Video Series on Lies and Deception in Couples Therapy:

The 4 Types of Lies

If you work with couples, sooner or later you will be faced with one partner accusing the other of lying. The accused partner usually denies it and sometimes even labels the accuser as “crazy.”

What is the truth? And what is your role? I’ve given this topic a lot of thought lately.

Below is my first video of a 3-part series. Join me while I teach about the four types of lies couples tell each other.

In the remainder of this series, I’ll cover:

  • How partners inadvertently “train” each other to lie
  • How to recognize when someone is telling the truth
  • How to evaluate types of lies and use that evaluation to direct your interventions

After you watch the video, I hope you’ll join the discussion by commenting below. What are some of the lies you've encountered in your work?

I look forward to reading your comments.

Ellyn Bader


66 responses to “Lies and Deception in Couples Therapy”

  1. Janice says:

    I like the way these ideas are structured. In my work with adolescents I see the destructive consequences of such lies between couples.

  2. Edie says:

    Having business lunches with a business partner but failing to tell his partner that it was with a woman

    Locking the door in the bathroom for privacy? but not disclosing that he is watching porn.

    Amount of time spend playing video games,

  3. Jerry says:

    I'm eager to learn more about detecting lies. I have a new physician client who was having an affair with a nurse in his office 5 months ago and re-assures his wife that the affair is over. He is in a group gyn practice and has to work with this nurse a couple times a week. The trust rebuilding process is very difficult because his wife doesn't know if he is telling the truth, nor do I.

  4. Chris says:

    OK, got the video. Thanks, interesting clarification about types of lies. Looking forward to the next part.
    Hadn't actually thought of confronting the passive-aggressiveness as a lie. Will process that one! Thanks

  5. Beverly says:

    I am usually surprised at first when I find out about a person lying to me about ending the affair, while it is still going on. I am no longer shocked, because it has happened so many times. In fact, most couples that come to me because one of them has had an affair, will at some point have contact with the person they had cheated with. It is not that easy to end an affair. Most of the time there is a lot of feelings on both sides. Even if the guilty partner still loves his or spouse, they may still have great amount of emotion toward the person they had the affair with. They need to find a way of respectfully ending that affair that makes sense to the betrayer. This should be part of the individual therapy, while continuing couples therapy. Infidelity is most of my practice and is be very complicated.

  6. leona says:

    Thank you for laying out the types of lies so clearly. In a way it seems like lies are essentially self-protecting (from shame or to continue to do something that they know is harming the relationship). I encounter patterns of lying such as lies of omission challenging. The partner is always left wondering what, if anything, is being omitted and feel all kinds of emotions about not being able to trust their partner. The ‘truth-bender” often then amplifies the ‘truthful' parts of the conversation and ‘discounts' the omissions leaving their partner feeling like they are over-reacting or something is wrong with them. It can be around small things that rub away at trust and are hard to call out.

    • Harriet Smith says:

      My current husband is such a bag of lies…..most mentioned, that by now 10yrs in, I am wondering why I even married him I …but then I remember the big lie that began all this….

  7. Lynn says:

    Thank you for this discussion. I find many spouses who have a liar partner are in denial. They don't want to know. Especially women who are financially dependent or with young children at home. Or an insecure man who lacks confidence or has erectile dysfunction. It's complicated.

  8. Jan says:

    Interesting presentation.
    I'm not fond of the characterization of “Loving Lies”. I think people are so focused on ways they are alike in the beginning
    that they filter out or minimize ways that aren't alike. I don't call this lying. Lying to me is deliberate deception. This is such an important topic that I will stay tuned to find out more.

    • Téo J. van der Weele, RK Deacon, Tulln, Austria says:

      I also like a less condemning way of description, as the initial ´in love period´ is much more poetic, it it more like painting rather than a photo.

  9. MaryAnn says:

    I laughed out loud at your story about how Peter's apartment in La. was always sparkling clean when you arrived. Definitely a loving lie. We want to show our best side to someone we are falling in love with, yes? I had a man who came to see me individually to work on some difficulties he was experiencing in his relationship with his wife. He'd had a super controlling mother and would say yes to her no matter what, just to temporarily avoid her wrath. This behavior went on well into adulthood and he was reenacting it with his wife. Sometimes the passive-aggressive lies are simply a person's inability to say “yes” or “no” from a true place, when negotiating the things that make everyday life run smoothly.

  10. Veneta says:

    Thanks for sharing this with all of us. I see this kind of deception as I observe couples. I am glad for the heads up though so that when I do encounter this in my work I will have an idea about what it is.

