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Heavy Meddle: Is My Boyfriend A Compulsive Liar?

Should I marry someone I can’t quite trust? (Fineas Anton/Unsplash)
Should I marry someone I can’t quite trust? (Fineas Anton/Unsplash)
This article is more than 3 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the advice column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.



Dear Steve,

I’m a 31-year-old woman dating a 43-year-old man. In our first 18 months together, I caught him out on three major lies. The first was about meeting with an ex-fiancée who jilted him years before; she was slyly edging her way back into the picture (she's since told me that herself!). The second was about an ex-fling of his who inexplicably accosted me in a bar one afternoon. The third was about a drunken episode where he ended up staying the night at a single female's house.

In each case I smelled a rat and respectfully asked him what was going on. He denied any wrongdoing, but when I started asking other people about the lies, my boyfriend started owning up to them. I broke it off with him then, but he convinced me to go to couples therapy with him to deal with the issue and we got back together.

That was now over two years ago. He has since lied again. Strange as it might sound, he faked an orgasm. Without going into details, I’ll say that this personally mortified me. And last night, he lied about having dated another ex-girlfriend of his.

Am I holding onto grudges and the past, as he insists?

My problem is not necessarily the content of the lie, but rather there seems a greater overall pattern emerging that greatly concerns me. Is this pathological or compulsive lying? Should I see this as a major red flag? Or is this completely normal and I am being too sensitive? Am I holding onto grudges and the past, as he insists?

But I can’t help but ask myself: Why does he lie to me? If he's going to lie about the small stuff, and even the not-so-small stuff, what else is he going to lie about? He’s away a lot for work, which combined with this compulsive lying and past events, makes me feel incredibly uneasy.

We are talking about getting married this year, but I don't want to commit to, or be with, someone who can't be honest.

The Girl With Wool Over Her Eyes


Dear Girl,

You’re trying to be in an intimate relationship with someone you don’t trust. That’s a big mistake. Marrying such a person would be an even bigger mistake. It’s frankly bewildering to me that you could be discussing marriage with someone whom you view with such suspicion. It would make a lot more sense to break up with him and pursue a relationship with someone you can trust.

So that’s the short version of my answer.

But I now (unfortunately, and somewhat typically) have to offer you a long answer. Because I have no way of judging whether your boyfriend is a compulsive liar, or whether he’s a guy who has lied a few times but wants to make a life with you and is willing to work with you to rebuild trust and to recognize, more specifically, that lying to you is a trigger and to stop doing so, immediately.

And actually, my judgment on this question turns out not to matter at all when set next to your judgment.

So which is it?

It sounds to me like you don’t have enough information to make a definitive call. Some part of you feels like a sucker. Some other part of you still believes. Welcome to long-term monogamy.

A few other aspects of your letter bear mentioning. First, you’re 31 and your guy is 43. You’ve been together for 3 1/2 years, at least. My sense is that your lengthy investment in this relationship makes it hard for you to simply abandon it, even though your gut — or a good portion of it — is telling you to get out before the next deceit. Maybe you’re discussing marriage with this guy because you’re at a point in your life where you’re ready for a long-term commitment. Again, I can’t know that. But you should.

It’s frankly bewildering to me that you could be discussing marriage with someone whom you view with such suspicion.

One thing that counts in this guy’s favor is that he pushed for couples therapy when these trust issues flared earlier. He didn’t deny the problem or try to gaslight you. This therapy, however, didn’t appear to resolve the trust issues, and that he now accuses you of “holding on to grudges and the past” rather than recognizing that these issues have come up for you again.

It’s also significant that the lies you mention concern the possibility of him being with other women. It does sound like the focus of your anxiety is that he’s going to cheat on you, either in mind or body. I wonder if getting engaged to him, then, represents in some way your ability to foreclose that possibility. I don’t think I need to tell you that this is not a good reason to get engaged. It’s rooted in your individual fear, not collective hope.

The final thing worth pondering is whether you’ve encountered these kinds of trust issues in previous relationships. I mean this in a literal sense (do you have old lovers who cheated on you, or lied to you?) and in a broader sense (has trust around fidelity been a hot button for you in previous relationships?).

It’s clear that you two have a lot stuff to work out before you think about getting anywhere near the altar. One way to start that process would be returning to a therapist together. But it’s also worth considering whether you want to talk to someone on your own, so you can get some perspective on how much these trust issues redound to his deceptions and how much to your suspicions.

The desired outcome of any therapy, though, shouldn’t be that you guys “get back together.” It should be that the two of you find some clarity on whether you can rebuild trust and make that long, good promise to each other.

Don’t delay. If you guys aren’t right for one another, better to realize that now and go your separate ways, so each of you can pursue partners you can trust, and be trusted by.

You’ll have to dig to find the answers here.


Good luck,

Author's note:What a complex dilemma. And I didn’t even get to the part of her letter about this guy being out of town a lot (which I think also matters a great deal). But I’ve said enough. What do you all think? Any compulsive liars want to weigh in? Also: please send along a letter to Heavy Meddle, if you haven't. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. — S.A.

Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.


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