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Lying in Relationships: 3 Steps to Making It Stop

Lying is a bad solution to an underlying problem. Here's how to break the cycle.

Key points

  • In most everyday relationships, lying is more often situational than the result of a personality disorder.
  • Lying can be a long-established coping skill that becomes part of a dysfunctional pattern in relationships.
  • The key for relationship partners to break a dysfunctional pattern is for both sides to change their reactions.

Since they became exclusive, Jack has consistently told Kara that his long-term relationship with his ex-girlfriend is over and that he never talks to her. But one Saturday, when Jack’s phone is laying on the coffee table, Kara spies a text message on the screen. She sees it is from his ex and then opens his messages to find a long trail of texts between them. She is furious, and when Jack walks back into the room, she begins interrogating him about what she’s discovered.

George Rudy/Shutterstock
Source: George Rudy/Shutterstock

Obviously, Jack has been lying.

Lying can destroy a relationship, but all lying is not created equally. Some liars use their fabrications to be manipulative — think of the worst salesperson in the world, the most seductive person trying to woo you, or the classic narcissist pumping up his own image. These individuals use others as objects, or in the case of pathological liars, do what they do because that is what they do: There's a personality disorder involved.

But in most everyday relationships, lying is situational. This is what Kara is dealing with. She believes in her heart that Jack is a good guy, not ethically shady or a sociopath. But this stuff with the ex drives her crazy. This is less about Kara and more about Jack's coping mechanisms.

Problems as Bad Solutions

In most of these situations, someone like Jack lies because he is anxious and afraid. No doubt he has done this before, probably way back in childhood, when it sometimes worked, sometimes didn’t, but more often than not it was effective enough to keep him out of trouble.

The problem here is not the ex, but his own anxiety about Kara’s reaction. He lies to avoid those little-kid, getting-in-trouble feelings, as well as "parental" anger and possibly punishment. So he contacts his ex but doesn’t tell Kara because he is already wired to fear blowback.

The Cycle

What now happens is the setting up of a dysfunctional cycle. Kara may have her own above-average sensitivity to trust and honesty from her childhood or previous, possibly unfaithful boyfriends — it may now be part of her mental DNA. Going into her relationship with Jack, she is already a bit hyper-alert. She does her best to not be overly intrusive and to take him at his word. But now her worst fears have come to the fore, and she explodes.

When this happens, it triggers Jack’s worst fears. His brain is telling him that he was right all along: Telling the truth is not safe, and he actually needs to get better at being secretive and withholding.

The couple could fight this battle for ... forever, with Kara getting hurt, getting angry, and trying to get Jack to change, and Jack ducking and weaving to keep Kara off his back and avoid conflict.

The cycle is this:

  • Kara gets hurt, leading to anger, leading to attack, leading to Jack lying; or:
  • Jack anticipates Kara’s reaction and lies, leading to Kara getting angry, leading to confirming Jack’s fears, leading to Kara’s fears being validated.

Breaking the Pattern

Again, this is not all about the state of a couple's relationship, but about their long-established coping skills. What to do? Jack needs to stop being the little kid, and speak up and tell the truth. Kara needs to not react so strongly to Jack’s evasive behavior.

The problem is that they each get stuck in their thinking.

Jack thinks that the only way out of this dynamic is to get her to be less angry. Kara thinks that the only way out is to get him to be more open and honest. Each is trying to solve the problem by getting the other person to change. That won’t work, because it becomes a power struggle with each pressuring the other to do what they want.

Solving the Problems

The key to breaking dysfunctional patterns is for both sides to change their reactions.

This means Kara doing her best to not get angry: When her fear and hurt are triggered, she needs to calmly talk to Jack — about her feelings, rather than his actions — and show him evidence of his lying, so he doesn’t just blow it off. She doesn’t want to explode, but she also doesn't want to be lured into the weeds of content (interrogating Jack about the texts and their dates and times, etc.). This goes nowhere, because "anxious-Jack" will then start arguing about exactly that — the content: She texted me first, and I was just trying to be courteous, etc. That is not the point. The point is that he has not been honest. Kara needs to put this clearly on the table: I'm not upset about your ex, but that you lied; it hurts my feelings, and I cannot accept that in a relationship.

For his part, Jack obviously needs to do his best to step up and be honest, behaviorally overriding his little-kid, anxious brain yelling at him to keep quiet. He needs to keep his eyes on the prize — learning to stop being so afraid, learning to be an adult, and learning to confront and emotionally manage someone else’s strong reactions. And he needs to step up in this way even in those times when Kara's anger gets the best of her.

He also may need, if he firmly believes it, to be more assertive about his ex and his view of relationships. He needs to calmly make his case that while he is aware that his texting bothers Kara, it is part of his values not to cut people off; his contact with his ex doesn’t mean that he still is in love with her or that he loves Kara less. This may be hard for her to swallow, but if she can try this thinking out, it may help her heal her old wounds. If she can't, they both are fulfilling the purpose of dating — taking the risk of being honest in order to discover whether their values are compatible.

Bottom Lines

Both partners try to do the best they can. Kara puts her head down and focuses on containing her feelings because she wants to help Jack learn to step up and be honest. Jack does his best to step up and speak up, even though he internally fears Kara's wrath, to help her learn to trust him. They do their best to break the cycle, doing the constant voice-over that “This is more about me than them, and I’m doing this because I don’t want to hurt the person I care about.”

And what if Jack never quite buys into this plan? Kara can, if she is willing, still work her side of the equation as best she can. Her changes may alter the climate and that, in turn, may motivate Jack to change his behavior. (Or vice versa, of course.)

But to ensure that the couple does not get caught in this cycle forever, it helps to have a bottom line about time. They need to put their heads down, resist the urge to keep score, and then look up after three or six months and see where they are at. If little progress has been made, they can ramp it up by trying couples therapy — or they can call it quits.

Obviously, all this not only takes awareness and responsibility but also courage.

It requires using your power in order to not lose it.

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