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Lying-For Better or Worse
Everybody lies. Friends lie to friends. Children lie to their parents. Politicians lie to constituents. And, inevitably, husbands and wives lie to each other.
Lies between lovers can be highly electric; they have tremendous potential to both nurture and destroy a relationship. It is easy to underestimate the power that lies-even seemingly harmless lies-can wield in your marriage. Tell...
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Lying-For Better or Worse
Everybody lies. Friends lie to friends. Children lie to their parents. Politicians lie to constituents. And, inevitably, husbands and wives lie to each other.
Lies between lovers can be highly electric; they have tremendous potential to both nurture and destroy a relationship. It is easy to underestimate the power that lies-even seemingly harmless lies-can wield in your marriage. Tell Me No Lies explores the complexity of honesty versus deception in marriage.
Tell Me No Lies offers a riveting account of the lies we tell our partners (and ourselves) in marriage. Some people lie because they lack the nerve to tell their partners what they feel, while others are so terrified of hearing the truth that they encourage their mates to lie to them, thus falling into "Lie Invitee" behavior. This book examines the four marital stages-The Honeymoon, Emerging Differences, Freedom, and Together as Two-and how deception interferes with development in each of the stages. For example, couples in the Honeymoon stage are often under the illusion that they are perfectly content and have everything in common.
This book also illustrates how each of these stages can go awry, leading to more dangerous lies such as those in: The Dark Side of the Honeymoon, when couples refuse to acknowledge any problems; the Stalemate, when couples fight and brutalize each other with exaggerated truths; and Freedom Unhinged, when independence outweighs togetherness and marital anarchy ensues.
Offering a new way of thinking about truth and deception, this book will help you understand the dynamics of your marriage in the context of the marital stages. If you can identify your marital stage, you can overcome the barriers to honesty and move on to a happier and more fulfilling marriage!
Everybody lies. Friends lie to friends. Children lie to their parents.Politicians lie to constituents. And, certainly, husbands and wives lie toeach other.
That any given marriage has its deceptions doesn't mean that anything's"wrong." Certain lies allow loving partners to be sensitive, reassuring,even giving to each other. They can help couples reserve theirenergy for the more important conversations. Marital lies may be playfulwhen harping on the truth would spoil the fun. A comment like,"You're the best lover on the whole planet" may not pass double-blindtesting, but it does convey emotional truth.
Lies between lovers, however, can be highly electric: they havetremendous potential to both nurture and destroy a relationship. Unfortunately,lies usually undermine a relationship because, when uncheckedby compassion and honest introspection, they tend to feed oneach other. Most couples underestimate the power that lies—evenseemingly harmless lies—wield in their marriage.
As codirectors of The Couples Institute, we have devoted more thanfifteen years to studying marital communication. We've been privy tothe intimate dramas of couples in various phases of discord and distress.We've seen marriages virtually implode after a major betrayal. We'vealso seen couples hold onto what's true for them despite fierce disagreementand, in the process, manage to strengthen their trust.
We do believe that most people want to behonest with those theylove. But the nature of marriage, with its infinite number of interdependenciesand huge emotional stakes, guarantees that spouses will lieto each other and fool themselves. Being honest with another person,particularly one you're dealing with all the time, can be dicey. Theimpetus for most marital lies does not stem from a wish to deceive theother, but rather from the wish to keep the relationship as it is. That'sthe incredible irony: Couples lie to preserve their relationships, but it's thosevery lies that create dissent and leave the partners feeling stagnant, isolated,and alone.
Why do we lie in marriage? We want to look good—so we lie. Wewant to avoid hurting or disappointing a partner—so we lie. We fear thatthe truth will unleash conflict that will endanger the relationship—sowe lie. We feel foolish about something that we said or did—so we lie.We have trouble putting the whole truth into words—so we manipulateit. We're reluctant to admit the darker sides of ourselves, our greed,envy, and selfishness—so we try to hide them. We lie because lies comewith being human, and we are probably never so exposed in ourhumanness as we are with our mates.
