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Mark Banschick M.D.

Is Your Partner a Liar?

Are you involved with a liar?

Children live under the thumb of their parents. We watch to make sure they get fed, are warm at night, and avoid injuries. Parents can’t help but be overprotective. There is often no margin for error.

But, as the great developmental researcher Margaret Mahler taught us, children need to individuate as well. Kids have egos too and need to assert themselves, even with parents staring over their shoulders.

So, how do you break free when you are little and a parent supervises nonstop? Two strategies work, and they often continue into adulthood:

  • The power of no: We all yearn to hear our child belt out Mommy or Daddy as their first word, but often a child is more concerned with establishing independence than assuaging our feelings. “No” is a great first word.
  • The power of lying: Most children learn the art of lying as another route to establishing independence. Children will often say they didn't do something that they have done with the hope that it will all go away. Sound familiar?

The good news is that most children naturally grow out of the need to lie. Most kids hit grade school with the understanding that truth and justice counts. (Not just to Superman.) They leave lying behind.

Yet, for some, compulsive lying extends into adult life. Like in childhood, a good lie is a powerful tool. You can deny wrongdoings or claim to be what you are not. The real problem comes when your lies lead you to live a secret life.

Secrets and the Double Life

Deceit and human beings go together.

Some people lie to themselves, others to loved ones, and yet others to both. Secret lives are common. The secret can be relatively harmless. You tell people you're on a diet, when you're still delving into the chocolate ice cream tub in the freezer. You spend money on the dress you swore to your husband you weren't buying.

These are small secrets.

Some people feel unhappy or trapped in their lives. They need to break free somehow to make life interesting again. You act one way around people you love and activate a different part of yourself secretly. What can be a sweet way to establish a sense of autonomy in childhood can become a dangerous solution to unhappiness in adulthood.

There are so many secret lives; some healthier than others. A secret addiction to overeating hurts, but it is a benign secret compared to the many addictions that are lived out behind the scenes. Some men who are unhappy in their marriages have affairs or frequent prostitutes. Some women who are unhappy with their weight live private bulimic lives. Many develop addictions—alcohol, drugs, gambling, and online shopping. Still others live secret lives on the Internet by stalking former lovers.

The secret life can be terrible. A serial adulterer can cause terrible damage to his wife and marriage. A serial killer does much more damage. Both carry the dynamic of the secret life.

Bill Clinton was a popular president but he wanted to have sex with his intern, Monica Lewinsky. The secret life called. Bernie Madoff was everyone’s best friend, but lived a secret criminal life.

Does Your Partner Have a Secret?

People don’t want to admit their secret lives because it is too shameful. And if you challenge or push them, this will only hurt and scare them off because they’re ashamed of admitting this second life.

Here are some of the characteristics of someone living a double life.

  • Living with a secret is a mild form of dissociation.
  • They may convince themselves that it's okay.
  • When you challenge them, you are also triggering shame.
  • Some are self-righteous because they can’t admit their own guilt.
  • Watch out for:
    • Changed behavior
    • Changed clothing or habits
    • Strange smells
    • Unexplained expenses
    • Too much time on the computer
    • Late nights out
    • Your own sixth sense
    • Daydreaming while he or she is with you
  • Changed behavior
  • Changed clothing or habits
  • Strange smells
  • Unexplained expenses
  • Too much time on the computer
  • Late nights out
  • Your own sixth sense
  • Daydreaming while he or she is with you

How to Deal With a Secret

Secrets can go on for years. If you’re lucky, you may stumble upon his or her double life, perhaps by finding money missing in a bank account, crazy credit card bills, discovering texts to a secret lover, a second cell phone, or even bottles of booze locked away.

  • Shame. The shame once the secret is revealed will be profound because a wall has been broken down and there is no more secrecy. Shame occurs because she must confront her behavior. She no longer can convince herself that it is nothing, or it will all just go away. She is exposed and there is no place to run.
  • Risk. It is at this moment when there is risk. Shame can lead to dangerous, self-destructive actions. So, if you are onto his secret life, try to move the situation forward into therapy. If you decide to leave him, the shame and the subsequent abandonment can be overwhelming. He hurt you, and now he will have to deal with the consequences.
  • Redemption. If you decide to give the relationship a chance, the secret life will have to go. How will you be able to trust him or her again? Time will tell. You increase your chances for success if he gets involved with a competent therapist and a 12-step program.

Treating the Secret Life

  • The patient must own his or her behavior. There must be a commitment to ending the secret life.
  • Secret lives have power. They have their origins in childhood and are fueled by unhappiness. Only full disclosure to a therapist, all the time, will keep it at bay.
  • The patient needs to look at what is making him or her unhappy. Is she simply unhappy in her marriage? Perhaps, he’s turned off to his wife because he’s turned her into his mother (in his mind). That is a sexual dealbreaker.
  • Secret lives are often connected to addictions. Name it: sex, drugs, gambling, the internet, shopping, can all be addictive and lead to a double life.
  • Note that secrets have their source in the need to be free. It starts with children. Yet, what exactly is the patient trying to break free from? This is a crucial therapy issue.
  • A number of secret lives have their origins in real psychiatric disorders. Anorexics and bulimics live secret lives, as do some people with bipolar disorder. Treatment can really help. On the other hand, many people with personality disorders such as Narcissistic Personality and Anti-Social Personalities can live this way without end. The prognosis in these cases is not great.
  • Finally, 12-step programs can be very useful for people living secret lives and their family members; think sex, gambling or alcohol anonymous, etc. The people in these programs are pros at exposing the secret life. They understand the ability of a person to game everyone, including himself, into looking the other way. Group support from others who understand the power of secrets can make all the difference.

The Antidote to a Secret Life: Truth

This piece may be alarming because it shows secret lives exist and many people appear normal because they put up powerful walls that maintain their secrets. But if you want to keep a marriage or relationship after your secret is discovered, you have to be in therapy, usually augmented by a 12-step program that will break down the double life and keep the behavior under control.

Over the years, I have seen countless secret lives. It is a deep part of the human condition. When they are handled well, some of these people become incredibly wise and important members of our society. It takes work. And, I've been witness to the good that can be done.

Secrets have power. But, people do as well.

It’s never too late to seek help.

Check out the Intelligent Divorce Course here.