ADHD, Lying, and All That Stuff

Is lying a part of your relationship?  Are you eager to move past the lies to a more trusting partnership?  This is the first of several posts that will deal with lies and rebuilding trust in relationships impacted by ADHD.

One of the people in the forum recently posted this very relevant question:

"How does a person cope with a marriage that includes lies?  I know I should have confronted (my ADHD partner) more about the lying when we were first married, but I didn't.  I thought giving him the benefit of the doubt and showing him I believed in him when we were young was a way to boost his ego.  It boosted his ego and made me lose respect for myself.  He was a traveling salesman from the start.  Very independent. I let him be the way he was. It was not a satisfying way to live from my point of view.  How do I gain my self-respect back and how does a spouse hold constant vigil to not tolerate lies?"

Here are just a few more of the questions I've received on lying:

(from a man with ADHD) “I’ve quit smoking, but 3 weeks ago I impulsively bought some chewing tobacco.  When my wife found out she was livid.  How do I stop lying about stuff like this?”

—“I am the ADD husband. I do find I lie at times to my wife about my motivations and intentions since it is easier for me to silently commit to myself to take actions that will retroactively "make up for it". But I am not sure I am ready to admit to her that I do this since for some time she has been solely focused on ME being the problem in our relationship.”

(from a man with ADHD) "(growing up) I quickly learned to cover, hide and adapt in social groups to lie, fit in, not being teased, put down especially being " odd"...As I grew into manhood with issues of attentiveness, focus,and typical ADD symptoms. I lied to cover up my faults and short comings."

—(from a non-ADHD man) “I’ve tried not to create an atmosphere that would encourage lying, then seemingly, out of nowhere, I trip over another one of her lies -- even when it doesn't appear there is a reason to lie…”

—(from a non-ADHD woman) “Is it common that…a non-ADHD partner might respond by lying or not being completely honest about things that they know the ADHD partner will become unreasonably angry about…?”

Lying is a difficult topic, and one that hits very close to home.  None of us think we deserve to be lied to, and the act of lying is often seen as a breach of marital trust.  Moving away from lies to an open and honest relationship is hard, though (we are living proof!) possible.  I wish to share the approach to improving honesty that seems to work well for the couples I’ve worked with (including in my own relationship.)  Note that I'm not saying it's easy - in order to succeed, couples must both wish to make changes and open themselves up to examining their own role in the cycle of lying in the relationship.  This can be hard for partners who are being lied to.

Before I get going, it’s important to understand where I stand on the issue of lying.  Though it’s easy to think of lies, particularly ‘small’ ones, as inconsequential, this is far from the truth.  Lying can’t continue if your relationship is to thrive, as it destroys trust and one’s sense of self and stability, just as it has for the first poster above.  Chronic lies create an unstable environment in which the partner being lied to never knows what is true or false (big or small), and whether the relationship is safe.  For the lying partner, the lies may lower self-esteem and are an indication that the relationship – and one’s feelings about oneself – are not currently healthy.

A Caveat – It’s Not Always Lying

Some aspects of ADHD may be misinterpreted as lying when they are not.  For example, poor short-term memory might lead an ADHD partner to say “We didn’t talk about X two weeks ago!” not because she is covering up, but because she genuinely doesn’t remember the conversation, even if it was important.

Distraction can mean that ADHD and non-ADHD partners experienced the same event quite differently, as the ADHD partner sees some of what the non-ADHD partner sees, plus (most likely) other (perhaps irrelevant) things that the non-ADHD partner didn’t see at all.  “It happened this way, not that!” might seem like a cover-up or a lie when, in fact, it is an accurate representation of what the ADHD partner experienced that the non-ADHD did not.

In either of these situations, you probably end up in a ‘he said/she said” argument over whether something happened a certain way – or at all.  These are unwinnable arguments – there is ample evidence that neither of you sees things completely accurately at least some of the time and, of course, you don’t know when that is.  So if you start arguing over whether it happened this way or that, simply say “that’s a he said/she said argument,” then take stock of where you are at that moment (vs. where you think you ought to be) and start your forward progress from there.

As for whether or not your partner is lying, give your partner the benefit of the doubt when you can.

Lying is Common

Caveat aside, if you have lies in your ADHD-impacted relationship, you are not alone.  This is so common, in fact, that I teach about it in my ADHD Effect In-Depth couples seminar.  Happily, with time and effort, the two of you can move past lies to a healthier place.  The process for doing so includes:

  1. identifying why the lying is happening (the topic of my next blog post)
  2. discussing the role that lying plays in the relationship, including the negatives and positives that it creates
  3. discussing how you both envision your future relationship when honesty is a core value and what each of you would need in order to become more honest and move into that new relationship
  4. creating a new environment that encourages moving away from lying and outlines clear expectations for your 'new and improved' relationship
  5. practicing being honest with each other through improved conflict intimacy and an open conversation about your efforts. You likely won’t get settled into a habit of being completely honest with each other right away if you have experienced chronic lying.

In addition, I think it’s important to clearly think about the elements of trust when ADHD is part of your relationship.

That’s a lot to cover, but it’s a very worthwhile topic, so I will write several blog posts in succession on the topic.  Stay tuned!