When Your Partner Lies: Why It Happens and What You Can Do About It

by Wendy Bravo, LMFT

Have you and your partner ever fought because he/she lied to you? Do you believe that your partner’s lies are a problem in your relationship? In this article you’ll discover the truth about lies and learn about three factors that influence whether your partner lies or tells you the truth.
First, let’s clarify what we mean by “lie.” In this article “to lie” means to intentionally deceive someone or omit information. Partners sometimes accuse each other of “lying” when they just have different interpretations or opinions about things, but for our purposes, lying is something a person does on purpose and for a reason. That said, let’s look at the three factors that can influence whether your partner lies to you. You may be surprised to know that two of the three are under your control.

1. Your reaction to the truth. Think about the last time your partner lied to you. How would you have reacted if they had told you the truth? Try to be absolutely honest with yourself. Would you have reacted angrily, maybe even yelling or starting a fight?
Let’s look at how your reactions affect your partner. Suppose your partner wants to tell the truth but knows from your past reactions that you will probably:

  • a) start a fight;
  • b) say “no” and refuse to listen to any explanations;
  • c) threaten to end the relationship, or actually leave;
  • d) bring up their past mistakes; or
  • e) retaliate

From your partner’s point of view, there are consequences to telling the truth and possible advantages to lying. By lying to you, your partner can:

  • a) avoid a fight;
  • b) buy time to figure out how to explain things so that you will listen;
  • c) avoid your criticism, sarcasm, or contempt; or
  • d) keep you from leaving, and thus calm their fear of losing you.

Now you can see why lying may be the more attractive option for your partner. The good news is that you can do something about this by changing your reaction to the truth, even when the truth might leave you feeling disappointed or angry. How? Begin by letting your partner know that, regardless of the situation, you would always prefer to know the truth. Then, when your partner tells you the truth, respond to it instead of reacting emotionally. Calm down and think about the situation. Thank your partner for being brave enough to tell you the truth. Then begin talking about your feelings in a way that is not hurtful or offensive, so your partner can truly listen and understand your point of view. Using “I” statements can help you focus on yourself rather than criticizing your partner.

2. Your reaction to the lie. Think about the last time you realized your partner had lied to you. How did you react? Negative reactions like criticism, contempt, sarcasm, or aggression can make your partner more likely to hide the truth. Eventually your partner might put more effort into hiding their lies than in improving the relationship, causing the relationship to end or in many cases to become much more negative. Remember that you can change how you respond when you discover a lie. Calm down, think, and then deal with the situation. Listen to your partner’s explanation and try to understand why they lied. Try to forgive them and leave the lie in the past. Do not remind your partner about past lies every time you are in an argument.
If you’ve tried to change your reactions to the truth and to the lies but still find yourself automatically lashing out and blaming your partner, you—and your relationship—might benefit from counseling. A qualified therapist can help you find ways to change your responses and better communicate with your partner.

3. Your partner’s conflict-avoidance. If your partner is not assertive and continues to fear your reaction to the truth, even after you make changes, he/she could benefit from professional help. Some people are so afraid of their partner’s disapproval that they lie just to avoid such disapproval or potential conflict. In therapy, your partner can work on assertiveness skills and learn to deal with the discomfort of potential conflict or disagreements. This factor depends on your partner; all you can do is to be supportive and encourage him/her to seek help.

Remember, if your partner lies to you, focus first on the factors you have control over: your reaction to the truth and your reaction to the lie. Taking the time to calm down and respond thoughtfully instead of reacting emotionally can encourage your partner to be more truthful with you. Support your partner in getting help if they need it, and if you need some help, don’t be afraid to seek it out. The guidance of a skilled therapist can often be extremely valuable in helping partners communicate more effectively and honestly.

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