Relationship: how to overcome lying and cheating after an affair

"I’ve ticked that off," Sophia says in one of her therapy sessions. Nevertheless, she is often plagued by headaches, stomachaches, and other ailments, and she gets excessively upset with her partner Nicolas for every little thing. When she came home one day, she caught him in a telephone conversation. This is how she found out about his affair. After talking it out and Nicolas apologizing, the couple was able to patch things up after a few gut-wrenching weeks. But even if Sophia doesn’t want to admit it, the whole thing has not passed her by without leaving a trace.

An infidelity is not the only secret that can plunge couples into crisis. In an online survey I recently conducted, participants were asked to indicate which types of dishonesty were most damaging to the trust relationship. In addition to infidelity, subjects frequently cited situations in which a partner conceals his or her true feelings or intentions. For example, when someone pretends to want to enter into a relationship, but in reality is not sure and hesitates. Similarly unpopular were lies about health, work, or bank balance, as well as meetings with an ex-partner. The tail end was made up of the small everyday quirks that are often perceived as less serious. It was striking, however, that more than a quarter of the 189 participants dropped out of the survey after the first question. She aimed to find out how often people lie. This shows how much discomfort the topic of dishonesty apparently causes in many couples.

This article is included in Spektrum Kompakt, Partnership – How Love Stays

Anyone who has ever been lied to about an important issue knows the emotional chaos such a lie can throw you into. But does that mean you have to give up everything?? Not necessarily. Many couples who come to me for counseling still love each other. So how do you best get through such situations, and what helps you make the right decisions??

Basically, people often lie in partnerships. Psychologist Claudine Biland draws the following conclusion from various studies: In couples who have been together for a certain amount of time, there is one lie for every ten interactions that last at least ten minutes each. In very fresh relationships, the untruth is even told on average in every third interaction. People exaggerate when describing their own successes, correct the number of cigarettes they smoke a day down a little, and keep quiet about their little quirks. In short: One tries to present oneself in the best possible light.

The unsaid also plays a role here: deliberately concealing something is often perceived as being just as serious as an outright lie. Even when it is done out of consideration for others and is intended to spare the feelings of the other person. After all, who wants to hear that they actually look like a parrot in their new clothes??

Men and women lie on average equally often, but in different ways. In 1996, Bella DePaulo and her team at the University of Virginia asked about 150 participants to keep a diary for a week about who they interacted with and how often and in what ways they lied. The researchers discovered that women twisted the truth just as often as men, but did so more from "altruistic" motives, for example to avoid hurting others. In my survey, which specifically targeted lying in couple relationships, I was also able to identify other differences: While both sexes tend to sweep their own infidelity or waning feelings under the carpet to the same extent, men prefer to conceal their personal problems – be they of a financial or legal nature. They are also more likely to keep quiet about the fact that their "acquaintance" is really their ex-partner. Women, on the other hand, like to keep their partner in the dark about how they spend their time in general.

Draw a line or save the relationship?

If a lie is exposed, the first question for those affected is how they want to use their energy now: Do they want to work on their relationship or say goodbye to it? At first, it may be difficult to find a clear answer to this.

If you decide to stay with your partner, you should be honest with yourself – and with what happened. Most of the time, it helps to write down your emotions: Take a piece of paper and write down how your partner lied to you and what specific thoughts and feelings this lie triggered in you.

In the second step, it is important to accept your own feelings. Anger, guilt, sadness, confusion, and fear are often painful. In addition, a betrayal gnaws at our self-image: We blame the other person for bitterly disappointing us, but at the same time we tend to devalue ourselves ("I’m treated like a toddler who can’t be expected to tell the truth," "Apparently I’m so unbearable that I have to be lied to"). Women, on average, have a harder time living with lies than men: they are more inclined to ruminate endlessly about what happened. Ultimately, however, it is completely individual how someone deals with a deception. Our personality and our own history also have an influence on it.

Here’s how to learn to accept negative feelings

If your partner has lied to you or even cheated on you, it is important to first process all the negative feelings thoroughly. If this doesn’t happen, these emotions can keep coming up and get in the way of a fulfilling relationship. An exercise based on mindfulness meditation can help with this:

  • Sit comfortably in a chair and assume an upright and dignified posture.
  • Close your eyes and focus on your breathing for a few moments, without trying to change anything about it.
  • Then extend your attention to your entire body. Notice all the pleasant and unpleasant sensations. Do not try to change anything about it.
  • If you become distracted, notice that too and simply return to your body breathing here and now.
  • Accept all the feelings and thoughts related to your partner’s lie. Breathe into it purposefully. You may feel them particularly clearly in one part of your body.
  • If images arise in your mind’s eye, imagine that you are projecting them onto a screen and watching them like a movie.
  • Continue to breathe into these unpleasant feelings and say to yourself: "I am okay with feeling this way. That’s just the way it is at the moment."

