Everybody lies. Friends lie to friends. Children lie to their parents.
Politicians lie to constituents. And, certainly, husbands and wives lie to
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 their
energy for the more important conversations. Marital lies may be playful
when harping on the truth would spoil the fun. A comment like,
"You're the best lover on the whole planet" may not pass double-blind
testing, but it does convey emotional truth.
Lies between lovers, however, can be highly electric: they have
tremendous potential to both nurture and destroy a relationship. Unfortunately,
lies usually undermine a relationship because, when unchecked
by compassion and honest introspection, they tend to feed on
each other. Most couples underestimate the power that lieseven
seemingly harmless lieswield in their marriage.
As codirectors of The Couples Institute, we have devoted more than
fifteen years to studying marital communication. We've been privy to
the intimate dramas of couples in various phases of discord and distress.
We've seen marriages virtually implode after a major betrayal. We've
also seen couples hold onto what's true for them despite fierce disagreement
and, in the process, manage to strengthen their trust.
We do believe that most people want to be honest with those they
love. But the nature of marriage, with its infinite number of interdependencies
and huge emotional stakes, guarantees that spouses will lie
to each other and fool themselves. Being honest with another person,
particularly one you're dealing with all the time, can be dicey. The
impetus for most marital lies does not stem from a wish to deceive the
other, but rather from the wish to keep the relationship as it is. That's
the incredible irony: Couples lie to preserve their relationships, but it's those
very lies that create dissent and leave the partners feeling stagnant, isolated,
Why do we lie in marriage? We want to look goodso we lie. We
want to avoid hurting or disappointing a partnerso we lie. We fear that
the truth will unleash conflict that will endanger the relationshipso
we lie. We feel foolish about something that we said or didso we lie.
We have trouble putting the whole truth into wordsso we manipulate
it. We're reluctant to admit the darker sides of ourselves, our greed,
envy, and selfishnessso we try to hide them. We lie because lies come
with being human, and we are probably never so exposed in our
humanness as we are with our mates.
This book is a wake-up call. At our clinic, The Couples Institute in
Menlo Park, California, our focus is helping couples create extraordinary
relationships. Through our workshops, individual cases, and the
clinical work of therapists we supervise, we have seen literally thousands
of couples. Through our experience, we have gained a unique
perspective on the trials upon which marriages succeed or fail. We have
found that at the heart of most couples' problems is some form of
deception or withheld truth. We've seen deception sabotage marriages
when one or both partners
tell furtive lies and allow chronic dishonesty to turn good feeling
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 liesonce reckoned withpush
relationships towards growth. We know there are powerful reasons
to address the truth. We also know that there are powerful emotional
reasons to avoid it. No one wants to give up the deceptions that they
believe keep their marriage together.
Over the years, we've found that long-term relationships follow a
predictable 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 in
response to the specific challenges of each stage. Deception will stunt
development in each stage, creating an emotional gridlock that leaves
both partners stuck. We call these stalled points "Detours and Dead
Ends." From the Honeymoon, you can veer into The Dark Side of the
Honeymoon. When deceit obscures your Emerging Differences, you
can end up in the Seething Stalemate. The failure to negotiate independence
can thrust you into Freedom Unhinged. The only way to get
on track is to confront the truth.
Intimate relationships are difficult, despite what cultural myths
would have us believe, and every couple will encounter some tough situations.
The grit to withstand those challengesand to keep your marriage
growing and aliverequires that you find the courage to voice the
truth. And the resolve to listen to it.
Honesty: A Solid Foundation
Truthfulness bases a marriage in reality and trust. The failure to deal
with truththe all-too-common tendency to fall into expedient truth
bending or lulled complacencymay be the first fumbling steps
towards disaster. Don't follow in the footsteps of John and Sarah, whose
story we recount in the book. You'll see that so-called white lies can lose
their pearly innocence with blinding speed.
No one wants to think of himself as a liar, and we generally don't see
our lies as lies. What happens in marriage, then, is that we lie and call it
something else: protecting a partner, looking on the bright side of
things, waiting until the right time to speak, keeping the peace.
Through the day-to-day, give-and-take of a long-term relationship, we
seek cover in many forms of deception. In this book, we make the case
that becoming conscious of those liesand understanding when, how,
and why you liewill help you make your marriage stronger.
Through our work, as well as our own marriage, we've learned that
the way to inoculate your marriage against real stressors is to know that
you can handle the tough stuff. And when you can speak truthfully
about difficult things and find the truth in strong disagreements, you
will feel more confident that you can handle just about anything. This
is the substance of extraordinary, enduring marriages: the passion, tenderness,
and generosity that can only emerge when two people have
achieved a high level of mutual honesty. Honesty with compassion can
spark 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 promote
the good feeling at the core of your relationship, not just the semblance
Beware of Dormant Grenades
People typically hope that downplaying something or leaving out a
detail isn't lying. Beware of the little lie, for fibs that start with benign
intent may develop into open invitations to subterfuge.
