We have a tough topic today — and unfortunately, it’s also one that is all too common. What do you do when your spouse is a chronic liar? Well, we are going to try to come to this topic with accountability and compassion because trust is so vital to creating a happy marriage.
What is Pathological Lying?
There are a few terms that get used interchangeably here: compulsive lying, chronic lying, and pathological lying. Like some other psychological terms it can get thrown around too loosely. Somebody lies to you a couple times and it upsets you and you call them a pathological liar: that may not be an accurate assessment.
But when you have frequent, compulsive telling of lies and false stories[i] this is pathological lying. Typically the lies told have three features:
- Continuous: the lies are told regardless of context or who is being spoken to, without any apparent benefit or motive and no thought of potential consequences
- Impulsive: the lies are not necessarily intended to manipulate people or gain anything. The person simply sees an opportunity to lie and does so.
- Compulsive: lies are often told automatically without any conscious decision.
Those are a pretty serious set of criteria. That’s why I say we use the label too freely: there’s a much lower level of lying that is still problematic but strictly speaking, pathological lying should have all these components.
Along with this you’ll often see that the compulsive liar, when challenged about his or her lies, may attempt to downplay what was said or may try to get out of it by telling more lies. They often get caught up in a web of increasingly unrealistic lies.
It’s also helpful to know that someone who is a pathological liar may be mentally well adjusted in every other way, or they may have other difficulties such s personality disorders (especially narcissistic personality disorder), ADHD or memory problems[ii].
What Makes A Chronic Liar?
Let’s talk about some possible causes. Not for the purpose of justifying the behaviour or asking you to be OK with it, but just to create a little compassion and hopefully even some possible treatment strategies.
Brain Functioning and Lying
Serious forms of chronic lying may be due to differences at the brain level. Neuroimaging of patients who show compulsive lying reveals impairments to the prefrontal cortex[iii]. These impairments could be caused by head injury, degenerative diseases, infection, epilepsy, or be present from birth. This impairment affects two important mental processes:
The first process, executive functioning, is about the ability to control and monitor your own thoughts, as well as control impulses and organize yourself
Problems with executive functioning may look like difficulty with controlling the impulse to lie. If your executive functioning is intact, when the cop pulls you over you may be tempted to lie to him or her but your executive function kicks in and you realize, no my kids are in the car, I need to be truthful and do some good role modelling here. If your executive function is impaired you might not ever get out in front of that initial impulse.
Sometimes people get upset with me when I point out the possible physiological basis for these kinds of issues — am I trying to excuse or to minimize something that is morally wrong? No, I am not. But if the person cannot stop and sincerely wants to stop and all you are doing to try to motivate them to stop is using moralistic interventions (impressing them with how wrong it is, how God hates lies, and Satan is the father of lies)… that’s all true but it is not going to actually help them stop if there’s a head injury. They need a different approach to try to achieve the same outcome. Although the symptoms are a moral issue, the cause may not be a purely moral problem: it could potentially be physiological as well (e.g., due to a brain injury).
Theory of Mind
The second process, known as theory of mind, is the ability to see that other people are conscious beings like you, along with the ability to view things from another person’s perspective. Normally this develops in childhood and from then on you are aware that other people are living things with different thoughts and perspectives to your own.
Impaired theory of mind can cause people to tell elaborate or unrealistic lies since they are unable to see that other people will instantly be able to prove what they are saying is false. These lies are often continued over a period of years. For example, a study in 2005[iv] mentions a man who swore under oath in court that he had taken part in covert operations for the CIA in Africa and had been awarded the Purple Heart Medal during the Vietnam War, none of which was true and was easily proven false. The man simply had no ability to control his impulse to lie, even under such serious circumstances, and no ability to see that from an outside perspective the lie was ridiculous.
So you have these two mental processes: executive functioning and theory of mind. Impairments to the executive functioning cause a person to have difficulty controlling their impulses to lie while damage to your theory of mind causes an inability to see the effects of lying on other people. Difficulty distinguishing reality from fabrication may also result, and many pathological liars also suffer from some form of delusions, where they actually come to believe their lies to be true[v] (Dike, 2010).
It Could Be a Lying Habit
Another possible contributor to chronic lying is habits. Like many behaviors, lying can become a habit. Many children lie or invent elaborate fantasies as part of their games, or to avoid getting into trouble.
If they are constantly rewarded for this (with attention, with entertainment or with escaping punishment) then it may form a habit which persists into adulthood. A study into chronic lying in 2010[vi] argues that a lying habit can be formed from the “reward” of simply telling a lie and getting away with it.
For example a study in 2007[vii] describes a case of a 20 year old man who as a child “used to enjoy making fools of children in his locality and his neighbors about various matters; like telling his neighbor that officials from the electricity board are coming to check their meters for complaints of stealing electricity.” As he became older the lies become more elaborate and started to include acts of fraud. So in this case lying for attention and for the fun of it was a mental habit that the man never grew out of. And once it’s established in your brain’s pathways it can be tough to break out of it.