  11. Jean says:

    I have seen so much deception between couples, especially when one partner has a chronic illness. Often the member who is physically well has child or children outside the relationship. In one case the wife died after sufferring from the long term effects of lupus while on aircraft. The husband soon married one of his lovers.

  12. Natalie says:

    Yes, thank you for sharing this video series. Lies and deception often present in couples' work, whether part of the past or present. I look forward to learning more about the evaluation of lies and it directing interventions, as well as the role of the therapist.

    Lies I have encountered with couples include affairs, having a child with an affair partner and then spouse finding out, as well as lies surrounding former relationship ending while new one beginning.

  13. Candie says:

    I have often heard accusations of “that's not how it happened” and “you're lying” and “you're crazy” after a partner shares their version/perception of an incident/conversation/interaction between them. Then of course there are lies in regard to spending or the state of ones finances; lies about smoking/drinking/drugs; lies about where someone spent time; lies about the true status in ones life of someone from the past; lies about texting/talking too much with some your partner would feel threatened by; and of course lies about affairs.

  14. Michelle says:

    It's interesting, the lies in the beginning of a relationship actually help to form a closer bond. But omitting information can freak some coupes out because they think “if they are capable of holding this small truth, surely they could hold a larger truth” and that can escalate anxiety. Sounds like there are some lies that are actually “normal” or to be expected in the beginning of a relationship, and I hadn't thought of it like that before. Thank you for an excellent video, looking forward to the next one.

  15. Nate says:

    It's fascinating to hear how the act of lying can go from actually being a tool in the seduction game to an insidious behavior that can destroy the bond that it was partially responsible for establishing in the 1st place. After seeing Ellyn and Pete speaking in this video, which was entertaining and thought provoking, I can't help but wonder what a courtship would look like if there was no lying whatsoever…Great video! Looking forward to the next in the series.

  16. Barbara says:

    I was working with couple and boyfriend would never tell girlfriend when he met his ex-girlfriend for lunch or when she was part of a group that was going out, he'd omit her name from list of attendees, or lied about who he went out with. Girlfriend found out he lied. She says “I have always told you I don't care if you see your ex- for lunch or in a group, I don't know why you lied to me.” Boyfriend defended that he shouldn't have to tell her everything, that he had right to privacy. I had trouble not judging him, maybe because he had no remorse and defended his “right to lie.” At the best he was conflict avoidant and defensive, or maybe something more is going on with the ex and he is hiding. But I think the worst part is how he responded to her concern — as if she was the nutty one. It was hard session until I got clear that I didn't have to judge him, just help her get clear on how she felt about the incidents, help them look at their process that leads to the lying (including how she may encourage lies), and what they could take away for future.

  17. Kathy McMahon says:

    Lying can also become a very bad habit to avoid confronting oneself. Sometimes these lies seem to me to be so habitual, they happen when there is no reason to lie (what was eaten for lunch). Sometimes, it's impression management! What a bad impression!

  18. Jane says:

    The video and information was so helpful. I love how your perspective highlights the function lies serve. You really focus on how lies are created by the complex expectations and interactions between partners and most of the time are not about character and morals. This gives us something to work with when working with couples.Thank you Ellyn and Pete!

  19. .Alexa Elkington says:

    This is great material. I have read your book Tell Me No Lies and I frequently refer to the book with the couples I see. I am glad to see more material on lying and the impact it has on everyone in the therapy room. I look forward to more information on this topic. I hope there are plans to discuss how to stop the lying that seems to be a way of life for some of the people I see. It is so damaging to the relationships. Thank you Ellyn and Pete. As always your material is very helpful.

  20. debbie hecker says:

    As always, Ellyn's material on lies and deceptions is straightforward, easy to grasp, and chock full of valuable information and insights that therapists can use both in their clinical work as well as provide valuable insights to their clients. I love the way she defines this very important topic and integrates it into the Developmental Model, particularly as the couple moves from the symbiotic to the differentiation stage.

  21. Peter says:

    First – thanks to all of you who commented.

    In fact your comments reinforce the complexity of lies. The challenge of the “truth bender” to be transparent; the challenge of the listener to encourage more transparency without becoming a police interrogator.

    The layers of complexity can be so deep and ingrained there is no possible evidence based approach that works for any given couple in front of you.

    Therapy with lying partners is more of a skilled art than any science.

    Your comments demonstrate just how difficult it is to promote growth in these situations. Stay tuned for additional perspectives on this vital topic.