For instance, little lies about how much someone spends for a fall
suit can stay little. Or, before you know it, a partner can compound that
little lie by falsifying how much money is spent on travel, all the way up
the dishonesty scale to hoarding funds in hidden accounts. But at many
milemarkers along this road, simple changes, or even small conversations
about 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't
say anything to her because he's afraid she'll think he's reducing her to
a sex object, and so he keeps his fantasy private. As a result, their sex
life 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 short
hop, skip, and jump to sharing his sexual fantasies online or secretly visiting
a pornography site. He may go on to have an affair. Or he may just
bear with a tolerable but passionless relationship.
Throughout your marriage you will have lots of opportunities either
to be more truthful with your partner or to sink deeper into deception.
This happens not only in key moments (the credit-card bill arrives with
dubious charges; a lover's lacy bra shows up in the laundry) but also in
Here's an example from our own marriage:
Ellyn: Pete left town for a conference on Sunday and wasn't due
back until Friday. By chance, the conference was cancelled and on
Monday evening Pete walked in shouting, "Honey, I'm home!" I raced
to the door and hugged him and said, "What a great surprise!"
Well, it was a nice surprise ... but it was also a bit disappointing
because I had been looking forward to the special plans our daughter,
Molly, and I had made together. We had talked about going to our
favorite restaurant and seeing a sappy movie. The energy around the
house is different when it's only Molly and me. So I was both happy and
unhappy to see Pete.
On Tuesday night I was really crabby. Everything Pete did irritated
me. 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." I
explained to him a bit about our "girl" plans and he understood. Once I
said it, I could get on with the week that I now had before mea week
that included and, because I didn't want to give up those plans,
Many people assume that it means something bad if they don't
always want to see their partner around the house, but it's common to
want more time alonethat simple kind of puttering-around time. If I
hadn't been able to tell Pete that I liked aspects of his being away, I
probably would have been irritable all week, especially at night. Being
around the house wouldn't have been terribly pleasant for anyone. Or
let's say that, rather than understanding where I was coming from, Pete
said, "Okay, Ellyn, you won't see me till Friday night, if that's what you
want!" and stormed out, slamming the door. That would have sent a
pretty clear message, and I probably would avoid being truthful like
Several times each day you're faced with these choices: (1) to pursue
a path of honesty or deception; and (2) as a listener, to encourage more
truthfulness or to close down the avenues that could lead you to truth.
Learning to ground your relationship on a foundation of truth
involves resilience, fortitude, and the ability to hold on to and describe
what's important to you. It's also about the courage to change old patterns
and the capacity to weather disagreement. You can learn a lot
about each other if you're willing to know. You can laugh about many
things together if you're willing to face your own flaws and those of the
relationship with humor. We want to help you recognize moments that
offer an opening for truth. The more you work with the truth, the less
you have to be afraid of it.
We know that we can't ask couples to be more honest in their marriages
unless we're willing to take those risks ourselves. The couples
we've worked with have inspired us many times with their courage in
telling the truth. They've also kept us honest, forcing us to practice
what we preach.
Pete: Several years ago, we were on a vacation in the Southwest. I
was in a major funk, moping around a lot, rejecting every activity
Ellyn suggested and, basically, being an all-around drag. I had been
ruminating over things about our relationship that bugged me, stuff
we'd been over many times. Essentially, Ellyn wasn't living up to my
vision of the ideal mate. Compared to the mental picture of the partner
I wanted, Ellyn wasn't attractive enough, humorous enough, or
high-voltage enough. Without work and other day-to-day distractions,
that disappointment really hit me on the trip. But how could I ever
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
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
Pete: "Actually, now that you ask it, the answer is no."
What happened here was that while we were half-kidding (and the
black humor definitely helped) we were also quite serious. There was a
dark side to our relationship, with Pete's chronic disappointment and
the tension that arose from holding back those feelings. In talking, we
confronted the shadowy underbelly of our marriage and found that we
could live with it and even laugh at it. Here's how each of us experienced
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 to
stop obsessing about it. I learned that I could express the most reprehensible
things and share my darkest feelings, and Ellyn
wouldn't drop me.
