Video Series on Lies and Deception in Couples Therapy:

How to Recognize the Truth

Do you sometimes wish you could tell when one of your clients is lying?

Listen to what a veteran forensic psychologist told me after 30 years of testifying in court about whether or not witnesses are lying or telling the truth. Then hear how to become a better truth detector.

Please join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

Specifically, have you struggled with a couple where you were never sure about what was true and what was not?

Did you find any of the 6 ways to recognize honesty to be insightful or helpful?

Thank you for sharing your comments - they fuel our energetic community of therapists.

Ellyn Bader

50 responses to “How to Recognize the Truth”

  1. Lili says:

    Great info regarding some clues about spotting liars. I only hope it doesn't wide circulation among those who are already expert liars!

  2. Tony Fiore,Ph.D. says:

    I really enjoyed the video as it resonated with my clinical experience with many couples. Rather than call it lying, however, I often re-frame it as “differences in perception.” My favorite mantra is “perception is reality….but not necessarily the truth.”Thank you for the good work you are doing. Very impressive!

    • Ronna says:

      Yes, great starting place for exploring all the aspects of what “truth” really means.

      It seems like we may need to bring these two sides of the discussion on the paradox of deception (clarity/data gathering is essential & recognition of the human limits of this thing we know as “perception”) into a third discussion – something approaching a third metric on truth that incorporates both sides of the discussion.

      Thanks for the mantra!! 🙂 Loved it.

  3. Lynn says:

    I have many couples situations where I suspect that one of the partners is lying. A common reoccurring pattern is when, usually the husband or male partner, does not want to have sex or physical intimacy for a protracted length of time. And the wife does not consciously suspect or ask about the possibility of infidelity. Given that other factors may be the cause, but when there is infidelity, the problem of learning what is going on is often a challenge. I have a secrets policy where I keep confidentiality if one or the other partner reveals an affair. It takes time to develop trust and in some situations no matter how I try to get to what is behind the behavior, we end up in circles. A lot depends on the spouse who feels dejected. Does he or she have enough patience or self-esteem to persist in wanting to know.

  4. Chris says:

    Awesome, I have been trying to figure this very thing out for years not only with couples but families and clients that seek mental health services. I have asked people I know in law enforcement how they do it but they can never explain exactly what they do. One FBI agent said
    ‘don't listen to their words” It's just noise. Another PD said look at their face, eyes and body language. Others not just in the law enforcement field say it is intuition. Your examples' give something more concrete to consider. Thanks C

  5. Lexie says:

    As you were describing the 6 guidelines, I was able to imagine how I tell a story (truth of course) and could see that I do jump back and forth chronologically in order to add detail. The best is when you get stuck on trying to remember some minor detail like what was the name of the restaurant when it has nothing to do with the point of the story.

  6. Nate says:

    This is fantastic material, Ellyn. Thanks for sharing these 6 guidelines. I notice that the act of lying is sometimes called a sign of intelligence when children begin to exhibit this trait. When truth and fiction blend, it really is a quandary for those of us who rely on our own internal lie detectors to determine what really happened. I have a sneaky suspicion that technology will lend a helping hand to truth telling in the not too distant future. For now, I'll keep watching your exceptional videos.

    • Ronna says:

      Yes. Great point. That “blend” of truth and fiction is something I would like to explore as an aspect of all therapeutic exchanges. And what does it mean exactly to stay awake in our “internal detectors?” Love this discussion. Thank you.

  7. Phyllis says:

    Thank you. This was really helpful.

  8. Colleen says:

    Great video, Ellyn. Important and valuable information that definitely will help with these difficult cases.

  9. Larry says:

    Most couples partners do not like to lie. So they may deny specific accusations but resist broadening the lie by giving affirmative assurances they only love the partner, would never do such a thing, etc. As couples therapists we do have the mindset to notice what is not being said.

  10. Carolyn says:

    This is making me think about the many times, especially when an addiction or affair was suspected, that one party would tow “the party line” and would be insistent there was nothing more to discuss. When trying to get them to elaborate eyes glaze or go vacant and they claim they just don't have any details because there isn't anything to talk about. The lack of defensiveness in the act of piecing together a story and the freshness of the detail has been something I've paid attention to as coming from a true place. Even if I think I am onto a liar, I do feel powerless to address it in a way that does not take me from my role of support and growth. I wonder, Ellyn, what you and Pete think about the strategy – when an active addiction is the question – of asking the client to take a pee test right there in the office ‘to reassure their partner that they are on the level'. This means the therapist has to plan for an appropriate moment and know the possible drugs of choice.