Ideally, practice regularly for about 20 minutes. This exercise is an important first step in overcoming pain. By accepting it, you don’t waste your energy fighting certain feelings, but can focus on finding a constructive solution. It sounds paradoxical, but before you can get better, you have to admit to yourself that you are miserable.

Some situations arouse emotions that really burn themselves into the memory. For example, if your partner has cheated on you. The U.S. psychologist Dennis Ortman also diagnoses "post infidelity stress disorder" in such cases, which can have similar effects to post-traumatic stress disorder. Sufferers are disappointed, angry, anxious and irritable. Again and again they chew over the betrayal, suffer from nightmares and flashbacks. They believe they will never be able to trust anyone or just enjoy their life again. The other person is suddenly a stranger to you.

Negative feelings can be so intense that we prefer to push them aside. But this would be a mistake: this is not how we learn to deal with what we have experienced. At some point the feelings catch up with us. Anger and sadness then return at the slightest annoyance, and the situation builds up more and more. Mindfulness meditation can be a valuable support in becoming aware of and accepting your own feelings (see "How to learn to accept negative feelings").

Lies have many causes

Afterwards, those who have been lied to should try to understand what happened. Lying can be done for a variety of reasons: to avoid an unpleasant feeling or situation (such as conflict or embarrassment); to get something (a reward, admiration, power); to protect privacy; to spare someone else grief; or to hide one’s weaknesses or part of one’s personality. Usually several factors come together when lying occurs.

Especially in cases of serious lies or infidelity, a deeper understanding of the causes can help you accept the past and find a solid foundation for a new beginning. An exercise is sometimes supportive: talk about your relationship, analyzing what specific motives led to the lies and how they can be prevented (see "Getting to the Roots of Dishonesty").

Get to the bottom of the roots of insincerity

Step 1: Write down the history of your relationship in as much detail as possible. Imagine you wanted to tell someone else about it. Start with your first encounter and the environment in which it took place. Then tell about the pleasant and unpleasant things you have experienced. How has your partner behaved in the past? What character traits characterize the person? How do you feel about being by their side? Then report how you uncovered the lie and where you stand with each other today. For each phase, describe exactly how you felt and what you were thinking. Also imagine what your partner was feeling and thinking. Do not reread what you wrote down and come back to it again. You don’t have to put everything down on paper at once. If you want to continue your narrative later, always read the last sentence to see where you left off. When your text is finished, let it sit for three days.

Step 2: Ask a person you trust to read the text to you without commenting. Afterward, report to your counterpart how you felt when you heard your own story. If you like, the person can also tell you afterwards how they felt and what they thought as they read it to you. If you can’t find someone to ask to read aloud, make yourself comfortable alone somewhere and read your story aloud to yourself. Take the time to focus on what you are feeling and thinking and write it down.

Step 3: Now try to answer the following questions as honestly as possible:

  1. What criteria did you use to choose your partner??
  2. At what point did you start to be dissatisfied with your relationship? Why?
  3. What difficulties have you faced as a couple in the past months or years? How did you deal with it yourself? How your partner did? Have you found solutions, or do the problems continue??
  4. How did you divide your time between your partner, your family, and your personal interests? Between work, social activities and free time? Was the division balanced?
  5. Have you been able to communicate with your partner satisfactorily? Did you listen to his or her grief? Has he or she listened to your grief? Were there important messages that you failed to convey to each other?
  6. How did it go in bed? Did you experience your sexuality as satisfying? And your partner?
  7. Were money issues ever a problem? Was the division of expenses okay for both of you?
  8. Were you both proud to be a couple and felt valued in your relationship? Did either of you accuse the other of indifference? Or constantly criticize? Or even humiliating remarks or behavior?

In one such storytelling exercise, for example, Sophia realized that Nicolas had just been extremely stressed in his personal and professional life when he became unfaithful. She also recognized that sometimes asking her partner to spend more time on their relationship prevented her from relieving pressure: "I asked him to go to tennis less often, even though that had been his outlet for stress relief from a young age."The need to relieve stress may have been one of the reasons Nicolas gave in to another woman’s advances one evening.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that just because Nicolas couldn’t go to tennis matches, he had the right to betray his partner. But it’s important to know every little set screw that led your partner down the path of lying.