At the same time, my respect for Ellyn skyrocketed. When I said I
was thinking of getting rid of her, her knees didn't buckle. She could
ask me questions without folding or flinching. As we spoke, she had no
idea what was going on with me; I wasn't sure what was going on
myself. Her ability to listen to me impressed me enough to adjust the
mental blueprint I had of my ideal mate. That created a shift. I saw
other aspects of who she is and realized that the mate I have is more
dimensional than what I had conjured up in a fantasy. Amazingly, I saw
that 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 Pete
was thinking of ending things with me. I trusted my intuition and
went with the question. Once I opened that door, all I could do was
step back and see where the discussion would lead. I continued to
ask questions that seemed like they needed to be asked, even
though I didn't think I was going to like what would come back to
me. I still don't know what got me through that conversation. I
remember saying to myself, "You really need to know what's
wrong." Pete's gloom was severely hanging over the marriage and
our vacation. Once I knew how bad things were, instead of merely
guessing what Pete's feelings were and tiptoeing around him, I actually
felt stronger. I knew I could hear the worst and survive. I didn't
like it, but ignoring his unhappiness wasn't doing me any good
either. Since then, we've certainly had our share of ups and downs
and difficult discussions, but we've never had to have that particular
As this dialogue demonstrates, there are always two sides to every
truth moment: (1) Eliciting the truth and (2) telling the truth. And not
only is each situation a moment of truth, but so is each exchange
within the discussion. Each person will have his or her own behind-the-curtain
inquest: Do I hold steadfast? Do I turn away? What's going on
with him that he's not unstrung by now? These thoughts whirl by at
breakneck 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, but
rather are the kind that make your palms sweat and your stomach
clench. When you start, you won't know where it will take you. But that
doesn't mean that what you hear will destroy you or that you will never
recover from it. Take heart. You can withstand more than you think.
Going through it ourselves has enabled us to help couples through
similar discussions. Having survived it, we can't so easily dismiss the
pain of telling and hearing marital truths. Having come through
stronger on the other side gives us the conviction that we have something
to say about honesty in marriage.
Acknowledging truths may expose significant differences within a
relationship. But in our experience, few differences prove insurmountable.
We find that what topples relationships and leaves little choice but
divorce are not problems but rigidities in one or both partners. It's not
the size of the problem that determines whether a couple holds
together or splits, but rather their ability to stay open to the situation
and each other.
We've had the privilege of sitting with couples as they tested the
boundaries of truth, as the following examples demonstrate:
James, a successful stockbroker, had a serious heart condition and
had come perilously close to dying. Since recovering from that episode,
he and his wife fought nonstop. In a session, his wife, stammering
through tears, said to him, "I'm afraid of you dying. That's why I push
you away. You can't do anything right because I don't want you to do
anything right. I don't want to get so close to you only to have you leave
me heartbroken." Visibly touched, James replied, "I had no idea that
you cared that much."
* * *
Marion and Don attended one of our intensive workshops and had a
discussion that will forever remain vivid in our memories. As they were
sitting almost knee-to-knee, Marion asked, "Don, do you really want to
know how I feel? I mean, how I really feel?" Don slowly nodded his
head, and Marion replied, "I pray for your death." Don was able to
remember key points we had been teaching about how to contain himself
when things get tense. Breathe deeply, remember that most things
aren'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 how
her belief in the sanctity of marriage precluded any consideration of
divorce, leaving her no way to get out of the psychological black hole of
their marriage other than to wish him dead. This couple had been so
terrified 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 to
describe 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-wheel
truck was traveling toward them, Don said, "Well, now's
your chance." Marion later said, "At that moment the hourglass of our
marriage was turned upside down. I knew then that I could tell Don
what 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 trust
that their partner will understand them and that they'll be heard. This
uncertainty 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 boiling
beneath 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 very
important person in your life, me. As much as I want to blame you for
that, as much as I want to shove your hypocritical `understanding' down
your throat, as much as I want to throttle you for all those barbs you
throw 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 to
describe those tender areas that I rarely investigate in myself, let alone
describe to you. Here's what I find so impossibly hard to express: No
matter how clever I am, no matter how responsive I am to you or the
world, it is never enough. There it is. What I don't want to say aloud is
this: I feel a chronic sense of inadequacy.
"So I stonewall. I defend myself when I feel another verbal attack
from you. It really pisses me off when you say you can talk to your
women friends so much more easily. Great. Tell me one more time that
you wish I were like a woman. What an extraordinary slap coming from
someone who has staked such a claim on being `understanding.'
"What you don't know, and what I struggle in my own fumbling way
to tell you, is that indeed I want to be your hero. I want to be a good
provider and feel the deep satisfaction of providing well. I also want to
tell you that I really want to do just about all the things you are so hungry
for me to do. But I don't. So what I do is become secretive. I lie to
you. I lie to myself. I drink. I have affairs. I lust after money. I strive for
recognition. I hide out with the television, the newspaper, sports, and
hobbies because the truth is that too often I want to get away from how
I feel when I'm around you. I hate that I don't have the courage to be
honest with youor with myself.
"When I feel attacked, my choices are to either blame you and
defend myself (and believe me, I've learned the severe limits of doing
that) or stonewall and feel like a wimp. I know you think I have all the
power when I stonewall, but I feel anything but powerful. The irony is
that if I tell you about my powerlessness, I feel more like a wimp while
you, dear wife, think I am doing great by expressing my feelings. Your
emotional health is my psychological poison."
Excerpted from "Tell Me No Lies" by Ellyn Bader Ph.D.. Copyright © 2001 by Ellyn Bader Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.