  11. Ronna says:

    Fascinating! Especially the data regarding trained police detection abilities regarding lies of suspects. Maybe we need to think of this work with couples in a different way than “detection.”

    My sense is that “honesty” is a much deeper practice than simply not telling lies. Every person in the coaching or counseling room has the responsibility to practice deeper and deeper investigations around noticing and confronting our own self-deception (especially as clinicians); particularly, and ironically, when one's self-deception is inviting others to lie (the “lie invitee,” for example). That practice may invite honesty, model honesty, on several energetic levels: gut, heart, mind.

    Looking forward to exploring this topic fully. Thank you, Ellyn! Such important awareness raising.

  12. Paula Susan, Trauma and Relationship Specialist since 1982 Mt. Laurel, NJ says:

    Great information. Important topic. I think it was Aristotle who said, “We cannot lie to the deepest part of ourselves.”
    Working with so many couples both in the field of trauma and relationships over 34 years, I make it a point to have those individual sessions. I commit to confidentiality and have a plan to help the person who might still be involved to resolve his or her ambivalence and restore his own self-respect. I suggest time-out to see what he really wants and work on healing rifts/distance in the marriage. I do begin by normalizing with statements like “I can understand. You were lonely. It was a moment in time…” whatever so that the person is not more shamed than what he carries deep inside. I would not allow couples work to continue until he/she resolves his conflict.
    I always suggest that before a couple splits, they heal what went down between them so neither carries resentment/anger, especially if there was betrayal. Often, with both using EMDR and Imago Dialogue, healing takes place and a deeper commitment and love happens.
    If there has been an affair, grieving work needs to be done because that fantasy carried weight and the person gave it meaning. While we are working on many levels, iti so workable.

  13. Ave Maria says:

    I feel less “fumbly” now that you've informed that most experts experience lying as a challenge. However, it also seems that other factors mount up in the story that present the “clinical moment” of clarity- like listening to how a partner describes choices in relating to others, how people describe spending their time during/after work with others, or even whether they would like to consider how to free up time to spend with their partner. Feels sad, but defining. Thanks for the guidelines.

  14. Julie Psychologist Australia says:

    Ellyn – Loved the excerpt from your father's diary. Thanks for sharing. What I find complicated in couples work is untangling the truth or otherwise in relation to the expressed emotion eg still in love and wanting to continue the relationship or just pretending and therefore maintaining the painful status quo. You have provided some clues as to how to untangle in your videos. Much appreciated.

  15. Denny says:

    I began my career working with addicts and learned that ANYONE
    can be deceived by a client. So I tell them that up front and tell them that I assume they are telling me the truth in session. Yer I hold onto the possibility they aren't telling me the truth and so always high the value of “gut feelings”. Trusting always is a game of wish fulfillment and “ideal other” by the therapist.

  16. jane says:

    Thank you Ellyn. I love the 6 guidelines! I try to keep in mind that I am not a detective, but one who is trying to facilitate an environment in which both partners can confront their own fear lying underneath any dishonesty. I had one couple where the wife was saying she wanted to stay married and was coming to therapy to “fix” the marriage, but I found out at the end when she abruptly left the marriage, she was taking deliberate and secret steps to plan her departure all along. When I look back on that now, her dishonesty was coming out in her lack of follow through and resistance to any interventions.

  17. Alice says:

    I do like these indicators but to be honest, I'm not sure that they will be any more helpful. If a partner firmly believes their other half is lying, they can simply continue to interpret things to make them fit their own beliefs because it's the only thing that may make sense in their own world. Similarly, if a partner hasn't been able to face something in themselves eg if they have same sex attraction but have never felt able to handle even the idea of that, then they will perhaps be able to fall into the category of truth tellers in these guildelines, because they are still lying so much to themselves?