    And keep your reactions rolling in.
    Peter Pearson

  22. Carly says:

    My own personal experience has been that this type of behavior occurs through generational transmission. My grandparents told passive aggressive lies and felony lies….then my parents…then I did the same. I have come clean in order to not only help myself but also my kids. It is helpful to be able to uncover and then change these destructive patterns. After much soul searching and a ton of hard work,I have come clean in order to not only help myself but also my kids. I have changed. I have learned to value who I am and to value others. This has given me the freedom to be myself and express my own thoughts and opinions without self judgement, shame and fear.

  23. Lin says:

    We all seem to have a pretty strong reaction to finding out our partner told us a lie. What I really like about Ellyn's distinctions here is that some lies may serve a positive purpose, even if lying is thought not to be ideal. Some of my clients get so worked up about a loving or conflict-avoidant lie that they end up creating an unsafe place for their partner to come clean. Helping couples see that not all lies are equal can go a long way to decreasing lie invitee behavior.

  24. Karen says:

    Appreciated hearing more about the Loving Lies and their intention of securing the closeness of the couple. It seems as if many lies share that intent of maintaining the relationship and avoiding distance/conflict. For therapists recognizing that motivation clearly allows the therapist to work in a more therapeutic manner and not inhabit the role of a judge which would simply shut down the work needed.
    Thank you for sharing this video and eager to hear/watch the rest of them.

  25. Paula says:

    Thanks so much Ellyn and Pete for providing a simple way to help couples understand the “evolution” into lying in a non blaming way. And for explaining how lies stall the developmental stage of differentiation in a number of ways. I can immediately see how helpful this series is going to be in my work with both the couples AND individuals. It refreshed my memory of my previous learning in this and I will use today's material right away to sharpen up my approach. What an added bonus! I am eagerly looking forward to your next video, cheers

  26. Lori says:

    Thanks Ellyn for your relevant information about lies and deception. I look forward to your next post on guidelines, instead of having to feel like a detective.
    There seems to be an increasing trend with couples and infidelity.

  27. Molly says:

    Thanks for clearly stating the different types of lies. This is definitely useful information for me to know as it pertains to relating to my partner, and for picking up in my work with couples. It's helpful to know the categories of lies and how some can be so much more catastrophic than others. I look forward to hearing what else you have to teach about lies, and seeing how I can incorporate your thoughtful wisdom into my own practice.

  28. Tami says:

    Not only is this great information for my practice but also very useful in my personal life. I find it fascinating that it is harder to detect lies in those that we are closer to than in a complete stranger. I am looking forward to the other 2 videos to find out more. Thank you for sharing this information.

  29. Colleen says:

    Interesting video with lots of information to process.
    I'm working with a couple, with the male partner's individual therapist telling him that he does not have to speak about anything involving his extramarital infidelity until he is ready to.
    This is making couples work difficult, as the female partner is asking for details, with no more secrets and lies.
    He is sticking to his therapist's advice.
    I feel that clarity involving infidelity is needed in order for meaningful work to be accomplished in couples.
    Here's my question:
    Full disclosure-is it necessary for change?

  30. Sue Diamond Potts says:

    I find it helpful to expand our understanding of “lying” to include intent. I believe that when we care enough about our partners to say or do something encouraging that might not completely reflect our truth, we are doing it in the service of the relationship. If we are deliberately hiding hurtful behavior, that's a completely different story. Whenever I can help couples think beyond simple black & white terms, i.e., lying verses telling the truth, I find it promotes differentiation and that is always a good thing.

  31. Angela says:

    Great video! I have encounter all of these lies in my personal (my own marriage) & professional life (working with couples). I really see a lot of “lies of omission”. Looking forward to seeing the other videos.

  32. Ofelia says:

    I like it very much,it is an added on information in dealing with couples.How do I get a CD?

  33. Peter says:

    Great posts – especially the transparency of Carly in the statement “After much soul searching and a ton of hard work,I have come clean in order to not only help myself but also my kids. I have changed. I have learned to value who I am and to value others. This has given me the freedom to be myself and express my own thoughts and opinions without self judgement, shame and fear.

    indeed it takes a lot of soul searching and hard work – a few good interventions are not sufficient for the work ahead to be transparent.

    Carly also described benefits for others which is often over looked

    Is full disclosure required from the unfaithful partner? There is some hot debate on this issue but I take the position there are some details that are best left unsaid if they create disturbing mental images for the non-affair partner -like sexual details.

    But avoiding relevant transparency just creates more anxiety and more tension in the relationship.

