Why “not rocking the boat” is a risky approach to handling underlying differences.
As a couples therapist, one situation I’m confronted with often is when a relationship is shaken up by the discovery of a lie. It’s not always infidelity, but that is a classic example. In that first session with a couple who sees me after the discovery of an affair, both partners usually agree on what the problem is – one partner wronged the other, and that person typically sits in my office sheepishly, overcome by guilt, shame, and a vague sense of relief that the truth is finally out. The other person vents their hurt and disappointment, feeling hopeless, but morally superior. Both agree on who the bad guy is, and the therapist might be tempted to join with this interpretation of reality – it’s pretty simple, isn’t it?
In my experience betrayal rarely happens in a relational vacuum. Apart from maybe a pathological liar, most dishonesty in relationships tends to develop in a context that both partners help shape. I am mindful of how delicate this is to talk about – nobody wants to “blame the victim” for “having caused” their partner’s inexcusable betrayal, but what I am suggesting is that there is typically more than one victim. More often than not, both partners are caught in a dynamic of having avoided difficult topics for some time. There is an unspoken agreement that “not rocking the boat” is the safest approach to handling underlying differences.
Couples therapists Bader and Pearson coined the term “Lie Invitee Behavior” to describe the verbal and nonverbal things a partner might communicate to let the other know that the truth is not really wanted. If you’re holding a secret, you probably had bad experiences in the past with sharing what you really think, believe, or desire, and you have learned that it is safer to keep it to yourself. Probably the underlying fear is that if your partner knew what you really think, s/he would no longer love you. This fear might stem from an earlier experience with a relationship that turned sour, or you might be picking up on the not-so-subtle cues from your current partner.
If you suspect that your partner is withholding the truth, what are the “Lie-Invitee Behaviors” you might be doing that help foster an atmosphere of in-authenticity? The list is very long, but here are just a few: flying off the handle when you disagree, making threats, constantly seeking assurance, checking up on your partner, laying down the law, excessive blaming, or having emotional meltdowns. You might be giving unspoken cues as well: you might ask how your partner feels, but you make it clear that there is really only one correct answer, you might ask for the “whole truth” but communicate that it would devastate you, or you tell your partner s/he is being insensitive for expressing their opinion (or frustration with you!). The message that all of these maneuvers have in common is this: your partner’s reality, his or her truth is not really wanted. It is too painful, too difficult, and you worry your relationship may not be strong enough for it.
In my opinion, “rocking the boat” is probably your best bet to lie-proof your relationship. No doubt, you’re taking a risk by putting yourself out there as well as inviting your partner’s true thoughts and feelings, but keeping a lid on the truth is a much bigger gamble! Taking that risk may be a stretch, but it’s an emotional exercise that brings personal and relational growth.
But what if you’re not sure how you feel? Some of us may need to do some soul-searching to discover what our true desires even are! If you’re in the habit of continuously dismissing your own needs or desires, you might have lost touch with yourself, and will ultimately lose touch with your partner. The longer you wait to “show up” and show yourself to your partner – as well as ask about the things that confuse or bother you in their behavior – the greater the risk that you will cement a conflict-avoidant relationship that will ultimately leave you disappointed and resentful – and possibly lied to.