I am trying to get caught up this week on all your recent comments and questions, dear readers. This is one that came in last week and really hit a nerve:
I’ve been married for 15 yr, have three kids ages 4,8,12. I am seriously considering divorce. My husband is a compulsive liar with ADHD. He is a good/kind person but lies about anything from returning a book to the library to not paying car insurance or taxes on our house, while having the money in the bank to pay for these things.
He has ruined my relationship with my childhood friends because he has lied to them about business transactions. He doesn’t steal their money but he just tells them he will get things done, but nothing ever gets done and ends up costing them a lot of money. I feel the shame of having a husband that lies to everyone and having them look at me as if I must be the same because we are married. He loses jobs every one to 2 years due to
his lying and I have to always be the provider for the family. We fight every day over his lies and the children are sometimes home to hear it.
How can I stay in a marriage where I can’t believe a word he says? We haven’t had sexual relations in over 6 months and there wasn’t much happening in our 15 years of marriage.
What should I do? Should I continue to live a life of shame for my children, always trying to decipher whether he is telling me the truth or lying?
We went to marriage counseling for a few months and that is how I found out he had ADHD, but he refuses to take medication to treat his disease, but he has been trying to be more truthful, but it is not 100%. I don’t know if I can continue living with someone I cant trust. I have be a detective every day and Im getting tired of it. He gets upset that I am questioning him every day and this causes a lot of tension between us.
Most days I hate him. I don’t leave the house much because I’m afraid of bumping into someone who he has deceived. I went to my aunt’s funeral and someone approached me there. What should I do?
Wow. That’s a lot of pain, over a long period of time. A marriage where you feel you cannot show your face in public because of your husband’s lack of integrity is a lot like a prison sentence. Divorce could start looking pretty good.
But you know what? There’s an interesting and extremely hopeful aspect to this story. Did you see it, too? He’s apparently not lying about having another family or even an affair, not lying about having a life-threatening communicable disease, not lying about what other people did or said or about huge gambling debts or an addiction.
Every single lie Tracy reported is about failing to do what he offered or promised to do. To use a term from Gary Chapman’s Five Love Languages, he lies about one of them, Acts of Service. To their friends, he says he’ll do an Act of Service for them and doesn’t. To his wife, he says he did an Act of Service when he didn’t.
And she says he’s a good and kind man. That’s a pretty apt description for a person who shows love through Acts of Service.
This is such a good place to Assume Love. If you’ve read more than a few posts on this blog, you already know this, but I will repeat it here for anyone just showing up: when you Assume Love, you do it just long enough to turn off your very natural tendency toward looking for evidence of danger, just long enough to see if there is an explanation you have been missing.
I would ask Tracy to ask herself (because she knows far more about this situation than we do):
“If you knew for certain that despite the ADHD, he’s still a good and kind man, and not someone so lacking in integrity that he lies about everything, and you were certain he loves you fiercely, what might explain his lying about all these Acts of Service to you and to those you care about?”
There is a clue here: “He gets upset that I am questioning him every day and this causes a lot of tension between us.”
Men with a normal complement of testosterone in their bodies crave respect from those they love. To them, respect IS love. And when they can’t get any, they go into crazy mode (just like we women do when we suspect our husbands don’t really care much about us and would just as soon replace us with someone prettier or younger or less demanding). Emerson Eggerichs says it’s as if someone is stepping on their air hose and depriving them of any oxygen.
So, he perhaps offers to do things for her and her friends because that’s his Love Language; it’s how he shows how much he loves her. And I imagine he actually does a lot of them, because she calls him a kind man. But others get lost in the disorganization and distraction of ADHD or even just in a lower level of personal integrity and self-control than she’s used to.
Tracy checks up on him, perhaps unaware that she might as well be carrying a banner that reads “I don’t respect you right now.”
So how does he handle it? He says, “I did it. I did. Really.” And perhaps in that moment, he really intends to do it right away. But mostly, he desperately wants Tracy’s respect. He wants to feel loved. And he wants it so much, he’s willing to lie to get it.
When he loses a job, he’s probably simultaneously glad for her steadfast support and scared silly of losing her respect. It’s an Act of Service on her part, which would feel loving, but a threat to their relationship, too. To most men, respect is the very foundation of a relationship. You cannot have a relationship without it, even if you have your favorite Love Language.
To most women, respect is the icing on the cake. First, there must be love and caring. She cannot respect someone who would promise love and deliver something less. She’ll find her respect for him again once that’s taken care of.
If we assume he loves her and lies to her about Acts of Service, this is a very likely explanation for what’s going on: the more he tries to get respect from her, the less he gets. And the more she tries to tell him how to fix the situation, the less he’s able to love her in a way that feels like love to her.
And while there are things he could do to fix this mess, he’s not the one who’s asking. Tracy is. She’s full of resentment and some days even hate. Even if she divorces him, she needs to deal with that, because they have a lot of years of parenting together ahead of them.
So here is where I say if you want resentment to go away, Expect Love. Let go of your other expectations, especially the ones that can’t be fixed by divorcing. He won’t be any more likely to pay the taxes or return the library books or have sex with you or take over being the parent with the reliable income if you divorce. All of his real and his intended but unfinished Acts of Service go away if you end the marriage. Expecting them now isn’t protecting you or your marriage. It’s just causing you pain.
