She Said, He Said: Understanding the ‘why’ of the lie might help your relationship last
She Said, He Said
Dear Lori and Jeff,
I often catch my wife lying about small things and it’s driving me crazy. I believe that she’s faithful, but can’t understand why she won’t be honest about why she’s often late or why she didn’t do the errands she said she would do. I know she doesn’t plan her days well, and this is a major issue in our marriage. She always tries to squeeze in time to do things for herself, but then she never admits it. The fact that she doesn’t get stuff done is frustrating enough, but lying about why she falls short is pushing me over the edge. How can I get her to tell the truth so that this marriage can last?
Lori and Jeff: No one likes to be lied to, but not all deceit is created equally. We’re not implying that some lies are OK, and the reality is we could write a book about the gray areas of truth from white lies to brutal honesty. But for the sake of helping your marriage last, it’s important to understand the “why” behind the lies.
Lori: It sounds as though your wife is struggling with ambivalence over whether to meet your needs or hers. Ambivalence is often misunderstood as someone not caring enough, when in fact it’s the result of caring too much about things that appear to be in opposition. And that feeling of being stuck in the middle leaves one unable to commit to a choice or to follow through. The problem isn’t that she doesn’t care about you, it’s that the relationship has positioned her and your needs against each other. Her lying is a symptom of her guilt for choosing her needs over yours. She cares enough about letting you down to believe it was wrong, but can’t bring herself to sacrifice her needs for yours to make it right. I’m not telling you this to take her side, or even to let her off the hook. But rather to help you understand that if you want to support her in being more honest, as a couple you’ll need to create a relationship in which there’s room for both of your needs to be validated and honored.
Jeff: The first thing to consider is how safe your wife feels in telling you the truth. Somewhere, either from her upbringing or from you (or a combination of both), she’s learned that it’s not OK for her to be upfront about how she spends her time. While she may be disorganized or struggle with prioritizing things that are important to the relationship, she may also be so fearful of your retribution that she believes it’s easier and safer to stretch the truth. I’d imagine she doesn’t feel great about disappointing you and probably spends a lot of energy coming up with stories designed to shield her from your reactions. That energy, if redirected, could be used to get a lot more accomplished on a daily basis.
People can change and get better at contributing to the common goals of the relationship but only if they are encouraged to do so in a kind, compassionate way — not by constantly being accused of lies or other misdeeds. It sounds like you’ve both lost some trust in each other; your trust in her to prioritize the relationship and her trust in you to accept her for who she is.
Lori and Jeff: Partners who lie do it for a myriad of reasons, but often what underlies deceit in healthy relationships is a fear of telling the truth — fear of judgment, criticism, punishment or abandonment. It may seem contradictory to suggest that these emotional consequences could exist in a strong relationship, but they do. They show up subtly in reactions that are blaming and shaming, and through emotionally shutting down or withdrawing. If you want your partner to be honest with you, you need to make it safe for them to tell their truth, and be a real partner in working together toward a balanced solution.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Submit your relationship questions to info@AspenRelationshipCoaching.com and your query may be selected for a future column.
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