Ellyn Bader

Intimacy conf faculty225When working with a couple in the aftermath of infidelity, how do you approach lies and a history of deception? When is a lie “just a little white lie” and when is it much more serious? Is it a common pattern of deception, does it represent a developmental issue, or is it a character issue?  How likely is it that a partner will continue lying to you? Does that change what you do and, if so, how?

In my presentation on lies, deception and confrontation in couples with infidelity, I discussed how important it is for the therapist to know what types of lies and deception are involved in a betrayal. I outlined four main types of lies that occur in marriage and committed partnerships: Loving Lies, Conflict-Avoiding Lies, Passive-Aggressive Lies and the great big Felony Lies.

As I present the following transcript from a recent case of a couple who came in, after she discovered his affair with a mistress.  What is your view about the types of lies he told, and what appears to be central as I learn about the history of deception?

The husband started their first session with me by saying, “I had an affair. My wife discovered the affair by finding out about a gift I bought for the other woman.”

This was just the tip of the iceberg I discovered as I pursued his pattern of lying and deceiving.

Ellyn: What happened next?

Husband: I said I’d break it off. And started to…but then I thought, well I think I want a divorce so what difference does it make what I do? I began lying more and adding one lie on top of another.

This was a red flag that made me realize I needed to know a lot more than “he had an affair.” Pursuing more information about the types of his lies could give me an essential window into what was wrong, what went wrong and how to structure the early phase of therapy.

Ellyn: I’d like to know about the lies you thought were pretty insignificant and about the worst lies you told?

Husband: I lied about having to work late and I lied about going to prostitutes. I convinced myself I was not betraying the marriage because I had no emotional attachment to the prostitutes. I talked myself out of believing it was a betrayal.

The plot thickens as I learn more about how he deceived himself as well as his wife.

Ellyn: Were there other lies you told to avoid conflict?

Husband: Yes, I told my wife I was going on a business trip to New York when I took my mistress to Paris.

Ellyn: What did you do when your wife began to suspect?

Husband: I said things to her like, “You are making things up. You are a crazy person.”

Ellyn: How long did this go on?

Husband: For months and months. This wasn’t the first time. Before it was with prostitutes. This time I said she was crazy and making things up, that there was no affair.

In a relatively short time in the first session I’ve learned that the husband has lied and deceived his wife for years. He’s told substantial conflict-avoiding lies and “felony” lies. By “felony” lies, I mean the big lies that have enormous impact on a spouse such as lying about unprotected sex, about having sex with very close friends or family members or attacking a partner’s sanity when they suspect.  He’d also deceived himself substantially in order to protect his lifestyle and continue his patterns.

As the history of the marriage was recounted to me in this session, I learned they had a long-term marriage with two adolescent children.  They had an intensely positive and very sexual beginning. Problems intensified when the wife stopped working after the birth of the second child.

They were unable to reconnect sexually, and were unable to manage the stresses of his work/travel schedule vs. the needs of their children. They developed a pattern of alternating periods of silence and withdrawal and periods where the wife would scream and yell at him. There was no drug or alcohol abuse.  The wife wanted desperately to keep the marriage, and the husband was uncertain about whether to stay married or get a divorce and go with the new woman.

Given the unfolding history, what would be your considerations in structuring treatment? What would be some considerations for you in structuring the next session? And what might you say to them at the end of the first session?

I’d like to wrap up this series on the Infidelity Conference with a few points from the final panel.

Final Panel

The day finished with an extremely lively panel discussion moderated by none other than Peter Pearson and Judith Anderson. Try to imagine a panel of marital experts all attempting to agree on how to handle infidelity. And boy did the theoretical sparks fly! Interruptions galore, spontaneous declarations of disagreements, humorous asides, and the occasional heartwarming response of, “Beats me” kept everyone entertained.

Pete had the enormous challenge of keeping us all on track. I think he especially enjoyed alternately stopping Julie Gottman and me from talking too much, so the audience could ask more questions.

All in all the faculty and audience were highly stimulated by the unanswered questions, the challenges of infidelity in western culture, and how to move our treatment paradigms beyond crisis/recovery and perpetrator-victim models.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the conference was indirect. It wasn't just the inevitable different perspectives thoughtfully defended. It was the underlying respect of the differences, skills and experiences of diverse colleagues that made the panel interesting, informative, entertaining and even poignant at times.