  18. Nicole says:

    This is an excellent training topic. Any discussion about consistent and harmful lying in committed relationships must consider the cluster B personality disorders. also, infidelity is not an abstract concept. it puts the betrayed spouse at risk for serious STDs, financial harm, and PTSD… whether it is 1 or 30 years of (supposed) monogamy. And this is only a few real examples of harm that therapists often overlook in search of the “marital problems that caused the infidelity”. Our field needs an update on infidelity lies. Hopefully your “felony” lies video will start debunking the myths that the betrayed spouses “cause affairs” or cheaters lying. It is entitlement and relational sociopathy that causes lying about infidelity.

  19. Kathryn says:

    Thank you for this topic. Self deception, protection, shame, “holding back”, blame, indiscretion(s), seem to be part of the process of understanding what the current value truth has in honest relating and loving. “Clearing the air”, unloading guilt, learning essential responsible commitment skills all seem to me to be connected with willingness to be vulnerable. Authenticity is a journey both with oneself and with other. The couples “journey” has important interdependent understandings that need to be based on honesty…and updating each other as they each change or question what they are feeling, how they are experiencing themselves in the larger picture. Meanwhile the dynamics of healing need to be possible via the environment of communication patterns they have that allow for that. The differences in pace can be a huge misunderstood stressor. I enjoy exploring this topic. Thanks again.

  20. Kathy says:

    Grateful for the topic and any insight. I think the label “liar” used repeatedly is strong and lends toward a perception of labeling persons instead of behavior that may not be what is intended to understand and engage participation in therapeutic undoing.

  21. Peter says:

    A great set of posts. The complexity of being transparent and tolerating then encouraging uncomfortable transparency in one's partner is SOOOO challenging.

    Sometimes i will make a confrontation to the “truth bender” by saying
    “If your partner said you were probably just blowing smoke by the answer you just gave, would you get defensive?”

    I am the one making the confrontation but attributing it to the partner keeps me from being the police interrogator.

    I also am asking about the process of their response (would you be defensive?) which softens the confrontation a little bit.

    or I might say,
    “Perhaps a part of your partner is thinking this sounds way too fishy.” What would you say back?

    it is not easy to deal with situations when our BS meter is spinning wildly.

    what are some other ways you make confrontations when you think there is too much ducking and weaving going on?
    Peter Pearson

  22. Molly says:

    These 6 guidelines are great! Thanks for sharing this really beneficial and thoughtful information. It truly is so hard to identify when someone is lying, so it's good to know others have the same trouble. I don't feel so alone! Looking forward to your next video.

  23. Erin says:

    I love these guidelines, especially the bit about emotions and feeling within an experience that weave in and out of time sequence as the experiencer recalls different aspects about something, and jump back and forth in chronology and how liars who have made up a story repeat the same chosen details, (and get more and more insistent). One part that seems a little more difficult is the bit about truth tellers not ever being defensive when details are challenged. I know from personal experience as I matured to being an adult, being or feeling defensive was an emotional disposition I gained from abused power in my family. I did not get the support I needed as a child to protect myself and my well being. And grew up feeling the need to always defend myself and my needs. In that case, being defensive about nearly everything I did or said, did not originate from being a liar, it originated from frustration and upset about feeling like I was born into a set up, a game I would too easily and regularly loose, (for being easy to take advantage of, or less aggressive) no matter what I did. I decided very young to go with honesty. So lying was not a part of my repertoire. When I was not believed I spun out in frustration for being OVER POWERED by a parent believing my brothers divisive fabricated versions of what happened, versus my account of the truth. So, I am pointing this out here, because underdogged people who have been taken advantage of for most of their life, or “victims” are likely to appear very defensive, and therefore lead a counselor to suspect they are not telling the truth. Frustration about not being seen or believed or supported for most of their life can lead to serious historic patterns of upset that might be lingering. (regardless of how much psychological work they have done to heal it).

  24. Gail says:

    This is good timing to get the PDF and video and I have your book open looking for guidance for the couples who are flooding in after the disclosures on Ashley Madison website. One couple yesterday was particularly difficult as one partner was an attorney who was grilling her spouse about his involvement on the site. I think he is demonstrating most of the characteristics of telling the truth based on the 6 signs. She wanted him to undergo a polygraph and be grilled about every time she now has doubts about how he has withheld details about his activities. I see this going no place productive and offered them the chance in their next session to work on how they share and communicate with each other. This is the 3rd case coming in because of the website breech. I was able to talk about loving lies, conflict avoiding lies and felony lies in the sessions to know how to think though the actions we choose. Thanks Ellen and Pete for preparing me…I was able to handle the delicate issues and get them to understand new dynamics about their personal development and their couplehood.

