Ever since they have been exclusive, Jack has consistently told Kara that his long-term relationship with his ex-girlfriend is over, that he never talks to her. But one Saturday when Jack’s phone is laying on the coffee table Kara spies a text message on the screen. She sees it is from his ex and then opens his messages to find a trail text messages between them. She is furious, and when Jack walks back into the room, she explodes and begins interrogating him about what she’s discovered.
Obviously, Jack has been lying.
Lying can destroy a relationship, but all lying is not created equally. Some liars use their fabrications to be manipulative – think worst salesperson in the world, the most seductive person you could imagine who is trying to woo you, the classic narcissist who is pumping up his own image. These folks are using others as objects, or in the case of pathological liars, doing what they do because that is what they do; personality disorder involved.
But in most everyday relationships, lying is situational. This is what Kara is dealing with. She believes in her heart that Jack is a good guy, not a con man, not ethically shady, not a sociopath. But this stuff with the ex drives her crazy. This is usually less about Kara and more about the coping mechanisms of Jack.
Problems as bad solutions
In most of these situations Jack is lying because he is anxious and afraid. No doubt he has done this before, actually way back in childhood, where it sometimes worked, sometimes didn’t, but more often than not it worked good enough; it kept him out of trouble.
The problem here is not about the ex but about his own anxiety about Kara’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 Kara because he is already wired to fear blow-back.
What now happens is the setting up of a dysfunctional cycle. Kara may have her own above-average sensitivity to trust and honesty from her childhood or previous boyfriends cheating on her; part of her mental DNA. Going into her relationship with Jack she is already wired to this and a bit hyperalert. She does her best to not be overly intrusive, to take him at his word. But now…. her worst fears come to the fore and she explodes.
When this happens it now triggers Jack’s worst fears. His brain is telling him that he was right all along, that telling the truth is not safe, that he actually needs to get better at being secretive and withholding.
They can both fight this battle for…. forever: Kara getting hurt and getting angry, trying to get Jack to change; Jack ducking and weaving in order to keep Kara off his back and avoid conflict.
The cycle is this:
Kara gets hurt leads to anger, leads to attack, leads to Jack lying
Jack anticipates Kara’s reaction, lies; leads to Kara getting angry; leads to confirming Jack’s fears; leads to Kara’s fear’s validated.
They need to break this pattern.
Breaking the pattern
Again, this is not all about Jack and Kara’s relationship but old coping skills. What to do? Jack needs to stop being the little kid and speak up and tell the truth. Kara needs to not react so strongly to Jack’s evasive behavior.
The problem is that they each get stuck in their thinking.
Jack thinks that the only way out of this dynamic is to get Kara to be less angry. Kara thinks that the only way out is to get Jack to be more open and tell the truth. Each is trying to solve the problem by getting the other to change. It won’t work because it easily becomes a power struggle as both pressure the other to do what they want.
Instead the key to breaking dysfunctional patterns is both sides changing their reactions. This means that Jack and Kara need to focus on changing their own sides of the equation.
Solving the problems
This translates into Kara doing her best to not get angry. When her fear and hurt are triggered, she needs to calmly talk to Jack about her — her feelings rather than harping on 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 seduced into getting into the weeds of content – interrogating Jack about the ex and why the texts and on what date, etc. This goes nowhere because anxious-Jack will then start arguing about exactly this, the content – she texted me first and I was just trying to be courteous, etc. That is not the point – the point isn’t about his ex but about his not being honest.
Kara needs to get 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.
On his side, Jack obviously needs to do his best to step up and be honest, behaviorally override his little-kid, anxious brain yelling at him to keep quiet. He needs to keep his eyes on the prize, namely, learning to stop being so afraid, learning to be an adult, learning to confront and emotionally manage other’s strong reactions. Actually, he needs to step up even in those worse times when Kara’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 Kara, 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 Kara less. This may be hard for Kara 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 – that is, both taking the risk of being honest in order to discover whether their values and views of life are compatible.
Both partners do the best they can. Kara puts her head down, focuses on containing her feelings because she wants to help Jack learn to step up and be honest. Jack does his best to step up and speak up even though he internally fears the wrath of Kara in order to help her learn to trust him. Both do their best to break the cycle, doing the constant voice-over that “this is more about me than them and that I’m doing this because I don’t want to hurt the person I care about.”
And what if Jack never quite buys into this plan? Kara can, if she is willing, still work her side of the equation and do the best she can. Her changes may change the climate and that, in turn, may motivate Jack to change his behavior.
But in order to help her or both of them not get caught in this for forever, to avoid endless spurts of trying and explosions and I’m sorrys that can dangerously transform into a new normal, it helps to have a bottom line about time. They put their heads down, resist the urge to keep score, then lift them up after 3, 6 months and see where they are at. If little progress has been made they can ramp it up by doing couple therapy, and / or medication to take the edge off of all that anxiety.
Or they call it quits.
Obviously all this not only takes awareness and responsibility but courage.
It requires that you use your power in order to not lose it.