably has some desire to remain in it. Working with the client where they are, with the goals they have, is not just important to the therapeutic alliance, it also shows respect for their individuality, and honors diversity.
  • Secondary relationships are often quite workable and, for many, even ideal. With a little help and skill-building, this may be your client’s dream relationship.
  • The same skills that help secondary partners are also part of building a solid self in relationships of all kinds. Strengthening differentiation of self is a great relational investment.

Many clients, including some secondary partners, find building the following skills helpful:

  • Sitting with uncomfortable emotions and letting them come and go, rather than fanning the flames of jealousy or disappointment.
  • Understanding that meaning-making is optional, developing skill at identifying what stories they are telling themselves when things feel uncomfortable, and doing reality checks with their partner(s) to check their assumptions when needed.
  • Developing engaging, effective distractions and individual interests so that time spent separate from their partner offers opportunities for positive experiences, rather than having their life revolve around their partner’s schedule and availability.
  • Recognizing their power to make their own choices, and, ultimately, their ability to choose to leave the relationship if it isn’t working for them.

Making Relationship Agreements That Support Growth

I’m a big fan of the trend towards couples writing their own marriage vows. When a couple writes their own vows, they are opening up an opportunity for a series of differentiated conversations about what kind of relationship they want to build.

Here are some examples of what differentiated marital agreements look like:

  • “I commit to support your growth.” (Because I don’t believe in holding you back.)
  • “I commit to do good in the world in partnership with you.” (Because together we can do more.)
  • “I commit to be honest with you.” (Because I believe in transparency.)

These agreements are lovely because they embrace the fact that both partners are likely to change and grow over the course of a relationship. They leave room for the flexibility that resilient relationships require, and they challenge both partners to bring their best selves to the table. They also related to beliefs and values that aren’t dependent on what another person does, or on external circumstances.

To make a differentiated agreement, both partners need sufficient internal space to figure out what they actually think and want, and both partners need to be able to hold steady as they have a conversation about their preferences and desires, some of which might not be so easy to hear, or to reveal. Consider traditional wedding vows. Which do you believe in, and which don’t feel like a good fit for you? For example, traditionally we promised to “honor and obey.” Many people have re-written that vow to better fit their values. How about the other vows?

One example of a kind of agreement that is often glossed over without discussion is a fidelity agreement. Partners may assume that they know what the other person means by “fidelity,” or by “forsaking all others.” Also, we all know a discussion about fidelity might be a little uncomfortable. How many people ask themselves, “What do I believe in, what am I willing to forsake, and what if anything do I believe in asking my partner to forsake?” How many couples ask each other, “What does fidelity mean to you?”

I think it’s important to have a really good conversation about what fidelity (and any other kind of agreement) means in your relationship. That’s the best way to avoid inadvertently hurting your partner, or being hurt yourself, when later it turns out you weren’t on quite the same page.

Unclear agreements crop up when partners aren’t able to navigate a tough conversation and remain simultaneously loving towards their partner and grounded in themselves. Very often one person wants a particular agreement, because it would make them feel more comfortable and assuage their fears, and the other partner agrees in order to avoid conflict. That’s completely understandable, and also a set up for misunderstandings, resentment, and/or broken agreements.

As a therapist, one strategy I use is to keep an eye out for missed opportunities for differentiation. By this I mean noticing when someone makes an assumption about what their partner thinks or believes, halting the action, and supporting them in checking it out. It means helping clients ask questions of their partners rather than putting words in their mouths. It also means stepping in and helping someone take a minute to look inside themselves for an internal sense of knowing, BEFORE they speak. I say, “Don’t answer yet. Slow down. Go inside. What do you think? What do you believe? Are there feelings there? Are you of two minds? Or are you clear? If you are of two minds, state them both, not just the one your partner will agree to”.

I love helping couples form agreements because the process is such a rich opportunity to build skills for strong relationships BEFORE trouble starts. I try to slow the process down and make room for each person to consider what they think, feel, believe, and prefer, separate from anyone else. Only then can the deeper conversation happen. I let my clients know they don’t have to agree to anything they don’t want to agree to, and if they are interested in trying something that feels a little uncomfortable, they might approach it as an experiment that they will re-evaluate after a few months.

For more about making and keeping relationship agreements, check out these earlier posts:

There’s No Such Thing as a One-Size Fits All Relationship Agreement

Rules for Poly Relationships? It’s Not That Simple

Why I Hate the Concept of “Compromise”