  25. Mat says:

    Thanks for the video! The guidelines make sense. I have a female client who presents with all of the signs of being sexually abused as a child, but she has no concrete memory of the abuse. She invited her father, whom she believes was the abuser, into a session to confront him about possible abuse. He actually presented really well, and seemed to fit the guidelines of someone who was telling the truth, saying that he didn't abuse her. Haven't had such a difficult situation in couples counseling, however.

  26. Sue Diamond Potts says:

    Ellyn, I am really enjoying this information and glad to hear that I'm not alone in having trouble spotting the liars. I remember once when a spouse owned up that his wife's ‘paranoia' really was accurate, and he had been drinking and lying about it to both of us. I was pissed! And a little embarrassed. I thought I “should have” been able to spot it, after all I'm the “expert”. I do remember the feeling of betrayal though – that when you are in any relationship and giving of yourself, there is a natural inclination to expect that others are doing the same. Not so, obviously.

    Looking forward to the next one.

  27. Julia says:

    I think I needed to hear this message today, especially the part about having an about 50% chance of getting it right…

    Even after the admission of a felony lie I find it challenging to relate to the liar, even if s/he is truthful now, as I have little confidence in their character and values, and I sort of expect them to relapse. While this might be realistic, I need to work on seeing this more as their growing edge – In other words, as long as the liar is on board with that recovery plan, I'm good 🙂

  28. Carmen says:

    Thanks for that information.
    I have been triangulated into keeping lies and as a therapists I do not like to have to “secret keep” from the other partner, when affairs are disclosed, especially when I know there is no way they themselves will ever disclose it to their partner directly. It makes a huge impact on the therapy sessions, the relationship or even in a divorce…one party is in the dark…..
    then the person who shared the secret tries to control the therapists & the counseling with this secret, using it as leverage….against the unsuspecting spouse …creating a heart breaking situation to have to watch & oftentimes it is used against therapists as well …
    Dangerous that something might slip especially since they might “modify the lie”, as in yes I knew that person,”but nothing happened” when in fact it did, and then the therapist is forced to talk about it “as if” nothing happened too, when both know was not the case…
    essentially you are forced to become their accomplice in the lie, in session against the other person, is there another way out? This is often done by extreme manipulators who have no remorse or guilt …Is this not doing harm to the innocent party?

    I might start a “no secrets” policy so this never happens again….so then they can lie to me as well as their partner. I rather be on the outside if the lie. The lie in this case was not shared with me in order to process, or with the hopes of eventually disclosing it, but in order to make me feel sufficiently uncomfortable so as not so see them further. I never the less stayed the course, much to their surprise & displeasure. The infidelity was never disclosed, & it should have been.

  29. Salomon says:

    Thank you Ellyn for this material and for sharing with us your fathers diary.
    I still wonder : why do we have to know who lies about what? I prefer to stay officially naive, and I might sometimes tell them “I may be naive in believing this, but I will believe you”, and navigate from there on.
    I also watch for the fantasy or the “lucky-unlucky” partner choice, whereas many people believe marriage is a lottery, and you may have bought the wrong ticket. This, in my opinion, is wrong, marriages succeed because the partners have DECIDED that they will make it work, and long live differentiation for allowing them to really build their couple.
    Again, thank you for the helpful six ways to discern lies. Thanks for all of what you share with us.

  30. Teresa says:

    Really helpful, Ellyn, thanks!

    What troubles me more so about lying is when a partner claims they are committed to the relationship in words, but their behavior tells me otherwise. Sometimes the partner is aware of the difference, and sometimes not. I have one particular, complicated couple right now in which I believe the husband wants out, but he says he is committed and his religion deems no divorce. Any attempts at exploring are met by a solid brick wall followed by confusion and pretense. Then we all get seduced to be confused. I will reassess his behavior going forward based on the info in this video.

  31. Norma says:

    I so appreciate Ellen and Peter your work in this area. Very impressive. This video really helped because I have had a few couples where one partner was deceiving both me and the other partner, and I felt badly about myself for not being able to see through the deceit. The six guidelines are helpful. In my experience, in those couples where there is one partner who is actively unfaithful but denying it, there is usually a lack of detail in their sharing and a lack of energy in the session generally especially from the partner who is unfaithful. Thank you Peter for sharing possible confrontations when our BS meters are spinning. Awesome!

