As a therapist, I assume clients will be honest with me, naive as that might sound. This is not to say that people will be completely transparent; I appreciate that we all need to protect ourselves from our wounds and sometimes withhold things that might be difficult to admit, even to ourselves. Still, when couples come into therapy there is an assumption of intent that each person is coming in truthfully, even if, in some cases, it takes some time to get there.

A client comes back to couples’ therapy after lockdown feeling shocked having discovered that their partner has been having an ongoing affair. In a sense, she is not the only one who feels betrayed. Prior to lockdown in session after session, the partner assured me that there was no other person involved in the breakdown of their relationship. The wife now feels betrayed, because she assumed that they had ‘both’ been ‘working on their relationship’, spending time and money in couples’ therapy all without the knowledge that their partner had gone outside the relationship. For me, as their therapist, I feel as if my working understanding of the situation has been compromised by not having all the working parts available and not been able to do my job to the best of my ability.

Therapy aims to find clarity with issues and get a better understanding of how we feel. Therapy can help us identify the issues and help unravel our feelings to see the issues and our partners more clearly. But, without the truth, it is impossible to do this. It sets up an unequal playing field in the therapeutic relationship which no one benefits from.

According to couple therapist David Schnarch’s book “It ain’t personal,” part of the healing process is seeing and understanding how clients operate in their day-to-day existence. A client who’s being dishonest in their life will tend to bring that into the consulting room. David believes it is the therapist’s job to observe and allow the lies to play out and then respond. For me, it is important to bring compassion to the situation, especially when the lie is a result of the disassociated/split off part of the person who is lying. They often are so disconnected from their true self that even they believe the lie. 

People lie for various reasons but the root is usually connected to shame. Brene Brown believes that when people feel shame, shame goes underground. Bringing shame to the session to be shared can normalise unmanageable feelings and hopefully allows the truth to be told. Being patient with clients is essential, it can help disentangle the narratives clients feel lying with help avoid. Clients create stories that if they disclose a lie it will be the end of their relationship. It is the fear of judgement, consequences or retaliation that perpetuates the lies. In truth, sometimes there are consequences, but living with a lie is toxic and will usually end a relationship, regardless.

Lastly, people who lie in therapy are usually not ready to accept these parts of themselves and cannot manage their feelings so they lie to themselves and their partner. What they don’t appreciate is what they believe is self-preservation is actually what prolongs their pain. Lies only postpone the therapeutic work and derail the process of therapy. Therapy can help navigate these obstacles and help clients recognise that truth is not only the way back into a broken relationship, it is the way back to a more aligned and enlightened self and to have a relationship fortified with trust and resilience.

Shirlee Kay