Making Matters Worse

Confronting a partner about his or her occasional use of deception can sometimes make things worse.

To begin with, no one likes to be accused of lying. Most of the time people lie with very little awareness of what they are doing. So, it can be difficult for people to acknowledge their deceptive behavior.

In fact, lying is often portrayed as a character flaw—it is wrong, evil, a shameful thing to do (see Solomon). Accusing someone of lying puts people on the defensive. Accordingly, when people are accused of lying they tend to shift the blame by attacking back (see pointing out the truth). And these types of interactions can take their toll on a relationship or marriage. Confrontations can create a lot of negativity and and frustration.

Lying is also difficult to deal with because it typically involves two separate issues. Deception is often used to conceal a mistake. So when deception is uncovered both issues must be dealt with—the original wrongdoing as well as the cover up.

Unfortunately, because deception involves issues of trust, most people tend to focus on the fact that lies were told rather than focusing on the underlying issue. However, if the underlying issue isn’t addressed, it is likely to reoccur. With that said, it is often more productive to focus on the underlying issue rather than the use of deception.

Parents are great example of this type of behavior. When parents catch their children lying, they tend to focus on the deception and ignore the original problem ("I am more upset that you lied to me...."). As such, the original problem never gets fully addressed and it often happens again (also see lying in children).

More importantly, when people get punished for lying it can create more fear in a relationship. And lying is driven by fear, so making partners more fearful is generally not useful (see fear of partner’s reaction). Creating fear can reinforce the use of deception.

And related to this point, accusing someone of lying gives them great feedback. Pointing out a spouse’s lies gives a partner better insight, ultimately helping him/her lie more effectively in the future. Simply put, confronting partners about their deceptive behavior often helps them avoid making the same mistakes (see detecting deception – common mistakes).

Again, when parents catch their kids lying and they focus on the deceptive act rather than the underlying issue, kids tend not to change their behavior they just learn how to lie more effectively.

Adults are very similar to children. Spouses get better at lying the more often their lies are pointed out—not exactly the outcome most people are aiming for when confronting a spouse or partner about their use of deception.

On the next page we provide some advice on how to confront a partner about his or her lying....