Big Stakes Question: Will I ever be able to trust you again? Lies, a pattern of lying, finally exposed and then at last a forced coming clean; what does any of that mean? Frankly there is no more powerful issue in couples therapy – in all interpersonal linkages, than this question: Do liars change? Lance Armstrong, the current standard bearer, poster boy for living the lie, is a complex character who fought a lethal cancer, created philanthropies, is beloved by at least one of his five children (according to his Oprah interview) and yet excelled in extensive lying over a decade that smeared the reputations of friends (whom he went after with a vengeance) and created a model of success that youngsters all over the world revered that was based on one truth only, that he was lying while cycling, all the way. Is he any different than other famous liars or the liar in your bedroom or boardroom? Can liars ever be trusted again?
Reality Testing? Though this is a couples blog, infidelity is not the only form of lying that impacts trust between two people in an intimate relationship. There are the Bernie Madoffs and Lance Armstrongs of the world whose professional lives are based on a lie. These lies also embroil others in their web, many unknowingly. And impact others. One of Madoff’s sons killed himself. Lance Armstrong’s five children, most still very young, are about to find out that Daddy is the biggest fraud in professional sports ever! Where will their reality testing tools go now? The moral compass? People in the middle of their addictions lie all the time to cover up anything from where all the money went to why they were out until four in the morning to who stole mom’s engagement ring. Active in your addiction? You’re lying for sure. If your addiction is to keep up a falsehood about your accomplishments, you lie daily to maintain that falsehood.
A Model of Artifice: And the defense against accusers, personal or otherwise, is to claim that they are the liars. Or they misunderstand or are motivated by jealousy, competition or prejudice. Any number of explanations that make one wonder, “Well, maybe they are right.” Because artful liars lie with conviction. Reality falls into the hands of a master sculptor who is skillful in reshaping another’s reality to match their model of artifice.
Safeguarding The Lie: I am not a cyclist nor a sports informed individual but I am a student of character and I was spellbound while watching Armstrong being interviewed by Oprah, at how delusional he was during and still is to a great extent, throughout his decade of lying. That he could keep up this pace of deceit, attack his accusers and somehow land on his feet is stunning. And how similar this behavior is to all chronic liars everywhere. They share the delusion that their lie is protected and worthy of sustaining at all costs. And that the act of reversing course sooner and coming clean is so much worse than maintaining an existence of falsehood which requires a lot of energy, backtracking, and yes, eyes looking over the shoulder to check if something suspicious fell off the back of the lying bus of their life. What about all the people close to them who believe the lie? They are the true victims. At all costs throw them under the bus. Safeguarding the lie is the goal, not maintaining the trust that others hold in them. Is this sociopathy, folks who have a defective conscience, a deficit that rests in a part of the brain? Studies indicate that there may be some genetics here. Or is it trauma in childhood that leads to overarching ambition, knee-jerk lying or some kind of social learning defect that prevents the liar from evaluating consciously the cost to self and especially to others of the lie?
Temporary or Permanent Liar: Most of the lying I am privy to resides with the couple who is faced with the irreversible evidence that one of them has maintained a sexually intimate relationship for a period of time outside their bond. The fact of a love betrayal is only part of the trauma. That someone else became the partner in bed often involved daily or weekly lies about where someone was, what they were doing and why. The most banal aspects of daily life become the toxic details of betrayal. Were you putting gas in the car, caught in a traffic jam, working late or meeting with a former boss? No, you were with them. And strangely enough infidelities are not the only lies that poison trust in The Coupledom. Nope, the Armstrong/Madoff lies tamper with trust as much and perhaps more than sexual infidelities. There are the lies that cover addictions and simple dalliances that pollute trust. What is most undermining for the recipient of these lies is that their reality is spun all about, like a DJ’s turntable, topsy-turvy, undermined traumatically when the deception is revealed, leaving dirty nicotine like stains of humiliation and self doubt that don’t wash off: “how was I that stupid” “under my nose” “what’s wrong with me?” that necessitate the rebuilding of the self. The damage to the heart is only one part of the toll of living with a liar. The other is the damage to self-worth, self-respect, self-image, self-confidence, you name it. The self of the lied to is shattered for quite a long time. “What an idiot I was to trust you. I feel like such a fool. Duped.” And this blow to the self is not limited to infidelity. Being a partner, even unwittingly, to a fraudulent life, is to feel like a fraud.
Do Liars Change: The couple sits in my office. One member says they are changed, repentant and the other partner says, “How can I be sure?” Both have a responsibility here. The partner who lied has to be evaluated in very concrete ways. For how long did the lie go on? Was this the first lie or a history of lies? When did lying begin in your life? Why did you lie? The other partner has to ask questions too. Why didn’t I know? Was I choosing not to know? Did my partner try to tell me something but I refused to hear it? Did others? Where was I? Was I an accomplice, as Armstrong’s wife may have been, or perhaps more like Madoff’s wife, someone who benefited from not knowing? Did ambition undo me too? Or was I just so sure that the person I thought was my partner would never do this to me so I never even allowed myself to consciously wonder why there were so many unexplained moments? Or did I wonder but never asked because I didn’t want to have to deal with the consequences? Where did we get all this money? Why are your friends no longer your friends? Did I collaborate in the lie? Self-deception wreaking havoc on the self. Do liars change? It depends on who the liar is. How entrenched is the lying habit? (As with Armstrong, don’t hold your breath on that one.)
A Character Analysis: When you share your life with a liar, you are tainted by their lies. When their lies are revealed, both your character traits and those of the lying partner need intensive analysis and scrutiny, but the work together is only worthwhile if something of value in the relationship remains. And if the liar is complex in good ways too. I would personally avoid couples therapy with either a Madoff or an Armstrong except to give my voice the integrity and dignity of being heard in their presence. Can one discriminate between a chronic liar and a circumstantial liar where acute pressures or childhood trauma provided a context in which lying became a temporary device for survival? And even then, can the habit of lying be unlearned? If you tell a Nazi that no one in fact is being hidden in your attic, aren’t you a good liar, a liar for good? But if you have to lie for years and years to survive, is the lying brand permanent? Caution: do not make the effort to help extricate the liar from his or her web, so they can become the trustworthy partner you wish them to be, without professional help. And most significant of all, to the recipient of the lies, the primary goal is to find a means to re establish (or to establish for the first time) a trust in their perceptions, their reality; not to be bullied out of, dismissed, mocked or belittled out of the perceptions that constitute their hold on reality. Develop or sharpen tools of character assessment that may have been sadly absent. No relationship is worth maintaining at the cost of one’s self-trust.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2013