Detecting and Dealing with Lies
Once again we’ve created a bonus guide for our much-appreciated supporters. This one is not so much of a happy one but it is still very useful as it goes into detail on how to detect lies. We didn’t create this to start a witch hunt, but because we know that some of you are so disorientated by the lies in your marriage that you just need some help having a reference to turn to and help anchor yourself in some truth. If you’d like this additional content, you can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Trauma and Guilt Can Foster Lying
Some pathological liars use their lies as a means to escape from stressful or unpleasant life circumstances or to avoid dealing with past trauma[viii]. They often then experience high levels of guilt about using lies to escape from reality, and so on some unconscious level start to believe their lies to be true, so as to stop feeling guilty.
To understand this you have to really focus on the trauma piece. Think perhaps about a child who is experiencing trauma: severe, overwhelming, inescapable distress. A violent father. A chaotic home environment full of unmanageability and unpredictability. Or even a reasonable home but a series of traumatic hospital visits.
One coping mechanism is dissociation: removing yourself from your body and becoming a spectator of your pain rather than a participant in it. That is taking a step back from reality. See how lying could fit into that as a dissociative coping mechanism?
Or, perhaps the child felt very unsafe for some reason. He or she had to learn to self-preserve by becoming a good liar. Now the child is programming lying into his or her fight-flight-freeze response and so it becomes an impulsive, automatic response from their central nervous system. Then lying becomes nearly as instant and thoughtless a reaction as an increased heart rate. Trauma can help create this for sure.
Anxiety and Lying
This is sad. Compulsive lying can also come from anxiety and low self-esteem. If a person thinks they are worthless or unimportant and fears being judged, they may get into the habit of lying to avoid having to be vulnerable and actually open up about themselves. So the lying comes to serve a protective function.
Is There Hope for Chronic Liars?
Yes, I believe there is. If they want help. However, there is a paucity of research on the topic. But let’s look at what we did find and also what I’ve seen in my clinical experience.
Here’s one study which is a qualitative study so it has just one participant. However, in that study[ix], they found that treatment with both an antidepressant and therapy was effective in reducing compulsive lying behavior. This was apparent after 6 months of treatment.
Also, if you see some of the items above: anxiety, low self-esteem, trauma, etc. and you take those core issues to a therapist who can address them then through healing those issues you may find you no longer need lying as part of your protective stance in life.
The people I see who struggle with this actually feel really bad about their lies and they want to give their spouse the experience of them being a safe, trustworthy person. So if you are willing to do this deeper work I would certainly hold a lot of hope.
One aspect of the treatment in the study I just referenced was a kind of conditioning where patients were repeatedly told of the negative consequences of being caught lying (e.g., humiliation, losing their friends or being fired etc). Over time the compulsive liar learns to associate lying with this fear of negative consequences, and so learns to better control their impulses.
There’s a connection that is made in the brain between the consequence and the impulse. This is something that I would certainly use brain spotting for in my practice: to help the person connect the impulse with the consequence. That connection is simply missing if your spouse is a chronic liar: that is how it is so easy for them to lie.
This explains a little more about where we were going with our download this week. If the compulsive liar is lying for the excitement of getting away with it, then learning to spot lies and call them on it will take away the motivation to lie.
Build Self Esteem
If the compulsive liar is using their lies to protect from having to be vulnerable, showing them that you love them unconditionally and responding well when they honestly talk about themselves may build up their self-esteem and teach them that it is safe to be honest.
This is one way you can provide an environment that fosters honesty. However, we do not want to put the responsibility of fixing this problem on the spouse who is not struggling. It really is the task of the lying spouse to own his or her junk and be willing to do the work that is necessary to become a safe person for his or her spouse.
[i] Michele Poletti, Paolo Borelli, and Ubaldo Bonuccelli, “The Neuropsychological Correlates of Pathological Lying: Evidence from Behavioral Variant Frontotemporal Dementia,” Journal of Neurology 258, no. 11 (2011): 2009–13.
[ii] Poletti, Borelli, and Bonuccelli.
[iii] Poletti, Borelli, and Bonuccelli.
[iv] Charles C. Dike, Madelon Baranoski, and Ezra E. H. Griffith, “Pathological Lying Revisited,” The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 33, no. 3 (2005): 342–49.
[v] Charles C. Dike et al., “Pathological Lying: Symptom or Disease?,” Psych Central Professional, November 1, 2010, //pro.psychcentral.com/pathological-lying-symptom-or-disease/.
[vi] Dike et al.
[vii] Rakesh Pal Sharma, Ajeet Sidana, and Gurvinder Pal Singh, “Pseudologia Fantastica,” Young, 2007.
[viii] Dike et al., “Pathological Lying.”
[ix] Sharma, Sidana, and Singh, “Pseudologia Fantastica.”