“He lies about simple things that aren’t even that big of a deal. I don’t understand why he can’t just tell me the truth.”
“If he lies about the small things how will I ever be able to trust him about the big things?”
“He looked me in the eye and said he was sober. Two days later he told me he had lied. I don’t get it.”
“All I asked from him was that he tell me the truth. When he did, I got upset about what he had done and then he said, ‘See, I knew I couldn’t tell you.’ Am I supposed to act happy that he told me the truth and not react that he had looked at porn all day?”
“He says I’m not safe so he can’t tell me the truth. What about my safety? How is this still about him?”
“If I don’t ask the right question then he doesn’t tell me the truth. Later I find out and he says I told you the truth. You didn’t ask me about that.”
Honesty is at the core of recovery and is the foundation for a strong and secure relationship. Honesty and transparency begin to restore safety in the relationship and heal broken trust. But many addicts struggle to be honest and can fall into all sorts of traps about why it would be best to not tell the truth.
When asked why they lie, many addicts can’t give a specific reason. For some it is a way of keeping the addiction going. For others, they lie if they can’t stop acting out after trying to quit. Some say it is just something they have done for a long, long time. Some will say they don’t want to get in trouble. Others say it is too humiliating, and still others say they don’t want to hurt their wives. But for many, the issue lies around the concept of attachment. They are afraid to tell the truth for fear of losing the relationship. The conundrum they are faced with in recovery is that they may lose the relationship if they tell the truth but they will almost certainly lose it if they don’t.
For a partner, being lied to is often devastating and at the heart of relational trauma. Being lied to or deceived can fracture attachment and deeply impacts our ability to feel safe and secure in the relationship.
All of us come into the world wired for connection. We are wired to respond to contact, care, and comfort. Research continues to explore and explain that as human beings, we are wired to attach and we never outgrow that need. We are at our best emotionally, mentally, and physiologically when we are securely attached to another person. In a relationship, that attachment person tends to be our partner.
Attachment needs can be understood from the following questions:
- Will you be there for me when I need you the most?
- Can I count on you?
- Do I matter to you?
- Am I a priority in your life?
- Will you value me and accept me even with my imperfections?
- Will you stay close to me?
Addiction strikes at the core of those attachment needs, and addiction and lying go hand in hand. Understanding the basic concept of shame and an addict’s typical “faulty core belief system” may be useful in learning to manage the relationship while the addict is learning to tell the truth or even if he continues to lie. Neither shame nor faulty core beliefs excuse lying, and learning to tell the truth is a crucial step toward recovery.
Many addicts are what we call “shamed based.” Shame can be explained by a deep fear that at our core, we are not lovable. It is often a paralyzing fear that sends us into hiding where we wait on the edge of relationships, anticipating rejection and abandonment. Addicts often have faulty core beliefs centered in that shame. Often they believe that they are bad and unworthy people. They are trapped in a cycle of acting out and self-hatred, and believe that if people really knew them—really saw into their hearts—they wouldn’t love them. Stepping into the light and exposing themselves and their fears about who they are feels too risky—almost suicidal—and so they minimize and rationalize and justify not telling the truth.
Once at a workshop I attended, the presenter had the audience think of something that they had done in their lives that they were ashamed of. He had us sit in silence for a moment and ponder a time when we had acted poorly or hurt another person. After a few minutes he asked if we had all been able to come up with an experience or a memory. When most of the audience nodded that they had, he then said, “I want you to now turn to the person sitting next to you and share that experience.” There was a lot of murmuring in the room and a palpable discomfort as people turned to each other with the idea of sharing their experience. At that moment the presenter stopped everyone and said that he wasn’t going to have us share, but asked us to share instead what it was like to be faced with that possibility and to relate that to how addicts might feel when we expect them to share around something of which they are ashamed.
The comments from the audience were insightful as several people said that when they learned that they had to share it, they immediately started to search their minds for a different story—one which was less embarrassing. Someone shared that they had quickly fabricated a story. Others said they were going to share but felt incredibly vulnerable and were conscious of the risk of being judged. One person said they were fine with it and didn’t really care what other people thought. A few said they couldn’t think of a situation where they had felt particularly ashamed.
The general consensus was that while it is crucial for healing individually as well as in a relationship, it is sometimes really difficult for some individuals to tell another person about themselves when they have messed up. And usually when it comes to addiction, it isn’t just that they messed up—it is that they messed up again.
So what do you do as a partner? The relationship will not fully heal without honesty. And yet as a partner, you have no control over the addict and you cannot really heal his core beliefs nor his shame.