Stress is a risk factor for any relationship. The work of German psychologist Guy Bodenmann shows that a whole range of factors can put a strain on a partnership: too little time spent together, as in the case of Sophia and Nicolas, but also the division of housework, the upbringing of children, the relationship with the partner’s family, sexuality, and a lack of communication. If such points of conflict become prevalent, the risk of one partner wanting to take a breath of fresh air outside the relationship increases.

Exploring your own boundaries

It is also important to take a closer look at your own relationship to lying. Make a list of everything that is still acceptable to you in this regard: can you live with it if your partner hides from you that he had an erotic dream with another woman? That he went out to dinner with his ex? That he occasionally doubts your relationship?

Basically, our relationship to lying depends on our personal experiences: If you’ve ever been deceived or had to witness your parents hiding something from each other more than once in your childhood, you run the risk of developing what American psychologist Jeffrey Young calls a "pattern of mistrust". Affected people then constantly suspect that the other person might be cheating on them, often accompanied by jealousy. Even the smallest ambiguity is interpreted negatively and the most innocuous fib is used as proof of a big lie.

It also suffers the one who lies

A lie is painful for the person who has been deceived. But the situation is not easy for the liar either. He also often feels depressed, anxious and stressed. A guilty conscience gnaws at him, sometimes to the point of panic attacks or physical ailments such as stomach cramps, headaches and nausea. Moreover, we lose respect for ourselves when we lie.

According to U.S. psychiatrist Daniel Langleben, the default response of our brain is to tell the truth. Lying requires some cognitive effort as you suppress the truth. In addition, we have to deal with the emotional turmoil that is usually the result of this. To avoid being exposed, the liar must also factor in the risk of being caught. Likewise, he must remember what was said (that is, mobilize his memory) and choose the best strategy to invent a new answer. All in all, lying with this costs a lot of energy mentally.

Both partners should do the same analysis: How do we keep it honest? And why? In the end, both parties usually have to work on themselves. It helps to agree on rules and boundaries that both have to respect.

Sophia realized through this exercise how much she tended to want to control everything and attack Nicolas as soon as he disagreed with her. In addition, she realized that her partner had never really learned to confide in someone openly. "He wants to avoid conflict at all costs and lies to his friends or family just to avoid having to explain himself," she says. Since Nicolas occasionally fibbed out of convenience and Sophia could be quite quick-tempered, little lies were just a matter of time. And then later great.

Restore the trust

To restore the lost trust at the end, it is important to create space for communication and to talk regularly about feelings and open questions: How do the conflicts develop further? Is the new behavior bringing the desired improvements? Here, the partners should jointly explore the best time for these conversations (for example, in the evening or on the weekend) and set a certain rhythm that suits both of them (about once a week).

Attempts to punish the partner for his behavior at any cost are of little use. While the person who lied needs to realize the full implications of their dishonesty and understand what it means that they have betrayed the pact of marriage or the relationship. If the lost trust is to be restored and the crisis overcome together, however, both partners must above all see themselves as a team again.

Sophia also realized that she had to make compromises. When Nicolas lies to someone again, she tells herself that this is one of his traits and not necessarily a negative one: often the fibbing comes from his desire not to hurt or unnecessarily frighten other people. She then tries not to interfere and not to constantly control what he says or does. The situation is completely different within her relationship: Here, she demands absolute honesty from him even in trivial matters, at least until she can trust him fully again.

Five steps to turn over a new leaf

After a serious lie, several steps are usually required to restore the lost trust within the relationship:

  1. Describe the lie as precisely as possible.
  2. Clarify what feelings the lie has triggered in you.
  3. Accept these feelings.
  4. Try to understand why the other person was insincere.
  5. Learn to better handle conflicts within your partnership in the future.

Some people manage to forgive their partner completely at some point. Nevertheless, you should not be too quick to check off the workup. A new beginning takes time. Sophia is still ambivalent too. On the one hand, she says, "Even though I have decided to stay with my partner and we continue to work on our relationship, I have not forgiven him yet." However, she also confesses, "At the moment we are very much in love. No one could replace him for me. I feel very comfortable at his side." For their relationship this is a gigantic step.

If a lie comes to light, it’s not necessarily the end of the partnership. In some cases, however, a breakup may be the better way to go. For example, if the above analysis leads to the conclusion that the relationship is only a facade. Or worse, that it’s toxic. This was the case with 30-year-old Melissa, who also came to me for counseling. She was with Adam, who constantly lied to her and made her feel guilty: for talking to another man or buying a flashy red coat – ostensibly to catch the eye. Adam was so skilled at manipulating his partner that it took several therapy sessions for Melissa to see through what was happening.

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