The panelists embodied what we attempt to teach our couples: strong and honest disagreement often leads to a more evolved way of approaching and thinking about difficult problems.

It was differentiation in action.

Now please take a few minutes to comment on the case. It will help stimulate a good discussion.

Ellyn

P.S. If you’d like to learn more about my Developmental Model Program click here.

 

We help couples struggling with adultery in Menlo Park, San Francisco, San Mateo, Redwood City, San Jose, Campbell and the surrounding areas.

About 

Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy.

Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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  1. My best friend has changed has blocked me and won’t see me anymore. I still love my husband so very much. He wants me back, now I do not even know if I want him anymore. He hurt me!!!

  2. My wife had a work place affair. At the time I believed something was happening and people told me but my wife denied it, when I confronted her she said they went out to lunch twice and that was all I so desperately wanted to believe her that I did) she agreed to not talk or communicate with him anymore. Time had gone on she was still distant and I still felt lonely in a marriage about 5 months after the agreement she was found in her work parking lot with the fellow but insisted my family member who found them was insane once again ( I so desperately wanted to believe her and I did). Anyhow time went by my wife acted irrational at times and I suspected her cheating at times. Eventually 5 years after I learn that my wife indeed did have a affair but now I have a different problem. She insist the affair lasted only 3 months but I think it lasted about two years, even denying when she was found in the parking lot after work with him saying she was not cheating at that time. My wife claims for the entirety of the affair she used a condo even when performing oral sex on the individual. I know my wife is lying, I was there, I remember the text and things I found on her phone I remember everything. I offered full forgiveness and when I found out tried with the entirety of my heart, but trying to puzzle together her lies have destroyed me. All I wanted was the truth but I feel she will never give it to me, she insist she is telling the truth. Her story and self contradictions have been endless and my heart can’t bare anymore. I don’t know what to do anymore.

  3. This is so confusing. Did anyone think of telling the wife of lying man to divorce him and develop skills to manage being a single parent? The lying man was stuck in his lying world thinking going to a therapist would fix things, trying to avoid the legal an post-divorce expenses of his bad behavior.

  4. I feel that the acting out behaviors both from the husband, lying, affairs, etc. and from the wife, withdrawing from sex and/or intimacy are there to protect deeper, more vulnerable parts of them that have not been able to feel safe enough in the relationship to come out and heal. Therefore they had to resort to those behaviors and they play on each other as a vicious circle. I would bring as much hope to both of them as I could, emphasizing that they could help those vulnerable parts to feel more safe and therefore would not have to resort to those behaviors. I would not focus on the lying too much at first because that would scare the husband away and I would validate the fear of loss of the relationship from the wife as a fear of losing the only chance of redemption the vulnerable part of her feels she has. Vulnerable parts of ourselves often want and need redemption from the very person that has hurt them. So I would invite each one of them to connect with their vulnerable parts, bring compassion and understanding to those parts until they can feels less dependent on the acting out behaviors to protect them. At some point they will become more ready to face responsibility for what they did, and agree to try something else. It’s very tricky to offer compassion to both of them without the wife feeling betrayed because, as someone mentioned, she might feel that what he did is much worse than what she did.

  5. I have lots of “props” in my office to demonstrate concepts with clients. I have a ceramic chicken…and I might hand that to either party and have them talk about what they are afraid/”chicken” to discuss around this issue of the lies and the affair and what is missing in their relationship. I have a “bowl of cheeries/with pits” and we talk about the sweet fruit of a relationship that works and “the pits” of every relationship. The demo with that is… we can learn to eat the fruit and spit out the pits (talk about what is bothering us) or we can eat the fruit and break our teeth or choke on the pits (lies).

    I have little white boxes (2″ x 2″ that open) and we talk about trust being a “gift” that we give ourselves – to be honest and truthful. When we give our trust to the other we give it because we choose to give our gift of trust to the other person. The obligation of the other is to be trustworthy. I discuss these concepts with the couple and then we figure out what is good about a healthy relationship, what are the pits of something that is not working, what we are afraid/chicken to bring up or discuss and how we can work on trusting and being trustworthy. I like to have each party “own” their developemental issues and see if they are ready to be brave and honest and trustworthy. I say that there is pain either way, if we face ourselves and learn and grow or if we can’t do the work and suffer from not being responsible in who we are being to ourself or the other person.

