It can be difficult for a betrayed partner to wrap their mind around the comprehensiveness and sincerity with which their partner can lie. One of my clients put it this way: “This was really hard for me to accept. I always felt my spouse had a good heart, didn’t lie, and was just awkward when it came to expressing himself. It was hard for me recognize that he was and had been lying to me so convincingly about so many things for so long!”
For most betrayed partners, the lying is at least as painful as the sexual behaviors, and often more painful. While the sex is a huge breach in trust, the lying feels like an even deeper betrayal. When your partner lies to you, it creates a sense that you cannot know what reality is. You cannot believe that what they say to you is true, authentic, and real. As a result, trust, the foundation of secure bonding, is lost.
The chronic and systematic dishonesty that nearly always occurs with sexual betrayal is a form of emotional and psychological abuse. And yes, I recognize that abuse is a big and very powerful word. That said, to rob a person of their sense of reality, to chip away at their ability to trust what their five senses and their instincts are telling them, and to systematically undermine their ability to trust their own memory, perception, and judgment is a form of mental cruelty. It is important to look this squarely in the face and name it what it is: emotional and psychological abuse.
Interestingly, before the unfaithful partner lies to their spouse (and others), they must lie to themselves.
- They may lie to themselves about the nature of their behaviors, telling themselves that they don’t have a problem and they can stop whenever he wants.
- They may lie to themselves about their marriage, picking fights with their spouse so they can tell themselves how unhappy they are. And then they use this unhappiness as an excuse to go outside the relationship.
- They may tell themselves that their use of porn and sexualized web chatting is not the same as real sex, so it doesn’t count as betrayal.
- They may lie to themselves about getting caught, pretending that no one will ever know, and no one will ever get hurt.
- They may lie to themselves about their motivations, pretending that it’s only this one time and they deserve to treat themselves anyway since it’s been a stressful week.
It is important to understand that these and similar lies are not separate from the sexual behaviors. Instead, they are an integral part of the problem. To maintain the sexual behaviors while also maintaining a primary relationship and external life, the unfaithful partner must develop an inner-monolog or story that justifies and rationalizes why their infidelity is acceptable or at the very least justified.
For many unfaithful individuals, their sexual behaviors are at odds with their self-concept. Their sexual behaviors violate their relationship agreements, boundaries at their place of employment, the boundaries of other people, and their personal value system. To override the discomfort created by acting against their self-identity, they create and use “self-manipulation defenses.”
Self-manipulation defenses keep unfaithful partners from feeling shame about being out-of-control, crossing lines they never thought they would cross, and betraying the person who is most important to them. Without these defenses, their sexual behaviors would be very hard to sustain, as they would have to honestly face what they are doing, who they’ve become, and the consequences of their actions. They need these defenses to sustain their double-life and to live with themselves while betraying those they love.
When individuals lie to themselves (and others) long enough, they create a situation where they cease to think clearly. They begin to believe their lies. Eventually, the line between reality and fiction blurs. Their thinking process becomes unclear, unpredictable, and illogical. As a result, they begin to speak and act based on thought distortions and delusions. This is the “stinking thinking” that is talked about in 12-step recovery programs.
When I first begin work with individuals who have been unfaithful, we spend as much time intervening on their impaired thinking and self-manipulation defenses as on stopping their problematic behaviors. This is because recovery begins with confronting the lies and dishonesty. Unless the distorted thinking that supports the behavior is identified and brought into awareness so the person can consciously make different choices, the behaviors will continue.
When working with betrayed partners, my approach is similar. Typically, one of the hardest parts of healing from betrayal is uncovering and dealing with the lies and manipulation. Betrayed spouses must recognize how pervasive the lies and secrets have become, and identify the ways that they can become emotionally hooked by their significant other into believing the lies that are being told. Becoming more aware of the lies and manipulation helps partners to regain their sense of trust in their own gut or inner voice of wisdom and increases their ability to trust their own perceptions and hold onto their reality.