    Peter Pearson

  34. Gail says:

    to lie is to be human…. we are always “trying to make our life work” and sometimes a lie will enable some part of our life to “make sense at that moment” because we are fearing the outcome if we are forthcoming. The more i study conflict management the more i see the role of a lie in our communication. It is an adaptive response. When we can identify the value laden conflicts about the behaviors we produce and “who we are” then the lies tend to unlock. We can learn a lot about ourselves from the lies we tell ourselves and our partner. I think children (an thereby all of us in our own childhood experience…grow up in family relationships where we have watched people demonstrate “how to lie”. (my parents lied to their parents…my grandparents all the time about stuff they didn't want them to know)

  35. Julia says:

    Great distinction between the different kind of lies. Wow, these felony lies are so hard to deal with!!!

  36. Dee says:

    This has been a useful concept strategy with which to explore lying. I am unable to access the two remaining videos of the this three part series. Can anyone help?

  37. Rebecca says:

    Very interesting video. I'm interested in hearing more!
    Thank you.

  38. Dawn says:

    Thank you for the clear video presentation This was easy to follow but extremely thought provoking – you have helped start paving a way to make it much more acceptable (to me) for me to work with couples in this difficult but common area. Thank you – I look forward to seeing the remaining videos.

  39. Dan says:

    Enjoyed your video. Thank you for labeling the different untrues.
    I am sure you are familiar with the small book: “Telling Yourself the Truth”, by William Backus and Marie Chapian.
    I have used this one of my main focus issues with almost all couples as well as individuals that are having decision making problems.
    Let me know what you think about the book. There is another for begining counselors you may want to encourage to use is: “Telling the Truth to Troubled People”.
    I also work with troubled teens at Shepherd's Hill Academy in Martin, Ga. and we find that most of the youth there ( and most everywhere) use lies for compensation for lack of skills, friendships, knowledge about something, and so on.
    Would like your comments.

  40. christy says:

    Very informative video and good presentation of your opinions until you address conflict avoidance, passive agressive and felony lies. I noticed your body language change. Your arms are crossed and resting tight against your abdomen. This projects a closed position that is fear based instead of open and confident. Do these types of liers make you uncomfortable? I'm inquiring respectfully and simply providing feedback on my observation.

  41. Jackie says:

    I find the first episode very informative. How does one assist the felony lying spouse to appreciate the value of coming clean, and in a way that will not leave those damaging images to their partner? If Indeed they value the relationship enough to do so. Also jow to resolve the issue of conflicting advice from the personal therapist vs couples therapist as discussed in the comments above.

  42. Ellyn says:

    Thanks again for watching and commenting. Just a few responses from me now. Some of your questions will be answered in upcoming videos or in training.
    Dan-Thanks alot for the book suggestions. I will check them out.
    Christy- Your observations are correct but I don't think your assumptions are accurate.
    Yes, my arms are folded. This was filmed at 3 in the afternoon and I'd been in front of the camera for long stretches. Posture fatigue sets in and my posture shifts.
    I have worked with so many felony liars over the years that I have stopped feeling intimidated. I worked for years in prisons.
    Also, I want to be clear that not all felony liars are sociopaths. I like working with couples who are challenged by the complexity of honesty and dishonesty. My 3rd video includes a transcript of a felony liar who is not a sociopath. I am always curious about the dynamics and origins of lies and deception both intrapsychically and interpersonally.

    I appreciate your taking the time to check out your assumptions and like Freud once famously said “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

  43. Ellyn says:

    And in response to Jackie and some others… I don't believe a liar about infidelity needs to reveal all the nitty-gritty sexual details, but I do think a spouse who asks should be answered honestly about who the affair was with, when and where it took place, who else knew about it. Answering these questions helps to re-establish a boundary around the primary couple. When secrets are kept, the primacy of the affair remains.

  44. Patricia Doolittle says:

    Your information is helpful. Is there a way to take the blinders off in the early stage or does that ‘love is blind phase' just have to run its course?

  45. Betsy says:

    Very interested to see the rest of these videos. I have been on the receiver's end of lies and deception in my professional and personal lives. In each case I was accused of being crazy or insane by the liar, which is a particularly vicious form of psychological abuse called gaslighting.

  46. gs says:

    cannot access the other videos. any suggestion?

  47. Ellyn says:

    You will get Emails sent to you with the links for video #2 and video#3

  48. Eli bouchea says:

    Interested in seeing the rest of the series. Thank you.

  49. Dave says:

    This is the first one of your videos I've seen. I was very impressed with the production values of the video and you are an excellent presenter. I enjoyed your appropriate use of humor and I look forward to seeing more of your videos. Thank you!

  50. Marina Brooklyn, NY says:

    Thank you! I really liked it, both the presentation and the content. And I need to learn more. For my work and for my own life, to teach my grown up child going through a wonderful honeymoon period in this life. How much I want them and all of us to better understand ourselves and others and to be safe enough to say truth to ourselves and others.
    Looking forward to more videos and other opportunities of learning with both of you.

