How Pathological Lying Can Ruin Your Relationships

A family therapy colleague of mine lived for a time in Indonesia, doing research and clinical training. While there, his friend Irwanto told him an unusual story of a marriage with serious trust issues. It stemmed from an incident when the wife left for work, and the husband snuck off to visit a prostitute. Upon arrival at the bordello, he was given a room, but the woman that came to provide services was his wife. Both were shocked, and some interesting conversations began.

Deception changes relationships, because it hurts, and once burned, partners are more sensitive. One of the consequences of unfaithfulness is that both sides become sensitive to things that used to be no big deal. For instance, after an affair, there will be skepticism about the cheater’s claims, even if they are honest. It is like the boy who cried wolf. It is hard to trust when you have been hurt for believing a partner in the past.

Lying also clutters relationships, because lies tend to multiply, and deceivers become defensive about their carefully constructed stories. In a study I helped with about Facebook infidelity, one woman claimed persecution when caught cheating. “When I confronted her about the call, she lied,” her boyfriend said, “Then she became upset and accused me of spying on her.” This counter-accusation of “spying” is common in betrayals, since the guilty person wants to divert attention from their behavior by complaining the other is being nosy.

Lying destroys credibility. Once, I asked a graduate student to revise a paper and add some additional content to it. She made the font bigger and gave it back to me without changing anything else. This damaged her credibility. Another of my former students was doing a study about couples’ recovery from affairs. One pair had gone to their minister for advice after the wife had cheated on the husband, but they were puzzled that the minister seemed detached and non-sympathetic. “He took us to get coffee, but we never had counseling, we were just hanging out,” the husband recalled. They then discovered the pastor was sleeping with the secretary of the church, who was married to the man that the originally unfaithful wife had slept with. I guess it wasn’t surprising this minister did not have credibility to help them heal from infidelity while he was practicing his own.

I met with a pathological liar in therapy because he could not maintain an intimate relationship. His girlfriend left him after catching on to his deception. His lies didn’t always benefit him, they just happened as a matter of course in his conversations. He admitted his problem, framing it as an addiction, but after about two sessions it was clear that he wasn’t always being honest with me. He also promised to send a check for our last session, which didn’t happen.

People shun chronic liars. We want to trust others, and getting lied to is personal and upsetting. I once had a boss who would flatter, make promises, and use vague descriptions in his claims about experiences and accomplishments. He always “knew someone” important and made big plans. He was good at flattery and slippery in his details, so was hard to pin down. But he didn’t have close friends or credibility with those he worked with.

Pathological lying obviously is incompatible with intimacy. Some put up with it, because they are used to poor treatment, or because they hope the promises will come true. Regardless, the lied-to partner knows they can’t count on anything they hear. Repeated lies show contempt for the person being lied to because lies are condescending, placating or manipulating. As Anton Chekov said in a letter to his brother, “[Cultured people] are sincere, and dread lying like fire. They don’t lie even in small things. A lie is insulting to the listener and puts him in a lower position in the eyes of the speaker.”

Habitual liars become skilled at convincing themselves. One study showed that even when someone cheats on a test to get a higher score, they still think they deserved the higher grade. They knew they faked their answers but still thought the inflated score reflected their abilities.

One of my clients, Wendy, was getting out of an abusive marriage where her husband was a chronic manipulator and liar. During the divorce proceedings, he easily lied under oath about his finances, the things he said to her or the kids, as well as some details that were completely irrelevant. Despite the perjury, she said, “I swear he was totally convinced of his delusions, and was able to look me and the judge in the eye and believe his B.S. as if it were reality.”

Some people lie with ease and perpetually deceive others for their own purposes. Although they may fool or manipulate some people successfully, they will unable to have intimacy and trust in a relationship.


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