“The heart already knows what the mind has yet to perceive” — Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Life is hard enough when we and our partners go through life changes. We change careers. We are faced by major health challenges. We age and cannot do what we used to do. All of these normal life stresses pale in comparison to learning that our beloved life mate of so many years is really not the person we thought he or she was. Discovering a secret life in a spouse, facing relationship-threatening changes or simply watching our partner become a mysterious remote stranger is often more than any of us can bear in a relationship. Yet it happens all too often in couple life. Unlike affairs, where the betrayal is eventually quite knowable, having spooky inexplicable and unwanted changes with a spouse sends most of us over the top. We get confused. We doubt our sanity. We blame ourselves and wonder how the metamorphosis in our beloved is our fault.
I remember last Halloween when Paul went out with the kids in the neighborhood wearing one of my dresses. We all thought it was quite a hoot as Paul is rather the macho man at home. We all thought nothing of it. After all it was Halloween. About a month later I spotted a locker ticket on the counter at home that had Paul’s name on it. The locker was in a local art studio. For some reason I decided to visit the art studio and see what this ticket is about. When they opened his locker I was blown away by what I saw. There were about 20 frilly dresses in the locker that belonged to Paul. I asked, “Do these dresses really belong to my Paul? Surely there must be some mistake.” The manager said, “Yes ma’am these dresses belong to Paul.” I gasped as I fell backwards on the locker. I started recalling the many times Paul would inexplicably be away from home for extended periods of time. I always made excuses for him. I took a deep breath and knew that my life was changing in ways I didn’t want it to.
Francine and I have been married for 10 years. Our life together is good except for our lack of sex life. At first Francine and I made love a lot. Then about a year ago she asked me to sleep in the other bedroom. She said my touching her was making her skin crawl. I had noticed in the last year that her whole body got tense when I snuggled up to her. I wondered how could this be happening. I mean, we have two kids together so we do know how to do it. I am completely devastated as touching Francine is now my only way to be close to her. I wonder what I did to turn her off so much. She says that I am a sex nut. Hell, wouldn’t you be a sex nut if your wife never let you touch her? I don’t flirt with other women, although I am certainly tempted to. Francine has no explanation for why she doesn’t want me to touch her. All this started with the TV news about all the clergy abuse in the Catholic Church. I keep wondering about the uncle who used to live with her when she was a girl. He gives me the creeps today when we visit him. Yet Francine said that nobody ever abused her. When I look at my wife now I feel there is a Grand Canyon of distrust between us. I don’t even know her today. Yet I yearn for her.
I used to think that when you’re married to somebody for so long you know everything there is to know about another person. Marty and I were married for 30 years. He’s always bragged about earning a Purple Heart in Vietnam. Everybody knows him as the “war hero.” One day a handwritten letter came in the mail addressed to Marty. It contained greetings from a Vietnamese woman with pictures of her grown children. They looked a lot like Marty. I nearly crumbled. I don’t know what possessed me to open his mail. Generally I don’t do that. I wished I hadn’t. Yet I’ve had this sinking feeling that Marty isn’t who he says he is. I contacted the Army and found out that Marty had never even served in Vietnam. Later I confronted him about the letter. His face grew white with shock and then red with anger. When I asked about the letter he turned into a person I did not know. He dismissed the letter entirely and told me to forget it. I wondered why I had been such a fool and why he couldn‘t trust me to know the truth. Now I am left wondering what other lies is he telling me.
The stories above illustrate how life happens when we are making other plans and how devastating reality can be. Suffering can happen in families even when there really is no bad guy. Even when there is no clear explanation. Such hurt is often more than we feel we can bear.
Impact of deception
The amorphous inexplicable quality of relational deception drives most of us to blame ourselves. After all wouldn’t it be better to find certain fault in ourselves than face the uncertainty of having our beloved partners drift away from us? Most of us want to control what we hold most dearly. The frustrating part of most deceptions is that they are typically not caused by ourselves nor are they easily altered by self-reform. Getting duped often results in traumatic loss for us. We are shocked, confused, overwhelmed and angry about our life taking a direction we never planned it to go or had much say in why it is going the way it is. These thoughts haunt us. Frequently we feel helpless in knowing how to restore order and predictability to our lives. The shame from such destabilizing changes may cause us to hide our heads. Others may have more sympathy for those who lied to us than for our pain. They may minimize their behaviors and tell us to be a good sport. Often isolation results. We may get stuck in a rut and find no way out. All the while we are still asking ourselves, “How could this be happening to me?” Ultimately we may simply vilify our partner or ourselves for our suffering. Nevertheless, usually after the fears of losing everything we love have subsided we slowly come to some understanding of what is happening to us and how it is really no one’s fault alone.
“And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.” — Aeschylus (Greek playwright, 525-456 BC)
Why are some of us prone to being deceived?
“The knife and the wound both need each other.” — Sheldon Kopp, Psychoanalyst
Nobody deserves to be duped in a primary relationship. No matter how gullible we are we all need to count on the basic honesty of a partner for safety and trust. Nevertheless some of us are less good at protecting ourselves and asserting our needs with a partner. We may wear the rose colored glasses too much in our lives as we are reluctant to face the dark sides of life. We may take the approach that what we don’t know won’t hurt us. We may routinely see discrepancies in a partner’s behaviors but minimize their effect on us. We may not want to lose the benefits of a relationship and choose to not see the bad stuff.
Some of us may naively expect our partners to shield us from the hard knocks of life and we often choose to not know the fine print of our partner’s life. Others of us were raised in an overly protective family and never learned how to protect ourselves or understand that we even need to. Ultimately some of us learn the hard way that what we don’t know can and often will harm us.
Warning signals of relational duplicity
“We all lie, cheat and steal and we’ve been doing it for a very long time (Yes, even you)” —Sheldon Kopp,
Some research shows that we all tell on average three lies in ten minutes. Most of them are white lies or lies we tell ourselves. It’s impossible for any of us to continually face he truth and illusion can often keep us happy in the short run. The big lies that harm our lives may appear in the following ways:
- We habitually live with cognitive dissonance — we tolerate contradictory realities as a way of life
- We continually doubt and question ourselves when the ugly realities of life surface
- We feel obliged to keep secrets when not doing so means trouble
- We enjoy the power of duplicity and how other people don’t know what we know
- We have low self-value and don’t feel we deserve for people to be honest with us
- We have a history of trauma and spacing out
- We like to see ourselves as totally innocent and above evil behaviors
Facing deception and protecting yourself
“It’s not the pretending, but the pretending that we’re not pretending that hurts us.” — Sheldon Kopp
You alone are responsible for protecting yourself. First ask, “Am I ready to face the truth in my life?” Your answer may be “No” as life is already too overwhelming for you. Perhaps later you may have more support to face difficulties. Work on your support system before you uncover any bombs. Move slowly and persistently. Be prepared to give up many advantages to living the deceitful life. It’s generally the wisest move. Realize the hardest part is not confronting a partner; it is confronting duplicity in ourselves that has supported the lying of a partner. Read Willful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan (Walker Publishing, 2011). The more integrity you take with you to your grave the fuller and more meaningful your life will be. Know the truth and it will set you free.
John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.