  32. Ana Franco says:

    I was once married with a magnificent liar he was an actor and he even taught me (I thought jokingly) how to do it! He said you should be so convinced internally that no one would know the difference.
    Now I thought he never used it on me but who knows!
    He would use it with people who borrowed him money. Terrible. It was the reason the marriage failed.

  33. Elena says:

    It rings true that a liar does not want to expand on the details…there are none!

  34. Ana says:

    Thank you very much for this audio. Brief, but very substantial.

  35. Sharon J says:

    Hi Ellyn
    Firstly, thank you for the videos – they are very helpful. I particularly liked this one as I have often second-guessed myself as to whether to trust what a client is telling me. This is especially the case after infidelity has been “found out.” The partner who has betrayed the other is often so keen to get on with it and avoid their sense/feelings of guilt they will minimise or lie.
    This also links in with your next theme of the lie invitee.
    I will use the guidelines and not feel so inadequate.
    Thank you again.

  36. Sarah Flores says:

    Thanks so much Ellyn for the enlightening info, partly for normalizing the difficulty in recognizing lies, as well as the use of our gut instinct in our tool set and for highlighting the lie invitees role in the relationships pattern. I believe it is ALWAYS a 50/50 responsibility for what is created by the couple and part of that is our need to be blind to what we can't handle! I saw a couple where the wife was blind to her partners affair and I could see that her “perceived” need for him emotionally completely destroyed her ability to see the truth. Blaming the other supports a fragile ego and yes is evidence of a lack of differentiation. I find your developmental framework very helpful in illuminating this.

  37. Pauline Faulkner says:

    So appreciate the kind sharing of your work and research. I am working with a few partners wherein one clearly exhibits traits characteristic of NPD. It is obvious that the individual is so removed from his/her own truth that honest self-reflection as to how his/her behaviours are impacting on the relationship goals they both are seeking is not within the scope of his/her radar.

  38. Lynn says:

    I have encountered lying many times when talking about infidelity. I tell the person who is suspicious that there is no way to tell if the person is telling the truth or not. Your description if people are telling the truth or not makes sense. They are being flexible and open. Kinda like Dan Seigle's idea of the Faces Flow: Flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized and stable.

  39. Sarah says:

    I am very concerned about some of the comments I have read. It is never ok as a couple therapist to hold a secret for one of the members of the couple. It is a betrayal to the other partner. It is not my job to detect if someone is lying – they are all lying! It is the job of the couple to figure it how they want to deal with it and whether the partner believes the other person. This is very concerning to me that the previous comments are coming from therapists actually working with people. Please get trained in PACT if you are going to work with couples. Put your countertransference back in the system; it is not your problem – they are each other's problem!

  40. Myrna says:

    very insightful and mind opening. I will try to remember to use these in my practice.
    No sure these are going to be useful or helpful because some people are chronic liars and it is hard to detect.

  41. Ellyn says:

    Sarah-After working with lies, secrets and infidelity for so many years, I've come to believe that the partners are best equipped to decide if they want individual sessions to be confidential or not. This work is very complex and there is no one size fits all.

  42. Pri. Sanabria says:

    This was very helpful. It was great to note that most liars tend to repeat them selves over and over again. I have worked with couples who lie to each other a lot. These guidelines will help tremendously.

  43. Reanna says:

    This research is amazing it help put the truth telling back on the client and helps the therapist get away from the need to be a detective which is not the focus:)). I enjoy the 6 simple yet effective key points!

  44. Gynnie Ann DeJesus says:

    Greetings. I am a clinical mental health counselor trainee; that is in graduate degree program. The information and knowledge offered in your videos add to my learning experience. Thank you so much.

  45. John says:

    Very helpful. As a marriage counselor, I'm fascinated by the interaction between the liar and the lie-ee. It seems very simple. Watching the lie-ee, if their head is shaking “no” It is a lie. If they are nodding yes, the liar is being honest. Simply put, the lie-ee knows their partner very well.

  46. Ghazala says:

    Thanks Ellyn-this information is very useful. I am now feeling more confident after watching your videos. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and expertise with us.

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