    I’ve had couples come back with new language about “the pits” , being “chicken” to bring something up and that they thought long and hard about “the gift” of trust and being trustworthy. I also have a pair of green grinch slippers that get a lot of laughs when we wear them and we bring our “worst self” to the party.

  6. Thank you all for your excellent comments and awareness of the many, many issues raised by this case. It is often difficult to decide where to start and how to form interventions that take so many of these issues into account. The art of couples work is to let ourselves be aware of all these challenges and then to self-define in a way that integrates as many of the complexities as possible-in a realistic sequence!
    I will send out my transcript in the next couple of days.
    Ellyn

  7. I watched the video that was part of this discussion. What stayed with me (it is a day later) was their body language. He was leaning almost into her and she was leaning backward. Even while softening he was still to me not honoring her differentiation–as I understand the term. I just wonder if this was a clue that his softening was not going to last and that he was not going to honor her concern which to me had considerable merit.

  8. I’m thinking about how the affair is a snapshot of the already existing way of connecting in the relationship. I will want to structure the session in such a way that the affair is less the focus and the reality of the relationship even before the affair is more present.

    I will be looking for how they have been able to talk about differences in opinion and values and wondering if this affair had helped with some sort of differentiation. I may wonder if deception was a successful way of establishing distance or boundaries in his family of origin. I find it it can be helpful to see how coping skills learned early on are easy to fall back to. And I’ll ask about ask about early history with conflict resolution for each of them.

    The wife’s yelling and anger may be her way of coping or unintentionally avoiding the very painful reality of their circumstance. It could also be her way of establishing a self boundary so I will wonder with them about where and what has been the function of their style of dealing with communication and conflict in the relationship.

    Often as I look at the family of origin piece, the present circumstance makes more sense and this provides some hope for change and makes the problem seem manageable.

    The piece of the deception that involves telling the spouse she is crazy seems potentially controlling and certainly had caused her to question herself. It may indicate how much she has given up of herself, to the point that she no longer trusts her own reality. I will be looking for other areas where she has lost her sense of self. I work with many women who are experiencing domestic violence which leads me to consider the emotional control that is gained by characterizing ones partner as crazy.

    As I conclude the session I will look to create hope for new connection by discussing their strengths individually, the possibility of creating a relationship that can meet both of their needs without the need for hiding the self or for giving up the self. I would close with offering my observations about patterns they have identified and what I see that indicates they may have unconsciously picked the perfect person to help them grow and change through relationship. I want to acknowledge the courage it takes on both their part to be looking at their circumstance.

  9. WHEN I WORK WITH A COUPLE MY GENERAL STRUCTURE IS TO HAVE A FOUR SESSION EVALUATION PROCESS. INITIALLY A JOINT SESSION FOLLOWED BY SEEING EACH SPOUSE FOR AN INDIVIDUAL SESSION AND THEN MEETING TOGETHER FOR A FEEDBACK SESSION BEFORE DECIDING WHETHER OR NOT THE PARTNERS ARE READY TO MAKE A COMMITMENT TO A COURSE OF COUPLES WORK. THIS GIVES THE POSSIBILITY FOR SLOWING THE PROCESS DOWN IN AN EMOTIONALLY VOLATILE SITUATION AND ALLOWS ME AN OPPORTUNITY TO INTERVIEW EACH PARTNER ALONE WITH CONFIDENTIALLY PRESENT. THIS INCREASES THE LIKELIHOOD THAT INFORMATION EACH MAY AS YET BE UNWILLING TO SHARE WITH THE PARTNER MAY EMERGE. IT ALSO ALLOWS ME TO FURTHER EXPLORE ISSUES SUCH AS LYING AND TOLERANCE FOR LYING TO SELF AND OTHER IN GREATER DETAIL.
    I WOULD BE VERY INTERESTED IN LEARNING WHAT THE HUSBAND DESCRIBES AS HIS MOTIVATION FOR COMING INTO THERAPY. IS THERE ANY COMPASSION AND EMPATHY TOWARD HIS WIFE EVIDENT? DOES HE FEEL ANY GUILT OR SORROW FOR THE SITUATION? WHAT HAVE BEEN THE SATISFACTIONS OF HIS THE MARRIAGE THAT HE HAS BEEN UNWILLING TO RELINQUISH DESPITE HIS NEED FOR OUTSIDE RELATIONSHIPS.
    WHILE THE WIFE’S MOTIVATION APPEARS CLEARER THAN THE HUSBAND’S, I WOULD EXPLORE WHAT SHE FINDS OF VALUE IN A RELATIONSHIP THAT HAS BEEN SO FRAUGHT FOR SO LONG. WHAT, IF ANY, HAVE BEEN HER SATISFACTIONS AND WHAT ARE HER FEARS SHOULD IT END.
    THERE’S MUCH MORE TO SAY BUT THESE ARE SOME OF MY INITIAL MOVES IN A CASE LIKE THIS.