This book is a wake-up call. At our clinic, The Couples Institute inMenlo Park, California, our focus is helping couples create extraordinaryrelationships. Through our workshops, individual cases, and theclinical work of therapists we supervise, we have seen literally thousandsof couples. Through our experience, we have gained a uniqueperspective on the trials upon which marriages succeed or fail. We havefound that at the heart of most couples' problems is some form ofdeception or withheld truth. We've seen deception sabotage marriageswhen one or both partners
tell furtive lies and allow chronic dishonesty to turn good feeling into bad,
lie themselves into corners because they lack the nerve to tell a partner what they feel,
sense a mate would be uncomfortable with the truth so they soothe him or her with a lie,
fool themselves so that they're blinded to realities that are visible to everyone else.
But we've also seen those very same lies—once reckoned with—pushrelationships towards growth. We know there are powerful reasonsto address the truth. We also know that there are powerful emotionalreasons to avoid it. No one wants to give up the deceptions that theybelieve keep their marriage together.
Over the years, we've found that long-term relationships follow apredictable pattern of growth, involving four marital "stages."
1. The Honeymoon
2. Emerging Differences
4. Together as Two
Certain types of lies arise at different points in a marriage inresponse to the specific challenges of each stage. Deception will stuntdevelopment in each stage, creating an emotional gridlock that leavesboth partners stuck. We call these stalled points "Detours and DeadEnds." From the Honeymoon, you can veer into The Dark Side of theHoneymoon. When deceit obscures your Emerging Differences, youcan end up in the Seething Stalemate. The failure to negotiate independencecan thrust you into Freedom Unhinged. The only way to geton track is to confront the truth.
Intimate relationships are difficult, despite what cultural mythswould have us believe, and every couple will encounter some tough situations.The grit to withstand those challenges—and to keep your marriagegrowing and alive—requires that you find the courage to voice thetruth. And the resolve to listen to it.
Honesty: A Solid Foundation
Truthfulness bases a marriage in reality and trust. The failure to dealwith truth—the all-too-common tendency to fall into expedient truthbending or lulled complacency—may be the first fumbling stepstowards disaster. Don't follow in the footsteps of John and Sarah, whosestory we recount in the book. You'll see that so-called white lies can losetheir pearly innocence with blinding speed.
No one wants to think of himself as a liar, and we generally don't seeour lies as lies. What happens in marriage, then, is that we lie and call itsomething else: protecting a partner, looking on the bright side ofthings, waiting until the right time to speak, keeping the peace.Through the day-to-day, give-and-take of a long-term relationship, weseek cover in many forms of deception. In this book, we make the casethat becoming conscious of those lies—and understanding when, how,and why you lie—will help you make your marriage stronger.
Through our work, as well as our own marriage, we've learned thatthe way to inoculate your marriage against real stressors is to know thatyou can handle the tough stuff. And when you can speak truthfullyabout difficult things and find the truth in strong disagreements, youwill feel more confident that you can handle just about anything. Thisis the substance of extraordinary, enduring marriages: the passion, tenderness,and generosity that can only emerge when two people haveachieved a high level of mutual honesty. Honesty with compassion canspark the growth that keeps a marriage vibrant.
Lying isn't something we can or necessarily should relinquish altogether,but in marriage it must serve a useful purpose. It must promotethe good feeling at the core of your relationship, not just the semblanceof it.
Beware of Dormant Grenades
People typically hope that downplaying something or leaving out adetail isn't lying. Beware of the little lie, for fibs that start with benignintent may develop into open invitations to subterfuge.
For instance, little lies about how much someone spends for a fallsuit can stay little. Or, before you know it, a partner can compound thatlittle lie by falsifying how much money is spent on travel, all the way upthe dishonesty scale to hoarding funds in hidden accounts. But at manymilemarkers along this road, simple changes, or even small conversationsabout how to handle money, divvy up tasks, or talk about things,could have averted catastrophe.
Or, say a man wants his wife to wear a sexy nightgown. He doesn'tsay anything to her because he's afraid she'll think he's reducing her toa sex object, and so he keeps his fantasy private. As a result, their sexlife becomes boring. If other parts of the marriage are less than terrific,he starts to justify flirting with other women. From there it's just a shorthop, skip, and jump to sharing his sexual fantasies online or secretly visitinga pornography site. He may go on to have an affair. Or he may justbear with a tolerable but passionless relationship.
