Why Pinocchio Isn’t Married

Lies In A Relationship and How To Stop It

Since becoming exclusive, Todd has consistently told Janet that his long-term relationship with his ex-girlfriend is over, and that he never talks to her. But one Saturday, when Todd’s phone is laying on the coffee table, Janet spies a text message on the screen. She sees it is from his ex and then opens his messages to find a long trail of texts between them. She is furious, and when Todd walks back into the room, she begins interrogating him about what she’s discovered.

It’s obvious that Todd has been lying.

Lying can destroy a relationship, but all lying is not created equally. Some liars use their fabrications to be manipulative — think the worst salesperson in the world, the most seductive person trying to woo you, or the classic narcissist pumping up his own image. These individuals use others as objects, or in the case of pathological liars, do what they do because that is what they do: There’s a personality disorder involved.

In most everyday relationships, lying is situational. This is what Janet is dealing with. She believes in her heart that Todd is a good guy, and not ethically shady or a sociopath. But this stuff with the ex drives her crazy. This is less about Janet and more about Todd’s coping mechanisms.

Problems as Bad Solutions

In most of these situations, someone like Todd lies because he is anxious and afraid. No doubt he has done this before, probably way back in childhood, when it sometimes worked, sometimes didn’t, but more often than not it was effective enough to keep him out of trouble.

The problem here is not the ex, but his own anxiety about Janet’s reaction. He lies to avoid those little-kid, getting-in-trouble feelings, as well as “parental” anger and possibly punishment. So he contacts his ex, but doesn’t tell Janet, because he is already wired to fear blowback.

The Cycle

What now happens is the setting up of a dysfunctional cycle. Janet may have her own above-average sensitivity to trust and honesty from her childhood or previous, and possibly unfaithful boyfriends — it may now be part of her mental DNA. Going into her relationship with Todd, she is already wired to this and a bit hyper-alert. She does her best to not be overly intrusive and to take him at his word. But now her worst fears have come to the fore, and she explodes.

When this happens, it triggers Todd’s worst fears. His brain is telling him that he was right all along: Telling the truth is not safe, and he actually needs to get better at being secretive and withholding.

The couple could fight this battle for … forever, with Janet getting hurt, getting angry, and trying to get Todd to change, and Todd ducking and weaving to keep Janet off his back and avoid conflict.

The cycle is this:

  • Janet gets hurt, leading to anger, leading to attack, leading to Todd lying; or:
  • Todd anticipates Janet’s reaction and lies, leading to Janet getting angry, leading to confirming Todd’s fears, leading to Janet’s fears being validated.

Breaking the Pattern

Again, this is not all about the state of a couple’s relationship, but about their long-established coping skills. What to do? Todd needs to stop being the little kid, and speak up and tell the truth. Janet needs to not react so strongly to Todd’s evasive behavior.

The problem is that they each get stuck in their thinking.

Todd thinks that the only way out of this dynamic is to get her to be less angry. Janet thinks that the only way out is to get him to be more open and honest. Each is trying to solve the problem by getting the other person to change. That won’t work, because it becomes a power struggle with each pressuring the other to do what they want.

Solving the Problems

The key to breaking dysfunctional patterns is both sides changing their reactions.

This means Janet doing her best to not get angry: When her fear and hurt are triggered, she needs to calmly talk to Todd — about her feelings, rather than his actions — and show him evidence of his lying, so he doesn’t just blow it off. She doesn’t want to explode, but she also doesn’t want to be lured into the weeds of content (interrogating Todd about the texts and their dates and times, etc.). This goes nowhere, because “anxious-Todd” will then start arguing about exactly that — the content: She texted me first, and I was just trying to be courteous, etc. That is not the point. The point is that he has not been honest. Janet needs to put this clearly on the table: I’m not upset about your ex, but that you lied; it hurts my feelings, and I cannot accept that in a relationship.

For his part, Todd obviously needs to do his best to step up and be honest, behaviorally overriding his little-kid, anxious brain yelling at him to keep quiet. He needs to keep his eyes on the prize — learning to stop being so afraid, learning to be an adult, learning to confront and emotionally manage someone else’s strong reactions. And he needs to step up in this way even in those times when Janet’s anger gets the best of her.

He also may need, if he firmly believes it, to be more assertive about his ex and his view of relationships. He needs to calmly make his case that while he is aware that his texting bothers Janet, it is part of his values not to cut people off; his contact with his ex doesn’t mean that he still is in love with her or that he loves Janet less. This may be hard for her to swallow, but if she can try this thinking out, it may help her heal her old wounds. If she can’t, they both are fulfilling the purpose of dating — taking the risk of being honest in order to discover whether their values are compatible.

Bottom Lines

Both partners try do the best they can. Janet puts her head down and focuses on containing her feelings because she wants to help Todd learn to step up and be honest. Todd does his best to step up and speak up, even though he internally fears Janet’s wrath, to help her learn to trust him. They do their best to break the cycle, doing the constant voice-over that “This is more about me than them, and I’m doing this because I don’t want to hurt the person I care about.”

And what if Todd never quite buys into this plan? Janet can, if she is willing, still work her side of the equation as best she can. Her changes may alter the climate and that, in turn, may motivate Todd to change his behavior. (Or vice versa, of course.)

But to ensure that the couple not get caught in this cycle forever, it helps to have a bottom line about time. They need to put their heads down, resist the urge to keep score, and then look up after three or six months and see where they are at. If little progress has been made, they can ramp it up by trying couple’s therapy — or they can call it quits. 

Obviously all this not only takes awareness and responsibility, but also courage.