  10. I have very much enjoyed reading everyone’s comments. I feel it is important to get a clearer understanding of what the husband wants and for both partners to understand this. Does he want to try and work on improving his marriage? does he want to work on deciding on what he wants? Wife needs to understand where he is in terms of the marriage. Once that is decided and if they decide to move forward, I believe they both need to work on being accountable about their part in the problem. he may need some individual sessions to work more on his issues. She needs to look at what about her , if anything invited this kind of big lying?

  11. The only thing I would add to all this wonderful feedback is that as a counselor of couples I also try to focus in the concept that when we lie to our partners we show we cannot trust them to accept us as we are. Usually this pattern of lying starts with small things…things that we know might upset our partners and so we decided to avoid the anger. This leads to bigger things when the relationship begins to have bigger problems. Our fear of making our mate angry and our fear that we might lose that person (abandonment) are all linked to the inability to trust and believe that our partner can get angry and get over it and still love us.

  12. I enjoyed reading all these comments. I think both are very undifferentiated. So reframing their problem in light of their conflict avoidant history might be meaningful. The husband seems to have some serious character isssues and is probably not interested in couples therapy. Still, he needs to build accountability; he needs to develop an awareness of the harmful effects of his actions. So, whatever his goals are in terms of the marriage, what is most important is the way he implements his decision rather than the content of the decision. The challenge is to find a way to confront him without antagonizing him. Maybe looking for some family-of-origin material may help to establish an alliance with him, however tentatively. Also, it may be best to let him make the decision whether to continue for some time for the above goals, i.e., building accountability.
    As for the wife, she needs to learn to listen to him as calmly as possible. Moreover, improving her self-esteem is a must for her.
    Ümit

  13. I am looking forward to your response, Ellen. I appreciate your categorizing the 4 different types of lies. I would want to have the couple explore and discover how both were lying to each other and why they chose that way of coping in demanding times. My starting point would be to externalize their problems by addressing their circumstances that led them to dealing with new challenges by protecting self an the other by lying. Both in need of connection were betraying and betrayed. It can only lead each living with feelings of abandonment and related emotional pain.

  14. Towards the end of the first session I would wish to give the couple hope and explain what the therapeutic process entails. At the moment, the wife is probably not only feeling deeply hurt but also thinking that she would never be able to trust her husband again. She is resigned to staying in a marriage which is unsatisfying for her (for reasons worth exploring), but possibly her secret reward is that she can always feel righteous because in her eyes, no shouting, screaming or losing interest in sex from her side could equal what her husband has done to her. The husband may feel that there is no point in trying because he will always be resented and blamed, and so a fresh start with a new woman is likely to be much more tempting for him.

    So I will explain that in order to heal the affair(s) the husband will first need to fully understand and acknowledge the effect that his lies and betrayal had on his wife. He will need to be willing to answer her questions about what happened. Both of them will then need to look at the relationship and come to a better understanding of how the affairs were allowed to continue. They will both need to grow in understanding of themselves and of the other and recommit to the relationship. I will also reassure them that if they stay with this process, they could potentially be in a much more satisfying relationship than they had before the affair came to light.

    If the husband chooses to stay in the marriage and terminate the affair, he may also need some individual work to help him get over it. He may have feelings for the other woman and it sounds like the affair was fulfilling a need he was unable to meet within his marriage (this does not justify the affair of course).

    I personally do not ask clients to stop behaviours they may lie about (except for violence) because when they lie in the therapy room, the therapeutic relationship becomes a mirror of the other relationships in their lives which are compromised by lies. Hopefully as work progress the unhelpful behaviours would gradually reduce anyway.

    Thank you Ellyn for the great information, I always enjoy reading your blog.

