by Francine Dalby
My Husband is a liar…
There, I said it. I knew he was a liar when we married and it honestly didn’t bother me. Being an idealistic, newly-qualified psychologist, I set out instead to understand why. He was an intriguing puzzle to be solved, and I loved him. Maybe I somehow imagined myself exempt from the lies because I knew about most of them, maybe I thought I could ‘cure him’, but in reality I was the biggest patsy of them all.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the last 15 years asking ‘why do people lie?’ What I really should have been asking, the only question I could really hope to answer, was ‘why does he lie?’
Some lies are easy to understand. Almost everyone lies occasionally – to get out of things (‘Sorry, I’d love to come, but I’m already booked up that afternoon.’), to avoid hurting people’s feelings (‘Your hair looks great!’), and many other social niceties. I was brought up to believe that all lies are wrong, but in the real world these ‘white lies’ are required in order to navigate smoothly through life. One of my sons has Asperger’s and never lies; even these social ‘white lies’ are beyond him. Now in his 20s, he still doesn’t understand the complex rules that govern truth-telling or that sometimes it is better to say nothing than it is to tell the truth. He once told his English teacher that she was very overweight and needed to diet or she would die from related health problems. He thought he was being helpful but, needless to say, she did not and in revenge made the final two years of school as miserable as she could for him. People don’t want to hear too much truth.
Some lies are designed to help you get your own way. Many of the lies my husband told were of that kind. From the car he had to buy because it was an ‘unmissable bargain’ even though we couldn’t afford it, which turned out to cost £12,000 more that he told me, to the Christmas day just after we split up when he told me he had cancer and had been given six months to live. Those are lies to make you angry, yes, but they are understandable too. He wanted his own way, simple as that.
Some lies are intended to manipulate others. These lies are probably the worst, woven into each other and around the truth so that after a while they are impossible to untangle. These are the lies that destroy relationships and reputations, that change the course of people’s lives. After hubbie and I split up and he began new relationships, he told at least three different women that he was in love with them and had been for a long time; he did this over a period of a few weeks. On the basis of this lie, one of the women left her husband of 22 years and lost her home and marriage as a result. I have no idea how she eventually learned the truth or what happened to her afterwards, although her former husband has remarried now. When I asked my husband why he told lies, especially ones that are so hurtful to others and so unnecessary, he would say ‘I don’t know, I just tell people what they want to hear.’
I will never know the truth about many of the things he told me. About whether his father really did beat him brutally as a child, while his mother stood by and did nothing. Somehow, knowing them both as older people, I doubt it – maybe there is a kernel of truth in there somewhere, wrapped up in big, dramatic lies. I suspect he told me about his ‘difficult childhood’ because he thought that is what I wanted to hear – how could I not be more understanding and sympathetic after all he had suffered?
The most puzzling lies are the small, pointless ones. It always seemed petty to call him on the small lies – in a world where there are so many serious problems, where we as a family were struggling to make mortgage payments and care for a sick toddler, did it really matter if he lied about what he ate for lunch? But I came to learn that lies are cumulative, one built on another to create a true house of cards. And as for those small ones, the ones that don’t seem to matter – it turns out that if you let those slip by, after it has happened hundreds and hundreds of times, you find yourself letting the whoppers through too.
It never made logical sense to me that he would tell a lie when people could easily catch him out, when the truth would do just as well, but I never called him on the lies in front of others so, I wonder, at what point did I also become culpable, a liar by omission? My husband used to visit a friend who ran a shop selling fishing tackle. He would often call in for a cup of tea and a chat, but whilst there he would fill his pockets with fishing lures when the friend wasn’t looking. He got a kick out of shoplifting, even though he had the money to buy whatever it was he stole, even from a friend. I knew what he was doing but I said nothing; by default, I became a liar too.
There are many labels thrown at people like my husband, especially once people start to find out about the big, damaging lies. I don’t have a label for him. Maybe he can’t help it and doesn’t know why he does it, but there is a human cost and, when he slips into criminal behaviour, a financial and legal one too. A label would too easily let him off the hook. I have come to believe that he lies just because he can, because he’s good at it and it makes life easier in the moment. From him, I learned that if you are compelling enough people will believe anything you say. Anything. And because we are all liars in the right circumstances, because our politicians and the media lie to us every day, it’s often difficult to recognise the boundary between what is acceptable lying and what is not. And the point at which we all become culpable. When we hear a lie and say nothing, perhaps we all become liars by omission.