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Ask Izzy: Lying as a trauma response and how to rebuild trust in a long-term relationship

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Photo by Karolina Grabowska / Pexels
Photo by Karolina Grabowska / Pexels

Ask Izzy is a biweekly advice column about relationships, mental health, and sexuality. Written by Isabel Mata — a Seattle-based lifestyle writer, podcast host, and mental health advocate — Ask Izzy offers tangible expert advice so all readers can have stronger relationships, better sex, and healthier mindsets.

Dear Izzy,

How do I rebuild trust after lying to my partner? I'm in a committed relationship in which I've been more enmeshed than ever. I didn't realize that entwining our lives completely would make things so difficult and unhappy. We've combined our finances and I cut down my spending, but I still wanted to enjoy the occasional coffee or random snack while out working. I don't ask questions about my partner's spending, but they asked me about my accounts. I knew they'd be upset about the coffees and so I lied. It was stupid of me; they checked my accounts and were very upset. They set a boundary that if I ever lied again, then they'd break up with me. Cut to me lying again about throwing out some cigarettes (I am trying to quit), but they also smoke and we share cigs. I shouldn't have lied; it's a terrible habit of mine. They haven't broken up with me yet, but it seems very likely. It may be too late to fix this.

— Former LWL (Little White Liar)

Dear Former LWL,

Oof. It sounds like you are in quite the pickle. There are a few things that stand out to me about your note that I want to touch on. It sounds like you know lying is unhealthy, as it is clearly hurting the relationship. So why do you do it? I ask because I too have had a similar problem in the past. Hell, even now I still sometimes lie to avoid what I think will be an uncomfortable interaction if I tell the truth. If you find yourself lying automatically, even when you know you don't have to, this could be a trauma response.

For example, when I was younger, I was really scared about people getting mad at me. As an adult, I realized that this is because when I was a kid, I was often punished for going against someone's expectations. So, to protect myself, I learned to lie to avoid difficult emotions and confrontation. According to psychotherapist Lillian Rishty, LCSW, who owns NYC Therapy Group in midtown Manhattan, "Lying can be a coping mechanism for trauma for both adults and children, because trauma sufferers sometimes don't feel safe enough to tell the truth."

I recommend being as honest as you can with your partner about where this compulsion comes from, as a start. Friends, family, and partners, in your case, "can be made to understand that it's a coping mechanism and not coming from lack of love—people assume we wouldn't lie to those we love" says Rishty. "Friends and family can help them find a way to experience safety in telling the truth."

Like you said, your partner set a hard boundary about lying. If you want the relationship to work, then you need to respect that. If you are really struggling, which it seems like you are, then you can always ask your partner for help keeping you accountable. If they know that smoking is something you are trying to give up, maybe they can stop doing it around you. Or you ask them to buy their own cigarettes from now on, so you aren't tempted to pick one out of your bag when you feel like you need it.

Also: Before you and your partner decided to combine your finances and entire lives, really, did you sit down and have a conversation about boundaries? And what would that look like in real life? It seems to me that there are some boundaries being crossed on both sides of the relationship. You want freedom to treat yourself, and your partner wants full transparency.

When my husband and I were dating, we talked about combining our finances. When the time came to decide, we both made a list of our boundaries. For example, I wanted the flexibility to treat myself and not feel like I was being selfish. But my husband wanted us to cut back on our spending so we could save. To compromise, we came up with a budget specifically for little treats. Now I have a certain amount each month that I can spend on myself without worrying about it adding up. This way my husband can feel good about what we are saving, and I can still treat myself when I need a pick-me-up.

Long-term partnerships depend on communication, empathy, and respect, from both sides. If you start making choices that reflect that, I have no doubt that you can rebuild trust in no time. If your partner is having a hard time forgiving you, remind them that your actions do not reflect who you are or the love you feel for them. Sometimes we simply make bad choices. It's how you learn from them and move forward that determines the future of your relationship.