Honesty and Openness (Part 2)

Letter #1

Introduction: I received so many e-mail letters in response to last week's column on honesty, that I have decided to do another column on the same subject. So it may be a good idea for you to review (Honesty and Openness (Part 1)) before you read this one.

Dear Dr. Harley,

I'm really hoping that you can help me. I've been married for almost two years now, and as far as I can tell, the whole marriage has been one lie after another.

It started with something pretty simple: my wife was a smoker when I met her, and I told her up front that I had always hated smoking, and would not date a smoker. She assured me she was quitting anyway, so we started dating. After she had convinced me she had stopped, I found out from her friends and family that she was lying, and was just hiding it from me. By this time we were already engaged.

She kept reassuring me that she did want to quit, and would do so before our wedding. When we were married, as far as I knew, she had quit. Again her friends and family told me it was all a lie. Then I found out there were other lies: she would spend money on one thing, then lie and say it was spent on another. She would be in one place, and lie and say she was somewhere else. Now she has admitted to me that since we were married she has had more than one affair.

Everyone I talk to says she's a habitual liar and if she's cheated more than once, she'll cheat on me again, so I should divorce her.

She explains to me that her affairs were just "one night stands" just after we had a fight and she did it because she was lonely. She also admits that she lied about other things to prevent me from getting close to her or knowing what she was doing.

She was married before and was abused by her husband, so I believe a lot of our problems are just defenses she's carried into our marriage. She seems really honest about making things right this time, but I've heard that from her before and it just turned out to be a lie.

Is it possible for someone with such a history of dishonesty to change their ways? I really do love her and want this to work out, but I'm really hurting, I feel very vulnerable right now, and I don't think I could take another betrayal of any kind.

We've separated for now, with the hopes that she can prove herself and that she will change, but I have been told it's wrong for me to wait for her to change, and I don't know if I should subject myself to another possible harmful situation. What should I do, and if I should stay with her, how do I make this work?


Dear S.C.,

Apparently you are in love with your wife, so she must be doing something right -- I would imagine she does a good job meeting many of your emotional needs.

In my book, His Needs, Her Needs (chapter 7), I write about three kinds of liars: 1) born liars, 2) avoid trouble liars and 3) protector liars. From what you've said about her, she sounds like the avoid trouble liar. These people do things that they know are unacceptable, then when confronted they lie to avoid getting into trouble. Here are some of the points I make in this chapter:

  • The born liar is different than the avoid trouble liar in that he doesn't seem to know the difference between truth and fiction, and makes things up for no apparent reason or purpose. An avoid trouble liar, on the other hand, is very much aware of the truth and only lies to avoid getting into trouble.

  • The "avoid trouble" liar is used to getting their way. They usually have a long history of agreeing to anything and then doing what they please. When confronted with their lie, they promise they will never do it again, another lie, of course. They are usually very cheerful people because they are living a life that suits them just fine. If people would just stop telling them what to do, they think there would be no need for dishonesty. What they think makes them dishonest, is people trying to change them. They don't think it's right, so they tell people whatever they want to hear just to get them off their backs.

The way to help an "avoid trouble" liar learn to be truthful is to focus attention on honesty and ignore everything else for a while. I encourage such people to tell the truth in return for their spouses not telling them what to do. In other words, minimize the consequences of the acts that they are afraid will get them into trouble. Instead of trying to punish your wife for going back on her promises, I would put more emphasis on safe and pleasant negotiation, where she is free to explain what she wants to do, and give you a chance to offer alternatives that are genuinely attractive to her.

What happens now is that she feels she is "made" to agree with you. You have told her that unless she does this or that, you will leave her. Even in the beginning, you explained that unless she stopped smoking, you would not even date her. She has learned to agree with anything and then do what she pleases to avoid a fight or being abandoned. But what if there were no fight? What if you wouldn't leave her? I recommend that you try to stop fighting with her, and you stop threatening to leave her. When she tells you she smokes, tell her you would appreciate it if she didn't, and offer her incentives to stop. But I wouldn't use threats.

Infidelity is quite another matter, of course, but I think she has gone a long way just to have told you about it. I don't think she wants to make a habit of cheating on you, but she doesn't want you to threaten to kick her out either. I may sound naive on this point, but I would try to create a non-threatening environment for her first, and then see if she cheats on you.

There are two essential conditions that you must follow if you want her to negotiate with you honestly. They must be safe and enjoyable. In other words, when you negotiate you should never threaten her with punishment, or make the negotiations unpleasant for her. Instead, you should be willing to allow her to do whatever she wants if you have not reached an agreement, without recrimination.

I encourage you to read about my Policy of Joint Agreement (never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse). It would be terrific if you and your wife could follow it. But right now, your wife seems to be a long way from making such an agreement binding. She is not accustomed to negotiating with commitment. But it wouldn't hurt to start trying to follow the policy. It is far more likely that she will follow through on an agreement that she shows "enthusiasm" for than one that she feels forced to agree with.

You may also find my "Blended Families" Q&A helpful where I discuss negotiating strategy in my answer to the first letter. You are obviously in love with her. Now try to establish a relationship with her where you never try to force her to do anything. Place honesty at the top of your wish list, and give her freedom of choice in all other areas.

Oh yes, one more thing: Invite her back to live with you again. I don't think a separation is a good idea in your case.

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