The following are a few suggestions and ideas about how to deal with lying. It is important to note that there is not a “one size fits all” when it comes to recovery and lying in the marriage. Many individuals have been so traumatized by the lies that they cannot approach the relationship around lying the same way someone who has been able to do some healing could. It is important to accept and then start where you are in beginning to do what you can to take care of yourself and, where applicable, nurture the relationship.
Learning to trust your intuition
For many partners who have lived with an addiction, it is common to begin to distrust your own feelings and intuition. For some women there were times in the marriage when you felt uneasy about the relationship or felt that something was not quite right. Unfortunately for some partners, you assumed that it was you and you needed to work on being more loving or more available or more (fill in the blank).
In some relationships, if you brought up your unease or suspicion to the addict, they more than likely dismissed your concerns or denied that anything was off, or had an explanation such as being stressed at work, etc. Sometimes seeing that you were willing to take responsibility, they exploited that and reinforced that it was you and you did need to be better in some way.
For some of you, you may have stumbled upon porn on the computer or on his phone and, summoning up the courage to confront the addict, you were told that there was nothing going on, or that it was a one-time thing, or somehow it showed up because he had mistakenly opened a window that opened up to porn.
Because most women want to give their partner the benefit of the doubt or don’t want to face that their husbands might be lying, it is easy to push down those feelings of uneasiness and believe that your feelings are off or that you are overreacting, etc. Sometimes bringing up those feelings was met with defensiveness or an argument and you stopped paying attention to those feelings because you felt the fight just wouldn’t be worth it.
Recovery for the partner now requires that you pay attention to your feelings. If you feel that something is off—something is off. Trust that. You get to acknowledge that something just doesn’t feel right. In dealing with the addict, you get to say, “Something just doesn’t feel right. I don’t know what it is but I don’t feel that everything is lining up.” Or “I don’t know what it is but I feel uncomfortable with your story.” Or “I don’t know what it is but I feel that there is more that you aren’t telling me.” Or “I don’t know what it is but I’m just not buying it” etc.
Sometimes our intuition tells us that something is off but that doesn’t always mean that we are being lied to. We may be triggered because the connection is off and he is acting aloof or distant. It may be that he isn’t acting like someone who is telling the truth. It may be that you were triggered by a comment from a friend last night and it has brought up the trauma. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that in your own journey of healing, you have permission to pay attention and recognize and articulate what you sense inside of you and what you feel as a result.
He may argue that he is telling the truth and even resort to that pouty place of “It doesn’t even matter if I tell the truth, you won’t believe me.” And the reality is you might not. Not for a long time. One of the consequences of being lied to is that you may have to be told the truth over and over and over again, to begin to sense again what the truth feels like.
Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries
The fact of the matter is that you have no control over whether you are told the truth or not told the truth. That is the work of recovery for the addict. But what you do have control over is setting boundaries in order to take care of yourself. A boundary is not a way of controlling another person. A boundary is a way of taking care of yourself. Boundaries work in both directions.
For instance, some women who have responded to their husbands with a lot of anger and have turned to shaming them may not like how they feel about themselves afterward. They aren’t used to yelling or shaming and it leaves them upset and disconnected from themselves. So an internal boundary might look something like this: If my husband lies to me, I will respond to him clearly and firmly about what I need and take care of myself by reaching out to a friend or sponsor.
Or another internal boundary might look something like this: If I am lied to and I feel outrage and hurt, I will leave the situation and return to it when I can speak rather than yell and lash out.
Or another internal boundary might look something like this: If I am lied to, I will confront the lie and hold to my preset consequence that I need space and some time alone to regroup and calm myself.
The purpose here isn’t to treat the addict in a certain way—the purpose of these examples of possible boundaries is to treat yourself in a certain way. It is to allow you to stay congruent with who you are and your own values.
Another purpose of boundaries is to teach others how you expect to be treated. For example, an obvious boundary in the relationship is “I need to be told within 24 hours if you have slipped or relapsed. If I find that you have lied to me, I may need to leave for 24 hours in order to take care of myself.”
The point here isn’t that you have a consequence to teach the addict a lesson or to make him stop lying. The point is, again, that to be lied to is hurtful, and you need a way to take care of yourself if you are treated that way.
In setting a boundary, it is important to have a consequence that you can follow through with as a way of you taking care of you. One woman decided that if she caught her husband in a lie, it made her feel very insecure and she questioned the future of the relationship. Consequently, every time he lied, she took $100.00 out of their account and moved it into her own account to begin to build her own nest egg if the marriage didn’t last. Another woman said that if she found that she had been lied to, it made her feel disrespected, and consequently she did not feel that she could be intimate until she felt that he was working hard again to be truthful and transparent.
Many boundary violations come with natural consequences. The biggest and most obvious consequence around being lied to is that the relationship will not heal and trust will not return to the marriage.