Throughout your marriage you will have lots of opportunities eitherto be more truthful with your partner or to sink deeper into deception.This happens not only in key moments (the credit-card bill arrives withdubious charges; a lover's lacy bra shows up in the laundry) but also ineveryday events.
Here's an example from our own marriage:
Ellyn: Pete left town for a conference on Sunday and wasn't dueback until Friday. By chance, the conference was cancelled and onMonday evening Pete walked in shouting, "Honey, I'm home!" I racedto the door and hugged him and said, "What a great surprise!"
Well, it was a nice surprise ... but it was also a bit disappointingbecause I had been looking forward to the special plans our daughter,Molly, and I had made together. We had talked about going to ourfavorite restaurant and seeing a sappy movie. The energy around thehouse is different when it's only Molly and me. So I was both happy andunhappy to see Pete.
On Tuesday night I was really crabby. Everything Pete did irritatedme. I decided to tell him what was on my mind. "You know," I confessed,"part of me didn't really want you to come home so soon." Iexplained to him a bit about our "girl" plans and he understood. Once Isaid it, I could get on with the week that I now had before me—a weekthat included and, because I didn't want to give up those plans,excluded Pete.
Many people assume that it means something bad if they don'talways want to see their partner around the house, but it's common towant more time alone—that simple kind of puttering-around time. If Ihadn't been able to tell Pete that I liked aspects of his being away, Iprobably would have been irritable all week, especially at night. Beingaround the house wouldn't have been terribly pleasant for anyone. Orlet's say that, rather than understanding where I was coming from, Petesaid, "Okay, Ellyn, you won't see me till Friday night, if that's what youwant!" and stormed out, slamming the door. That would have sent apretty clear message, and I probably would avoid being truthful likethat again.
Several times each day you're faced with these choices: (1) to pursuea path of honesty or deception; and (2) as a listener, to encourage moretruthfulness or to close down the avenues that could lead you to truth.
Learning to ground your relationship on a foundation of truthinvolves resilience, fortitude, and the ability to hold on to and describewhat's important to you. It's also about the courage to change old patternsand the capacity to weather disagreement. You can learn a lotabout each other if you're willing to know. You can laugh about manythings together if you're willing to face your own flaws and those of therelationship with humor. We want to help you recognize moments thatoffer an opening for truth. The more you work with the truth, the lessyou have to be afraid of it.
We know that we can't ask couples to be more honest in their marriagesunless we're willing to take those risks ourselves. The coupleswe've worked with have inspired us many times with their courage intelling the truth. They've also kept us honest, forcing us to practicewhat we preach.
Pete: Several years ago, we were on a vacation in the Southwest. Iwas in a major funk, moping around a lot, rejecting every activityEllyn suggested and, basically, being an all-around drag. I had beenruminating over things about our relationship that bugged me, stuffwe'd been over many times. Essentially, Ellyn wasn't living up to myvision of the ideal mate. Compared to the mental picture of the partnerI wanted, Ellyn wasn't attractive enough, humorous enough, orhigh-voltage enough. Without work and other day-to-day distractions,that disappointment really hit me on the trip. But how could I everexpress that?
Here's a fragment of the conversation that followed:
Ellyn: "What's wrong?"
Ellyn: (Blurted out on a wild intuitive hunch): "Are you thinking of getting rid of me?"
Pete: "As a matter of fact, I am."
Ellyn: "What did you have in mind?"
Pete: "Well, I was thinking we would go to the Grand Canyon,
and you'd peer over the edge and whoops—"
Ellyn: "Oh, I see. Bye, bye, Sweetie. So why wouldn't you do that?"
Pete: "You might end up only getting seriously hurt, and I don't want you to suffer."
Ellyn: "Were you thinking about anything else?"
Pete: "Yes, I was thinking about those really nasty-looking mushrooms in the backyard. I would fry up a batch and then that would be the end of you."
Ellyn: "What's wrong with that plan?"
Pete: "Well, I was afraid I would go to prison for homicide and then Molly would really be out of luck."
Ellyn: "Anything else?"
Pete: "I thought that maybe I'd go to Alaska, and every few months I would send you a postcard saying that I'm alive."
Ellyn: "Have you thought about just getting a divorce?"
Pete: "No, I don't want to go through that."
Ellyn: "One more question. Is there anything I should be seriously worrying about?"