  51. Ana Franco says:

    I had a difficult case of a woman who had never finished up a high school love affair and life took her to meet him again once she was married.
    I as a therapist encouraged her to talk with him and finish up the relationship making love if necessary, even though she was lying to her husband. I felt that not doing so would not let her keep up with the marriage relationship in a grown up way. as her past was interfering.Was I wrong?

  52. Ying says:

    It was very useful to have these categories neatly laid out providing a guide. I also find that many incidences of lying there is also a dance of lies between partners, a dance of self-deception, and other deception, a dance of pain avoidance and the fear, shame and even felt and labelled as “love” as avoidance of inflicting pain.

  53. Geraldine says:

    Cheating on a spouse and lying is so very common. My question is…is it a normal behavior??
    It is terribly hurtful and unpleasant for the cheated on partner but the cheater has the time of their life. Are we as humans expecting too much from our partners?? Or are some people just too selfish to control their desires ? The cheater often is lured by the attention they get from their affair. Are we all just needing more attention than our partner can give us? If so, why are we so needy? Your comments are appreciated. Thanks.

  54. Glenda says:

    Very interesting to read such a clear description of the types of lies. I am shocked at the comment by one of the participants that she had encouraged a married woman to lie to her husband and have sex with a past love. When counsellors counsel lying and deceit I think it is impossible for couples to heal.

  55. Anne says:

    In thinking about lies and deception, I have become aware that several important adult relationships during my 20's and 30's were with people who lied on the conflict avoiding and felony lie continuum. It was very painful. In my work, I assume that honesty is a process not an event and it will take time and vulnerability to move towards it.

  56. julianne says:

    I, too have only seen this video and would greatly appreciate seeing the rest as I found this edition extremely interesting. I wonder do the other videos cover physical signs and techniques for detecting lies? I have had a good deal of experience dealing with liars and have had to rely on catching them out by memory and noting down what they tell you. Unless they have an exceptional memory, they don't remember what they have said from one occasion to the next. Also when going back and forth from one topic to the relevant topic they may be telling a lie about (e.g. welfare fraud) you can detect a specific detail they have lied about (i.e.they don't tend to have their guard up when you ask related question while talking about another topic). A married client on single parent benefits was stating she had not moved in with her lover, but while talking about his mother she mentioned she threw her a party on the day he move in. I asked he when the party was and she said St. Patrick's day and didn't even realize she had revealed her lie. I enthusiastically await the next editions.

  57. Nancy says:

    Re: Ellyn's reply: “complexity of honesty and dishonesty” and “the dynamics and origins of lies and deception” originate during our ‘formative years'. Self-awareness, self-accountability, “black and white principles” are role-modeled in the Catholic religion culture. I agree whole heartedly with Peter: “soul searching is hard work to be transparent; ‘Many' Benefits for our children; and avoiding relevant transparency creates more anxiety and more tension”!!!
    Ellyn and Peter: Thank you for your insight!!

  58. Maria trujillo says:

    Thank you

  59. Al says:

    Hi Ellen,
    Thank you for your video. I find it very helpful in a variety of contexts in my work. Currently, I am exploring the cross over between when clients lie to others in their life and when they directly lie in treatment in a way that challenges the treatment itself. I recently discovered quite by accident that a client was being deceptive and secretly taping our psychotherapy sessions on their iPhone. I am trying to figure out a way to therapeutically intervene in a way that makes sense and yet manage the professional risk around such an encounter. I think some of this material may be helpful to me, and I would be interested in more.

  60. Gynnie Ann DeJesus says:

    Thanks for the terminology.

  61. Donna says:

    I am not a person who works with couples – I am the person who has been subjected to this behavior and if it wasn't for the good grace of God and His love for me I would have died a thousand deaths. The most difficult thing is getting out of relationship that was also mentally,verbally, and emotionally abusive – without even knowing it was happening – Thank you for confirming that I am not crazy!

    • Harriet Smith says:

      The dawning..I called it…but so silly that I let it go as naivety.Dating long distance was creative. I asked if he had canoed. He said yes As we were flying over the first white water drop,sideways I realized he paddled on the same side as me !!! after correction and the harrowing ride,I queried did you not tell me you had done this. He shrugged and said I thought.”.How hard can it be”?. My mouth dropped to the floor.That should have been the red flag !!!!

  62. Cynthia says:

    I found the video very interesting and informative. I am looking forward to the remainder of the series.

  63. Jill says:

    Thank you, the video is very helpful.

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