Reach Out, Reach Up, and Reach In
As stated earlier, being lied to is a very disorienting and painful experience. It can also be a little crazy-making. You may find yourself back to that place where your intuition tells you one thing and your partner tells you another. Or you may catch him in a half-truth where his explanation sort of makes sense and you can see why he would go there, but….
One important way of dealing with being lied to is to reach out when you find yourself caught in that painful place of fear and distrust. Because it can be so disorienting to be lied to, it helps to talk to a safe friend or sponsor who can reflect back to you reality when yours feels so distorted. It helps to be validated that you’re not crazy or overreacting and that you have a right to your feelings and frustrations. It helps to know you are not alone.
Another important step in dealing with being deceived is to reach up to a higher power or to something that feels stronger and greater than you—someone or something that can help restore you to peace. Many partners find that during this time of distrust for their husbands, they can find comfort and trust in their relationship with their higher power. And even if you don’t find help or believe in a higher power, many partners find strength in seeking a place of peace such as in nature or through art and music. The idea here is to go outside of yourself in order to take care of yourself.
Lastly, reach in. This is where you go inside of yourself in order to take care of yourself. You pull on the skills that you have to manage your thoughts and to focus on the good and healthy parts of your life. You nurture yourself through self-care which might include going for walks, journaling, listening to uplifting music, bubble baths, a massage, etc. It can be playing with your children or your dog or working in the garden. It can include things like singing or playing an instrument. The list is endless and will be unique because each woman is in a different situation and is unique.
Nurturing the relationship
Because everyone is in a different situation and stage of recovery, this last section is for those whose trauma has begun to settle down and who are able to bring into the relationship a strong understanding of shame and an ability to manage some of those really hard and reactive emotions that happen around deceit.
One skill to work on is the ability to step back and truly acknowledge when the addict steps into the light and tells the truth. Even though it is never easy to hear about a slip, try to recognize and acknowledge that you understand that it must have been really difficult to tell you and that you appreciate knowing the truth.
When you and your partner are not fighting, talk to him about creating a space for a “do-over.” Discuss that, in the moment, it is sometimes understandable to automatically turn to a lie—especially if a question or situation catches the addict off-guard. Allow for the addict to recognize the lie and have a safe way to come back and ask for a do-over. Of course the “do-over” needs to happen as soon as possible after the reactive lie so that you are not caught unaware three or four days later, thinking that you have the truth. A do-over might look something like this:
You: “Hey, did you call the bank and get that overcharge taken care of?”
Addict: “Yeah, I did.”
20 minutes later:
Addict: “Hey, I need a do-over. I panicked when you asked if I had called the bank. I hadn’t and I’m sorry. I forgot about it until you asked me and I forgot that I told you I would take care of it. Sorry I lied. I’ll get to it today. And let you know that I did.”
You: sigh “Okay. Thanks for telling me.”
Most women have attempted the following discussion with their partners. Many women have had the discussion more than once, but it is something to continue to talk about and hope for. It is a way of trying to create a safe atmosphere for honesty. Find a time when you can talk to your partner when you are both calm and feeling somewhat connected. Explain that while it is difficult to hear about slips, in the long run it helps you to begin to trust him again. Explain that you will probably react to hearing about a slip and be frustrated or hurt, etc., but you are responsible for dealing with your feelings and that it is your job to manage those feelings and it is his job to be honest. Your plan is to figure out what you need and how to take care of yourself. If you react with anger or hurt it doesn’t mean that you don’t want to hear the truth; all it means is that it is hard to hear but you need the freedom to feel the way you feel. Express that you want to be a safe place and want to hear the truth even though it may be hard.
Most of these ideas are just that—“ideas.” Implementing them and working on some of them may be useful in helping to manage the unpredictability that comes with being in a relationship with someone who has an addiction and who battles shame and an unhealthy view of themselves and sometimes others. It is a way of buying time, so to speak, with the hope that the addict will get stronger and healthier along the way and learn to tell the truth. But they are also ideas that will lend strength to you as a partner, regardless of the outcome of the addict’s recovery. They are designed to reconnect you to yourself and your own intuition, as well as empower you to set boundaries and follow through with consequences when those boundaries are violated.
Dorothy Maryon is a licensed clinical mental health counselor who specializes in partner's issues associated with sexual addiction and compulsivity in marriage. She has written and presented on topics of relational trauma, creating safety when trust has been betrayed; grief and trauma work; what happy couples know; whole-hearted living; and sexual addiction and compulsivity. She is currently in private practice and works as a therapist for the LifeStar program which specializes in the treatment of sexual addiction and relational trauma. She was married to the late Daniel Maryon and they are the parents of three children.