Pete: "Actually, now that you ask it, the answer is no."
What happened here was that while we were half-kidding (and theblack humor definitely helped) we were also quite serious. There was adark side to our relationship, with Pete's chronic disappointment andthe tension that arose from holding back those feelings. In talking, weconfronted the shadowy underbelly of our marriage and found that wecould live with it and even laugh at it. Here's how each of us experiencedthat exchange:
Pete: That series of questions was like lancing a boil for me.The fact that I could talk about what I was thinking allowed me tostop obsessing about it. I learned that I could express the most reprehensiblethings and share my darkest feelings, and Ellynwouldn't drop me.
At the same time, my respect for Ellyn skyrocketed. When I said Iwas thinking of getting rid of her, her knees didn't buckle. She couldask me questions without folding or flinching. As we spoke, she had noidea what was going on with me; I wasn't sure what was going onmyself. Her ability to listen to me impressed me enough to adjust themental blueprint I had of my ideal mate. That created a shift. I sawother aspects of who she is and realized that the mate I have is moredimensional than what I had conjured up in a fantasy. Amazingly, I sawthat there was room for all of me, even parts of me that weren't so pleasant,in this marriage.
Ellyn: It was simply an intuitive flash that made me ask if Petewas thinking of ending things with me. I trusted my intuition andwent with the question. Once I opened that door, all I could do wasstep back and see where the discussion would lead. I continued toask questions that seemed like they needed to be asked, eventhough I didn't think I was going to like what would come back tome. I still don't know what got me through that conversation. Iremember saying to myself, "You really need to know what'swrong." Pete's gloom was severely hanging over the marriage andour vacation. Once I knew how bad things were, instead of merelyguessing what Pete's feelings were and tiptoeing around him, I actuallyfelt stronger. I knew I could hear the worst and survive. I didn'tlike it, but ignoring his unhappiness wasn't doing me any goodeither. Since then, we've certainly had our share of ups and downsand difficult discussions, but we've never had to have that particulartalk again.
As this dialogue demonstrates, there are always two sides to everytruth moment: (1) Eliciting the truth and (2) telling the truth. And notonly is each situation a moment of truth, but so is each exchangewithin the discussion. Each person will have his or her own behind-the-curtaininquest: Do I hold steadfast? Do I turn away? What's going onwith him that he's not unstrung by now? These thoughts whirl by atbreakneck speed. You can never know what the other person is thinking.You'll hear what they say, but you won't know what they're censoring.
Often the truths we need to hear or to tell are not easy ones, butrather are the kind that make your palms sweat and your stomachclench. When you start, you won't know where it will take you. But thatdoesn't mean that what you hear will destroy you or that you will neverrecover from it. Take heart. You can withstand more than you think.
Going through it ourselves has enabled us to help couples throughsimilar discussions. Having survived it, we can't so easily dismiss thepain of telling and hearing marital truths. Having come throughstronger on the other side gives us the conviction that we have somethingto say about honesty in marriage.
Acknowledging truths may expose significant differences within arelationship. But in our experience, few differences prove insurmountable.We find that what topples relationships and leaves little choice butdivorce are not problems but rigidities in one or both partners. It's notthe size of the problem that determines whether a couple holdstogether or splits, but rather their ability to stay open to the situationand each other.
We've had the privilege of sitting with couples as they tested theboundaries of truth, as the following examples demonstrate:
James, a successful stockbroker, had a serious heart condition andhad come perilously close to dying. Since recovering from that episode,he and his wife fought nonstop. In a session, his wife, stammeringthrough tears, said to him, "I'm afraid of you dying. That's why I pushyou away. You can't do anything right because I don't want you to doanything right. I don't want to get so close to you only to have you leaveme heartbroken." Visibly touched, James replied, "I had no idea thatyou cared that much."
* * *
Marion and Don attended one of our intensive workshops and had adiscussion that will forever remain vivid in our memories. As they weresitting almost knee-to-knee, Marion asked, "Don, do you really want toknow how I feel? I mean, how I really feel?" Don slowly nodded hishead, and Marion replied, "I pray for your death." Don was able toremember key points we had been teaching about how to contain himselfwhen things get tense. Breathe deeply, remember that most thingsaren't personal, and ask questions about what your partner is saying.After his deep breath he asked "Just how long have you been praying?"Her response, about ten years."