So turn it around. Don’t spend your time checking up what he did or didn’t do. Expect he won’t do it, and put that time to good use looking for what’s much healthier to expect: love. Ironically, when you acknowledge what a good and kind man he is, when you go out of your way to find out just how good and kind he’s been today, he’s likely to become better and kinder, because he’s getting the respect he needs, hoping for even more, and looking to show you through his Love Language how much he values it.
Can Tracy use this advice? I don’t know. Perhaps there is more to her husband’s lying, more dangerous examples of it that we have not yet heard about. And maybe her heart is too hardened now from feeling threatened and shamed for so long because he lies, even if it is only about doing helpful things for her and her friends. Maybe she really needs to punish him for her pain, so even if she needs to return the library books and pay the taxes and make even more money if she’s divorced, she will want to do it divorced just to put him in the same position.
I hope this helps her find her way back to a loving relationship with a man who so wants her approval that he’ll lie to get it. I really hope it is not too late for them. But I have made this a blog post instead of a reply to also put it in front of anyone else who might recognize a similar situation brewing in your marriage. Resentment is best eradicated quickly, because it sets up hard way too quickly. And it is best eradicated by Expecting Love and not giving love a set of specs to live up to.
Love comes in many forms, and when you allow them all into your heart, you get some wonderful surprises.
I wanted to share two experiences I had with lying that might be useful to this woman.
1. As Chief of a medical department at a hospital, I oversaw many employees. One of them was a guy who chronically lied about everything… yet truly did care about patients and was knowledgeable and kind. I came to realize he needed approval so badly that he would offer Acts of Service he could not fulfill to get that approval. He had a wife who was very unhappy with him and was only being castigated at home. My initial impulse was to call him on the lying in a kind way…i.e. say something like ” you are a generous person and sometimes offer things you don’t have the time to do. It would be better to offer only when you are sure you can fulfill the commitment.” I realized that would be heard as another castigation.
Instead, i began praising him for everything he did right – which was a lot. Slowly, the lying diminished (never went away entirely).
2. Recently, my daughter had a friend over. She interrupted her play time to tell me she had not cleaned her room, as she’d promised to do before her friend came over. She would have her friend go home early and clean up before dinner. Would that be OK? I lauded her for having the courage to tell me the truth, and take corrective action. She turned to her friend and said “I told you my mother wouldn’t get mad.”
Later, my daughter explained that kids all want to tell the truth to their parents. They lied when the truth wasn’t acceptable, She thanked my husband and I for always making the truth acceptable.
This got me thinking: Maybe liars feel their truth isn’t acceptable? Maybe they don’t feel their inner essence is good enough and make all kinds of offers, boasts, etc to get the approval they seek. What if instead of shaming them for lying we offered genuine praise for their beautiful inner essence?
This definitely resonates with me. My husband has an enormous amount of good and loving qualities. When I stop and allow myself to only focus on those and not what I want to change I am in awe of him. I spent so many years resenting him and not giving him the respect he deserves that I’m now worried that too much damage has been done not to our relationship but to the relationship he has with our son. My husband still lives me -unconditionally and we’re working very hard to heal old wounds. But I’ve noticed that our 14 year old doesn’t respect his dad. He never has. He dismisses him and my husband doesn’t understand why this is. I feel that I’m to blame. What can I do to change this?
As for the people who confront her about her husband’s lies, I can only imagine how painful that must be. But hiding in the house does not sound like a good long-term solution. To the people who want to complain to her about her husband’s lies, perhaps she could gently but firmly let them know that she is sad about what happened, but that her husband is an adult who makes his own decisions.
One interesting comment is that fact that the husband is not lying for the purpose of stealing from people. So, as you have noted, it really seems likely that his lying is to gain approval and/or to avoid the shame of admitting that he hasn’t kept his promises.
Questioning him and checking up on him increase his feelings of shame.
Whether or not they stay married, the wife will have to do many of the things he is failing to do. If she simply does them without questioning him, she may become less stressed. She will no longer have to spend time and energy checking, questioning, and interpreting. Things will get done, and she will know they are done.
Sue’s suggestion to focus on the positive sounds good. Spouses, employees, children, and pets all respond better to being praised for what they do right rather than being criticized for what they do wrong.
Hi, Joanne. I am so glad you’re working on your resentment and trying to help your son. One thing I can suggest is that you talk with your son about the 24 character strengths described at http://www.viacharacter.org/www/Character-Strengths/VIA-Classification. There is also a survey you can both take to assess your own character strengths.
Ask your son about people he knows who embody strengths other than his top ones. I suspect at some point his father will come up, and you can agree with him.
As you talk about the strengths with him, it’s helpful to know that a multi-disciplinary group of scholars researched and debated this list to make sure it includes only strengths that have been valued across the centuries and in virtually all cultures, which is why it’s missing some currently popular ones in our own culture like self-esteem (aka pride).
It’s also useful to know that, in general, using your top strengths is more important to your satisfaction with life than improving on your lesser strengths. Gratitude is the only one that’s been shown to make people happier if they develop more of it. Developing it turns out to be pretty simple, too. Just end your day for six weeks by noting three specific things you’re thankful for that day. If you share your lists and include on yours some of the ways your husband makes your life better with his top strengths, your son might do the same.
Thanks, Rosemary. It’s always wonderful to hear from another marriage educator on these sticky issues.