When I found myself married to a compulsive liar, I needed to find a way to stop his silly white lies from damaging the relationship.
Does Everybody Lie?
It's said that everyone lies. If you want to get down to brass tacks, it's true. On the other hand, most people dislike being deceived. When someone we care about lies to us repeatedly, it can destroy trust and make us question our relationship with them.
Dishonesty Doesn't Have to Ruin Your Relationship
I have a low tolerance for dishonesty. When someone lies to me, I feel hurt and angry, the same way I imagine most people feel. When I found myself married to a compulsive liar, I needed to find a way to stop his silly white lies from damaging the relationship, something that was never taught in my training to be a counselor. Fortunately, I stumbled upon an effective remedy.
Although I later divorced and remarried, I had another occasion to use the same method and found that it worked just as well with the second compulsive liar who had entered my life. (No, it wasn't my husband, but was one of his relatives.)
Keep reading to see why your loved one lies and what you can do about it.
Types of Lies
People who study deception in-depth make fine distinctions to classify types of lies, but for simplicity, I'll categorize them and describe only the most common types:
- Noble lies refer to lies that are told for the purpose of benefiting others. For instance, a piano teacher who encourages a student by saying, "You have a natural music ability" might have a goal of helping her young protégé gain confidence.
- White lies or fibs are similar. They're told with the intention of preventing harm, like when a guy compliments his girlfriend's new hairstyle even though he doesn't especially like it. White lies might involve withholding details or introducing false information. Platitudes are meaningless or non-factual statements designed to ease discomfort, such as telling a friend, "Don't worry, karma will catch up sooner or later."
- Bluffing & fluffing are methods people use to create a certain impression. In poker, bluffing is a way to convince other players that you have better cards than your hand actually contains. Fluffing can happen by using exaggeration, false details, or revealing only positive information to create positive regard. Realtors sometimes use fluff to make a house look more appealing by calling it "cozy" instead of "small." Sometimes bluffing and fluffing contain elements of truth, but not always.
- Manipulation lies can be lies that omit important information or create a false impression for the purpose of letting the liar achieve a goal that would be prevented if the truth were revealed. Manipulative lies strip others' abilities to have influence on a situation. "I'm going to stop at Jane's after work" when the truth is that I plan to spend time with an ex-lover is an example of manipulation.
- Denial lies are similar to manipulation lies because they allow the liar to protect an undesirable behavior. The liar may not be aware that they are lying, however. Alcoholics are known for rationalizing why they drink, justifying their reasons for drinking, minimizing the amount they've had to drink, and so on - all for the basic purpose of protecting their addictions. Denial is used for many other reasons than to protect an addiction, though. It can help a person feel better about themselves or their situation than they can if they acknowledge the truth. On a societal scale, denial influenced the way the public responded to the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001, but on a personal level, it can be as simple as whether someone has been doing their fair share of housework.
All deceptions involve fallacies of logic. Bluffing, denial, and manipulations damage relationships and destroy trust. Some people become compulsive liars, while others are pathological liars. Most people lie at some point without falling into either category.
In Your Experience
Pathological and Compulsive Liars
If you're in a relationship with a chronic liar, consider whether their lies are intended to enable hurtful behaviors. If the answer is yes, you may be dealing with a pathological liar.
More commonly, people lie to avoid discomfort. Compulsive liars find themselves feeling vulnerable if they tell the truth, so they use fluffing, bluffing, and white lies to protect that vulnerable, childlike part of themselves. Compulsive lying can prevent others from getting too close. It also prevents intimacy from developing fully. Ironically, compulsive liars experience their behavior as trying to build a connection!
For pathological liars, discomfort isn't a factor. Reaching their goals is all they're concerned about.
Read The Honest Truth About Liars for more information on both types of liars and how they develop these habits. As the author points out, getting a liar to admit they're causing problems is one of the biggest obstacles to change.
Yet both types of lies can damage or destroy trust. Even when the liar values the relationship, he or she might feel too vulnerable to acknowledge that their behavior has created a problem. Fortunately, the solution is similar in both cases.
What About Broken Promises?
How I Stumbled Upon the Truth About Stopping Lies
I couldn't believe the silly stuff my compulsive liar lied about! He lied about what he did in video games, for heaven's sake! I called him on it, "That's not true. Why are you saying that?" and he responded by defending his lie. He justified, rationalized, and changed his story to fit the moment. He went so far as to tell me that everyone lies, so I should just accept it.
I grew frustrated and impatient. If he was so quick to lie about the small things, I thought, what would he do if he made a serious mistake? A few events that came together in a short time helped me find a solution. It's a long story, I suppose, but worth reading.