In the conversation that followed, Marion went on to explain howher belief in the sanctity of marriage precluded any consideration ofdivorce, leaving her no way to get out of the psychological black hole oftheir marriage other than to wish him dead. This couple had been soterrified of conflict that they had avoided any expression of bad feeling.As a result, each was filled with tension and despair. Marion, in particular,couldn't imagine saying what she really felt. Now she began todescribe the thoughts and feelings she had kept mute over the years.She spoke the worst, and it wasn't as volcanic as she feared.
Two days later they were walking down the highway and an eighteen-wheeltruck was traveling toward them, Don said, "Well, now'syour chance." Marion later said, "At that moment the hourglass of ourmarriage was turned upside down. I knew then that I could tell Donwhat was in my heart and both of us could handle it."
Truths behind the Lies
Behind many marital lies is the inability of men and women to trustthat their partner will understand them and that they'll be heard. Thisuncertainty is often rumbling beneath a man's stoicism or withdrawal,and beneath a woman's pleas for more engagement.
You are about to read a declaration of raw truths that have been boilingbeneath the polite surface of an archetypal married couple.
He says, "You say you are a woman and therefore understand feelings.You say you are relationship oriented. You may understand tens,hundreds, even thousands of people, but you don't understand one veryimportant person in your life, me. As much as I want to blame you forthat, as much as I want to shove your hypocritical `understanding' downyour throat, as much as I want to throttle you for all those barbs youthrow at me, I know deep in my heart that it is not all your fault.
"I feel (yes, there is that dreaded word I am accused of not appreciating)unequal to the task of explaining myself. I search for words todescribe those tender areas that I rarely investigate in myself, let alonedescribe to you. Here's what I find so impossibly hard to express: Nomatter how clever I am, no matter how responsive I am to you or theworld, it is never enough. There it is. What I don't want to say aloud isthis: I feel a chronic sense of inadequacy.
"So I stonewall. I defend myself when I feel another verbal attackfrom you. It really pisses me off when you say you can talk to yourwomen friends so much more easily. Great. Tell me one more time thatyou wish I were like a woman. What an extraordinary slap coming fromsomeone who has staked such a claim on being `understanding.'
"What you don't know, and what I struggle in my own fumbling wayto tell you, is that indeed I want to be your hero. I want to be a goodprovider and feel the deep satisfaction of providing well. I also want totell you that I really want to do just about all the things you are so hungryfor me to do. But I don't. So what I do is become secretive. I lie toyou. I lie to myself. I drink. I have affairs. I lust after money. I strive forrecognition. I hide out with the television, the newspaper, sports, andhobbies because the truth is that too often I want to get away from howI feel when I'm around you. I hate that I don't have the courage to behonest with you—or with myself.
"When I feel attacked, my choices are to either blame you anddefend myself (and believe me, I've learned the severe limits of doingthat) or stonewall and feel like a wimp. I know you think I have all thepower when I stonewall, but I feel anything but powerful. The irony isthat if I tell you about my powerlessness, I feel more like a wimp whileyou, dear wife, think I am doing great by expressing my feelings. Youremotional health is my psychological poison."
Excerpted from Tell Me No Lies by Ellyn Bader, Ph.D. and Peter Pearson, Ph.D. with Judith D. Schwartz. Copyright © 2000 by Dr. Ellyn Bader, Dr. Peter Pearson, and Skylight Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|1.||Truth ... and Consequences||1|
|2.||The Complex Lies of Husbands and Wives||22|
|3.||The Lie Invitee||37|
|4.||The Honeymoon: So Sweetly Self-Deceived||57|
|5.||The Dark Side of the Honeymoon: So Anxious for Happiness||77|
|6.||Emerging Differences: Getting to Know (and Like) You||101|
|7.||Seething Stalemate: Starting to Know (and Dislike) You||125|
|8.||Freedom to Explore: The Surprising Gift of Space||149|
|9.||Freedom Unhinged: The Shocking Price of "Anything Goes"||174|
|10.||Together as Two: The Compelling Case for Getting to the Truth||199|
|11.||Truth: A User's Guide||218|
|About the Authors||244|
Posted October 21, 2000