Ellyn Bader

Finding out that a client has been lying to you and their spouse about ongoing infidelity is very tricky. Suddenly what was already a difficult infidelity repair case gets a whole lot tougher.  

For some therapists it is just more grist for the mill. For others, it forces us to think about our role as a therapist in this situation and whether we want to continue seeing the client.

A couple named Sue and Joe initially came to therapy when Sue discovered Joe was sexting another woman.

Joe totally denied anything beyond innocent texting and insisted he had stopped. Several months into therapy he was confronted with indisputable proof that he had been lying to his wife and to Pete.

He then also confessed to multiple affairs during their 11 years of marriage.

Here’s how Pete talked to Joe. It was an exceptionally strong confrontation.

Pete: Let me ask you a question, Joe. As you are going through this crisis right now what are you are learning about yourself from your patterns of deceit?

Joe: I learned what I did is just horrible. It was a terrible thing to do and I feel so, so bad. If you would see me in individual therapy I intend to work on it and deal with these walls I’ve put up.

Pete: You’ve just described your reaction and your intention. Let me ask you again, what have you learned about yourself that would be painful to admit and say out loud?

Joe: That what I did was really bad.

Pete: Well we know that. I don’t think that’s a new learning.

Joe: I don’t know what you’re talking about then.

Pete: How about this – maybe you learned there’s a part of you that has the capacity to be extremely deceitful. You can look Sue in the eye and lie to her deliberately, then compartmentalize it, which is really scary.

You denied the effect it would have on her. An effect that would corrode trust and make her question her sanity. She now knows she is with someone who can look her in the eye and say I am telling the truth right now while knowing full well that you are lying right out of your ass.

Maybe you are learning that it is scary to know that you have the capacity to inflict that much pain on your wife and that you would risk destroying your marriage for your own personal gratification.

Joe: Oh shit.

Pete: What do you think?

Joe: That’s really hard to hear. Thank you for being honest with me. I need that kind of bluntness and I need that kind of directness.

Pete: I have a dilemma and it’s based on working with a lot of people for a lot of time. I’m not sure that I can work with you Joe, because you will come in here and you will be attempting to be honest but I’m thinking you might lead me astray. And I won’t know if you are being truthful or not.

We have to be raw honest in here with each other and we have to be able to trust each other that we are going to be truthful and direct.

I don’t want to second guess myself. I’m not sure I want to invest my time and energy working with you because frankly I don’t know if you can quit telling these  kinds of lies .

It’s been habitual for most of your life. You lie about things that aren’t even important. Lying has become a habit.

You just tell people what they want to hear and after a while it’s hard for you to discern the truth.

I’m trying to encourage you to be transparent and talk about an ugly truth and be able to tolerate it when Sue asks you a question and you say “yes I lied about that.” And she says “you are disgusting” and then you say “Sue, there’s more. I also lied about this.”

You’ve got to learn to be that honest because right now frankly the marriage you have been in is dead. That marriage is destroyed. It’s like the Titanic. Even if you bring it back to the surface that ship is not going to sail. Your marriage is dead. If you guys are going to stay together you’re going to create a new marriage.

A marriage that has a different foundation because the foundation you have had has been built on lies. Sue no longer knows what to believe. She can’t trust her own instincts about how or when or whether she should trust you. Going forward a level of transparency and openness is going to be required of each of you and I can’t help you be honest with each other while I’m sitting on stuff that I’m not saying. That’s why I’m telling you this.

Joe: Are you telling me that you don’t have hope I can be honest in here?

Pete: That’s right. Why should I believe you going forward? You were lying the moment you came in here and continued to lie to me. Why should I start believing you?  

I don’t know if I want to invest and then discover that you’ve been lying to me and go, “Yikes I should have put my energy into somebody else who had a greater chance of getting something out of our work.”

I’d be just wasting my time. I can always make more money, but I can never get back the time and the effort that I put into this.

You each have a very different set of pain. Here’s the pain that Sue is going through – she questions her sanity; she questions her judgement; she is insecure, full of anguish and self-doubt and wondering what to do with her life; what does she do with her marriage?

These are not easy questions to answer. She keeps ruminating about those questions and they have no easy answer. When she asks, “What do we do?” I say I don’t know because there is no blueprint. There are no easy answers that can be packaged on a bumper sticker to say how to deal with self-doubt, with questioning reality, with wondering whether to invest anything more into this relationship.

(to Sue) Was I somewhere in the ballpark with what you’re struggling with?

Sue: Yes this is exactly what I am struggling with.

Pete: (to Joe) Your pain is different. You have self-disgust, you have self-loathing, you are questioning if you are up to being as honest as you aspire to be. And if you’re not questioning that you should be.

Your guilt, shame, and remorse is a different kind of pain than Sue has. Each of you is trying to solve your own pain together in the midst of it being hard to stand up on your own legs because you’re both so wounded.

You guys are in a mess and it’s going to require transparency and honesty to get through this and we don’t know the outcome.

Joe and Sue both said: That’s right. That’s what we’re struggling with.

Pete: I will see you guys as a couple if you want to come back.

Sue: Why do you want me to come back?

Pete: Because you have a radar. You have a perspective. You have a sixth sense and a reaction that I won’t have. So at least for one more time I want both of you to come back and I want to reflect if I can work with Joe individually.

Here’s Pete’s explanation for the approach he used.

“I had to establish principles if we were going to work together. This had to take priority over being a clinician who is somewhat detached because – I was speaking for myself – I had to feel ok about working with them.

I said it all and if they didn’t come back, I was fine with that. I had to be willing to let them go.

If I ignored my principles, I’d lose my leverage and my own internal credibility. There was a parallel process between their marriage and our therapy. Both had to be built on a set of principles not just interventions.

We all bring our own humanness to a situation like this and that’s why research alone won’t tell you what to do. There is no blueprint for a case like this.”

Cases like this one will stretch you. They will give you the opportunity to examine your values and become more self-defined. And this is exactly what I teach therapists to do in my online  training program.

Pete is often a favorite guest speaker in the  Developmental Model of Couples Therapy program. His 35 years experience helped him develop exceptional interventions that spare you from having to work harder than your clients do. When you join the training, you can listen to many of his past calls and learn how to lighten your load while at the same time helping couples make significant progress.

This article came from a 9-part mini workshop I recently did called “What Do You Say When…?”

Two of the most popular segments were live demonstration videos:

  • What Do You Say When a Passive Aggressive Partner Doesn’t do What They Promised?
  • Applying Developmental Model Principles to Cases that Look Impossible

These videos are only available in my Developmental Model online training program. Click here if you'd like to learn more about the program. Registration closes on Wednesday at 11:59pm Pacific Time.


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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Category: Therapists' Blog
Forward to a Colleague
  1. Wow! A refreshing response to a client who may never had anyone tell them the truth without bitterness or contempt. A good example of being fully present for a client who sorely needed to know his “diagnosis.” What especially impresses is this spoken truth was not a “scold” but rather a straightforward wake-up call for both cllients and the therapist himself.

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