  15. ” where there is no honesty there is no intimacy” They are not sharing the same reality, wife may need to assess why she wants the marriage and its implications with his flaws and her acceptance, dependence, possible denial as to the severity of the issue.
    Is he in , out or still in affair la la fantasy land? Is there a repentence and willingness, capability or desire to change and or be married with integrity? Relationship will have to have a new foundation to move forward successfully. Sounds like lots of personal work for both before the us can be truly put back together.

  16. I would ask the man to attempt to connect with himself in the s session–how does he feel telling these truths after lying so often for so long? Is he finally revealing more truth and why now? Can he access and reveal himself at all? As others have said, is he in the marriage enough to be in couples therapy or looking for an exit? I would not ask for a commitment to stop outside relationships because he is a chronic liar. But transparency agreements would need to be made. It would be important, I feel, to validate the womans perceptions and experiences and mstate in no uncertain terms that the deception a has experienced is huge, and she’s not crazy. I would have difficulty working on behalf of the couple but would want to see if the woman could respond to confrontation about why she’s still with him and how desperately she seems to want to stay together (attachment issues)

  17. Couple work is so challenging and exciting. There are a number of considerations and one that comes into my mind is that I experience Blame as lying to the Self. From this perspective, I would be curious about the idea that they both lie. Getting a commitment from the party about fidelity is probably tricky and I think I would focus on how lying has become a way of managing difficult stuff in this couple. Also I would be curious about their experience of lying in their families of origin and also about how the Self of them manages other uncomfortable/anxious experiences in the Couple. At the end of my first session with a couple I always alert them to the statistics with regard to 2nd partnerships and encourage them to think about learning how to solve these issues in the existing relationship.Couples seem to respond to this in my experience unless one is already “out the door,” so to speak.

  18. I would want to hear from the wife too. And I’d want to watch the husband’s reactions closely to whatever she says. Perhaps it would be a possible point of entry into his noticing his feelings and beginning to give them names, rather than ignore/deny them and act out. I’m wondering when the I & I process might be appropriate?

  19. This is a fascinating and difficult case. Before I went any further, I would want to know if both parties are wanting help with their relationship, or whether they are just looking for a way of ending it. I would also want to explore if both are willing to commit to some period of time of no outside intimate connections ( ie, is he willing to commit a month, 3 months to only being with his wife) and working in therapy. What outcomes do each person hope for, and are they committed to doing homework. There might be very good reasons for each person to remain blaming the other, and these good reasons would need to be examined. If after all that, they are committed to working in therapy, we could begin therapy.

    • Sharmila, I thought of that too, but whenever I have asked people to commit to no outside relationships, they lie about that. They agree, but then they usually do whatever they want. I’m not sure how to overcome that. And this guy certainly seems like he would lie about that, don’t you think?

  20. One question in structuring or considering treatment is whether he is still planning to pursue divorce, or if something has changed. I would like to know more about the wife and why she has tolerated this and still seems to want him. He has dominated so far, and I think I would take his dominance into account when structuring the next session. Also would take into account that anything further he says may not be true. I would find this very challenging, and wonder if the wife has secrets too. I think goal setting will be very important.

  21. I would reflect back to the couple where they got stuck developmentally after the birth of their second child and how they developed patterns of conflict/avoidance as a way of coping. Obviously this became pathological and I would invite the wife to describe her experience upon discovering the long string of lies. This could be a tremendous opportunity for growth if they are willing to work through it and I would give them some hope that it is possible, but I am wondering if you would need a commitment to tell the truth in order to move forward??

  22. The lying behaviour would have been a learned behaviour which can be unlearned with consistent work. The husband can benefit from stopping the pattern of lying because his lying was reflective of him engaging in avoidant behaviour as his coping skill to stay away from confrontation and consequences . When he works towards establishing a different relationship with the unfortunate consequences of his cheating behaviour, then he would stand a better chance of calmy accepting the consequences. Ex: change the context of the difficult consequences he might have to bear…(CBT with content; Mindfulness with context)

  23. I discussed the issue of devaluing and disrespect that stay at home mom’s often face. They do not feel useful/viable, smart etc. That reflects it-self in many ways, dress, demeanor, assertiveness etc. I cannot re-write my long comment again. Thanks for your case etc.

  24. I’m not a therapist… just trying to learn about my difficult relationships, style of disagreeing, and perhaps yet find more confidence and love in my life….

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