We'd bought a house in Georgia that had a nice pond, but was so rural that we had to drive our trash six miles to a dumpster. One day, he returned from taking the garbage and told me someone had abandoned two adorable kittens at the dumpsters. "What would you do if I brought them home?" he asked.
I was shocked because he didn't want more pets. I'm sure my jaw dropped as I said, "You didn't!"
He shook his head. "No, but I thought about it."
About fifteen minutes later, I heard his voice outside. I stepped outdoors to find out who he was talking to and discovered him playing with the kittens he said he hadn't brought home. Once more, I couldn't understand why he'd lied when there was no possible way he could avoid my discovery of his lie, but by this point in our marriage, I knew that arguing wouldn't solve the problem.
One day I made an observation of my own. "I'm surprised we haven't seen any water moccasins," I said.
He told me that he'd seen one. I doubted him because I knew he'd have told me about it when it happened, so I asked, "What are you talking about? Where did you see one?" He pointed toward our shed. "When?" I asked.
"It was a while ago," he told me. He knew I was doubting him.
I didn't mind having the kittens, but if I'd been opposed to having them, I'd have felt manipulated by his actions. The snake comment, however, irked me because I felt like he was challenging what I had said about snakes.
Some days later, we were again outdoors, standing in the same area, and I tested him. "Where did you see that snake?" I asked. He pointed to a completely different area near the road, on the opposite side of the pond from our shed.
"I knew it!" I said. I explained that I purposefully tested him because I'd doubted him, and he'd shown me that he'd lied.
I knew he was very conscious about money and did not like unnecessary spending even though he earned a good income. In fact, his entire purpose in life was accumulating money. I decided to target his money as a way of retaliating for him targeting my self-esteem with his lies.
"I'm fining you $20," I told him. "And I'll fine you the same amount if you ever lie to me again." He objected, of course, but I had a response for that, too. "If you don't pay me, I will charge something on your credit card for that amount. If you want me to accept your lies, I will, but you have to pay me for the privilege." I made it clear that it would be me, not him, who decided what constituted a lie.
He angrily handed me $20. A few weeks later, I fined him again for another minor lie. We remained married another five years and I never again caught him telling lies.
This video explains the basic idea behind why this technique produced a more authentic relationship even though I took on a role of punisher.
I used the same tactic when my new step-daughter got her first job. She'd been taking things from me and not returning them, like makeup or clothing, and lying frequently about many things. Where she was going. Who she was meeting. What they were doing. Her lies were a combination of compulsive behaviors and pathological ones, so I wasn't sure if the same approach would work. Pathological liars by nature are less considerate of others and more self-centered.
I had tried talking to her and explained that I wanted to trust her and have a good relationship, and that when she lied it caused bad feelings instead of helping us grow closer. She always agreed, told me that she "couldn't help it, it's what she'd learned to do to stay out of trouble," and kept lying.
I told my husband my plan. He was uneasy about it, but supported me. "I'm going to fine her $5 when she lies, and if my belongings are gone missing, I'm going to start looking for them in her room."
Because freedom was what motivated her most, and money gave her greater freedom, she balked when I fined her or invaded her privacy. In the year or so since, I have fined her a total of three times and had to go looking for my stuff twice in the six weeks, but not since.
She still sometimes has behavior issues that must be addressed, but she doesn't engage in denial and misleading others. If she was purely a pathological liar, I'm not sure if this method would work.
Let's look at how and why this method seems to work.
Seven Steps to Foster Authenticity
Every situation is different, but there are common principles to keep in mind:
- Your judgment or criticism can give your loved one more reasons to lie. Your respect matters to them. Remember that they lie to protect themselves from criticism and judgment.
- If you get paid for tolerating a lie, you will have less reason to feel angry.
- The consequence must be something that is meaningful to the liar.
- The consequence must have some sting, but not be something that causes actual harm to their finances or well-being. It must be something that doesn't insult or try to control their behaviors.
- You must use the same penalty for each violation, and be prepared to enforce the penalties consistently because if you don't, it encourages more lying.
- You must have enough authority and resources to be able to enforce them.
- For pathological lying, you may have to address other issues separately. For instance, lying about using drugs is two issues. These steps can address lies, but they cannot address deeper problems. Your partner can tell you, "Yes, I used drugs," but only half the problem is solved, and drug treatment might be needed for the rest of the problem. Because pathological lies automatically devalue other people, this technique may only have limited use for pathological deceivers, as long as they are motivated to avoid the penalty and you have the means to enforce it.
If you ensure that all of these principles are present in your plan, then getting a tangible reward for tolerating a lie can stop the problem very quickly and help you avoid being critical and judgmental. However, if even one of these steps is missing, this technique will not work.