Bad habit

My soul mate is a compulsive liar.

By Cary Tennis

Published May 21, 2004 7:21PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm a 28-year-old woman, and I've been with my partner for a little over five years. We have two beautiful children together; he's a stay-at-home dad, and I work at an office job that I really enjoy. In the five years that we've been together, we've been through quite a few ups and downs -- with the downs outnumbering the ups significantly -- but we've always come through everything as a team. He's my best friend (I refused to date him for almost a year because we were such good friends), we enjoy many of the same twisted and bizarre things, we think the same way -- he is what I would consider to be my soul mate. There's just one problem, and it's starting to get bigger than I know how to handle.

He lies.

He lies to everybody, about everything. He lies to get us out of tough situations, he lies to make things work to his advantage, he lies about stuff that I don't understand why he would feel a need to lie about, when the truth would be just as good. It's not so bad that every sound that comes out of his mouth is false, but it's significant enough to bother me -- especially since I'm the kind of person who values honesty quite highly. I couldn't lie my way out of a paper bag. We've discussed it before, and he knows how much it bothers me -- he says it's habit, from numerous years working in sales.

My big problem is that I'm starting to feel like he lies to me. There are things that have happened over the last year or so, small things generally, that just don't feel right to me -- and it's nothing that I can ever prove, it's just a story that doesn't quite add up, something that just doesn't seem right. He always has an explanation, and his explanation is always plausible, but I still have this bit of doubt eating away at me. He's a good liar -- he's charming and charismatic, and his version of things is always believable. He says that he doesn't lie to me, because he needs to have someone in his life that he can be honest with, but if a friend came to me with this story, and said to me, "But he'd never lie to me!" I'd say, "Girlfriend, you're smoking crack."

There are two things that add to this problem. The first is that I have trust issues to begin with, and I'm paranoid, not just about him but in general. I always suspect the worst motives behind people's actions. There have been things in the past that I've thought he lied about, and was proven wrong beyond a shadow of a doubt. I try very hard to look at all angles of a situation and make sure I'm not overreacting, and I'm starting to feel like I'm second-guessing myself constantly. It's starting to wear on me emotionally.

The second catch is that even though I feel there are things that he's not truthful about, I do feel he loves me a great deal. I'm not in any doubt of his feelings for me -- there have been one or two times in the past few years where our relationship was tested almost to its breaking point, and each time he was literally incapacitated with grief at the thought of losing me. I don't feel our relationship is based on a lie, but I find it disrespectful and insulting that he would lie to me, especially about small, stupid stuff that I probably wouldn't even care about if he told me about in the first place.

I'm stuck -- leaving is not an option, even if I wanted to, and neither is counseling. We just can't afford it. I could really use some advice.

Through the Glass Darkly

Dear Through the Glass Darkly,

Even though you don't know what it is precisely, your intuition tells you that something is going on, and your intuition is probably correct in some way. In general, what you describe -- hiding things, lying and keeping secrets -- brings to mind some unspecified addictive or compulsive behavior taking place offstage.

It could involve money or substances or pornography, for instance. Gamblers are often secretive by trade and inclination; sex addicts are secretive; drug addicts and alcoholics are secretive. Since he has a history in sales, he could be gambling online while you're at work. (I say this because I'm a great admirer of the ribald chicanery of salesmen and gamblers, and they seem to have much in common: the high of the money, the thrill of the win, the intoxicating scent of a huge bank deposit. Plus, I must say I had a laugh when you said your partner's background in sales left him with a habit of lying!)

Strangely enough, when I was just Googling around, looking for sources -- I was actually looking for books on lying -- the search led me to a Yahoo discussion group for partners of sex addicts, mostly women involved with men addicted to one form of sexual compulsion or another -- prostitutes, pornography, masturbation with sex toys. There was great emotional pain and turmoil in their stories, and time after time, in betrayal upon betrayal, lying and secretiveness were central to the partner's pain.

Now of course, finding that discussion group was the result of the Internet equivalent of free-associating, but then, if the Internet has an unconscious, Google is its I Ching. You roll the dice, you cut the cards, and Google gives you tantalizing hints, directions to follow.

But there's no telling what's really going on, and even if you were to find out what it is, exactly, that your man is hiding, that would only be the beginning of your struggle. And I think you need to ask yourself some things before you confront him: Are there certain things that you would rather not know? Would learning certain things simply ruin your marriage? Or are you able to love him no matter what he may be hiding? If there is anything that would be a complete deal breaker, and you would rather keep the marriage together, then I would suggest that when you confront him, you first tell him that if he's doing X, or Z, you don't want to know, you just want him to find help and quit. Tell him he's got to make it right, and you don't care how, and you don't want to know.

I'll probably disagree with many on the question of whether there can be any secrets in a marriage. Indeed, ideally, a couple ought to be able to weather any horror. But in reality, people have only so much compassion, so much insight, so much ability to transcend their own repulsion and disgust. So I think, for instance, that if it turned out he's secretly practicing to be a mime, or playing easy-listening jazz, you should just take that off the table, rather than have to live with the knowledge the rest of your life.

Then, having disposed of such radioactive matters, you need to confront him to find out exactly what he's hiding. Hopefully, it's just some matter of sex or gambling or drugs.

This is difficult. You may have a mental block against the kind of tough, detailed questions you need to ask. It isn't enough to ask him what his day was like, or where he went and what he did. You need to ask more pointed questions: Has he been looking at pornography on the Internet, for instance? Try asking him that. Has he been seeing a prostitute, or a girlfriend on the side? Has he been using drugs or smoking pot? Has he been gambling? Has he been doing anything that would make him feel guilty and ashamed? Keep in mind that none of these things are necessarily bad in themselves; it's just that you can't live with the sense that he's hiding things from you.

You can only find out by asking specifics. And you may have to ask more than once, because his first, habitual response will probably be to deny it, and then, having first denied it, he will feel compelled to defend the lie. So be prepared to be firm and unrelenting. Keep coming from your gut.

Once you find out what it is that he's hiding, you must decide what to do about it. If it's something he agrees he needs to change, then he should take steps to change it. If he doesn't feel it's something he should give up, then I don't know what you do; you live with it, you accept it, you don't accept it, you leave: I just don't know. You would seem to have a real battle on your hands at that point. Either way, the overall objective is to stop feeling that he's hiding something, and move toward acceptance and normalcy.

If you get it out in the open and agree on what needs to be changed, give it some time, six months or a year. If you don't feel closer to him by then, if that mistrustful, suspicious feeling is still there, if you don't feel that this is the man, unreservedly, that you thought you knew, then you may have a serious rupture, or breakdown of trust, and maybe it's time to move on. Some people cannot or will not change, and there are some things that we are unwilling or unable to accept in another person.

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Cary Tennis

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