"You can't handle the truth!" But I need to learn how to...
April 17, 2015 3:41 PM   Subscribe

Last week, my partner admitted that he's been not just hiding things, but outright lying to me. The revelations hurt, but I need honesty if we're to stay together. How do I make it safe for my partner to tell me the truth when it's repeatedly been so startling and upsetting? Difficulty level: partner is dealing with Major Depression, and has been near-suicidal.

My partner of two years acknowledges that he's lied to me repeatedly - by omission, by commission, and by playing semantic games. In particular, he has lied about the other people he's seeing. We're polyamorous, so our having other lovers is fine with disclosure, but while he’s said that he wants to keep me informed, that hasn’t happened, even when I asked.

Our relationship rapidly became one of those game-changers for us both; we love each other deeply and want this to last. We've been long-distance for six months, with me visiting him two weeks each month until March.

I do believe him when he says the lying comes out of his depression, and his lack of self-esteem; he doesn't believe anyone would care enough about him or his life to actually want an honest answer to “How are you?” He'll withdraw to "keep his mood from ruining my day"; he'll keep bad news from me to "spare" me; he doesn't want to burden me with quotidian details, despite my saying that those details (and communication in general) nurture connection for me. What is strange to me is that he's telling his other partners about me, since I'm apparently the “important” one, but... I'm not to be told the truth?

Recently there was a week where he was dumped by four separate people - and I didn't know that he was even seeing four people. I doubt I would have heard about any of the breakups if I hadn't been in the right place at the right time; my partner told me everything was fine for several days because they "didn't want to spoil my weekend with depressing stuff," and it was only because I was chatting to him as the third breakup happened that I heard about them.

Now I've found out that he explicitly lied to me – and worse, carefully structured half-truths so that they're arguably defensible but misleading (like telling me everything was okay through the breakup weekend because “he knew he'd be okay eventually"). I told him that semantic games, half-truths, and gaslighting were deal-breakers for me, and they still happened. Now I'm starting to question everything that I've been told; how can I stop when what I'm being told is the truth, but not the whole truth?

He's been dismayed this week by how reflexive his habit of deflecting questions and dancing around the truth seems to be; he went to a movie with another partner, and only realised the next day that in telling me about it, he'd completely omitted the fact that he had company. He wants to change this habit, but doesn't know where to start.

I'm willing to give this one more shot, if both individual and relationship counselling happen - he's starting therapy soon, and we're finding a therapist that we can see together. My partner says he'd like to be more honest with me, and that I should ask questions that he'll try to answer, but I don't even know what to ask. The questions I do ask are so often ignored, deflected, or answered with half-truths that I don't know how to support and foster this change.

He has been suicidal over the lying, which terrifies me. It's all too easy for him to see himself as a liar, a monster, someone who shattered my trust completely and can't hope to get it back. I keep affirming that he's human, and that this is a behaviour he can change if he wants to.

In fairness, though, my trust is shaken, and I'm reacting badly – tears, frustration, stress. I walked out of the room at one point because I was so upset (though I told him why). I want to hear the truth from him, and I've been thrilled when he told me about dates that went well or plans with partners I knew about. But it's hard not to feel blindsided and upset when I find out things are very different to what I'd been led to believe. And my upset reactions are making it harder for him to come clean about things.

By now, I'm also feeling insecure because I don't know where I stand with my partner. I'm destabilised by the repeated revelations about people in his life that I didn't know about for months. I'm suspicious and unhappy about the partners who were kept secret even though I know that's no fault of theirs. I'm confused by the assertion that he wants to talk openly with me about things (and wants me to keep being open with him) when he still instinctively sidesteps the details.

I know I can’t change him. He wants to change this, however, so my questions are about what I can do as he tries.

How do I make it safe for my partner to tell me the truth when it's repeatedly been so startling to me, and painful for us both? How else can I support/encourage him to do so?

Are there any books/resources you can recommended for either of us?

Am I asking too much of my partner?

Beyond seeing how the therapy goes, what can I do?

How can we improve this?
posted by Someone Else's Story to Human Relations (54 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It seems like you're dancing around the issue: your boyfriend has cheated on you (given the explicitly stated rules of your relationship), repeatedly and purposefully. It wasn't an accident, it wasn't because he was depressed (even if he is), it was because he made a choice to do that. The issue is somewhat that he lied to you, but don't act like him cheating on you is not a major issue here. If he didn't want to tell you he was seeing other people, his choice could have been to not see other people, but he chose those people over you, repeatedly and purposefully.

Me? I'd DTMFA. But if you're willing to give him another shot: First, does "he's starting therapy soon" me he actually has an appointment, with both a therapist and a psychiatrist? If not, then no, he's not starting therapy soon. Those appointments would need to be on the books by EOD Monday (or if e.g. he needs a referral to see a psychiatrist, then the appointment with his GP to get that referral). And if he can't handle telling you things, then he needs to not do those things, and that needs to be explicitly stated.

What are you getting out of this that being lied to repeatedly is worth it?
posted by brainmouse at 3:48 PM on April 17, 2015 [13 favorites]

Best answer: Since you say you want to give him another chance and you're both planning to go to therapy to deal with this, I'm going to choose to be optimistic about you guys being able to resolve a lot of issues.

But I do want to remind you that you said this:
I told him that semantic games, half-truths, and gaslighting were deal-breakers for me

Remember that and protect yourself. If he's not 100% dedicated to being honest with you and actively working on improving the relationship from this point forward, remember the deal breakers that you set for yourself.
posted by phunniemee at 3:49 PM on April 17, 2015 [19 favorites]

I don't think there is any way to improve this level of trainwreck. No magical book is going to fix lying, suicidal depression, tons of drama and cheating for months on end. You are not asking for too much. Hell, you're polyamorous and he still has to "cheat" and not mention dates? And blames it on being depressed? Good lord. He is a liar, at the very least. I just can't come up with any logical reason for him to bullshit and lie to you this much. Depressed people can still manage to be honest and not cheat, for fuck's sake.

I think he needs therapy, and you need a break from the relationship, if not DTMFA'ing.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:50 PM on April 17, 2015 [35 favorites]

He wants to change this habit, but doesn't know where to start.

You're not in charge of figuring this out for him. When people say they want to change instead of demonstrating actual change, they are really saying, "Will you stick around if I say I'll try again?"

He expects that you will just keep putting up with this because you care about him and seem like a compassionate person and have, in fact, shown that you will keep putting up with a lot from him.

I think you have to focus on yourself and see how you actually feel instead of worrying about the support he might need. You have offered plenty of support. It didn't help. It won't help this time.
posted by Merinda at 3:53 PM on April 17, 2015 [8 favorites]

Does "suicidal about the lying" mean "he felt so guilty about lying to me that he was contemplating suicide" or "he threatened suicide because he got caught lying to me?" Because the latter is a classic abusive move.
posted by coppermoss at 3:55 PM on April 17, 2015 [49 favorites]

People don't lie about cheating because they're depressed. They lie about cheating because they're cheating.

The first thing your boyfriend needs to do is be honest about his dishonesty. He sounds like he's hiding behind his mental illness, which is not a cool thing to do. Depression isn't such a sticky wicket that it can be blamed for everything bad that he does to you, and if you let him, it'll just lead to more bad behavior.

If you want to save this relationship, you have to be hard-and-strong with this. He doesn't get another lie. If he lies once more, it's over. Otherwise, you're just going to play the part of a doormat.
posted by xingcat at 4:01 PM on April 17, 2015 [9 favorites]

This sounds like someone I know, one of the most destructive people I have ever known...

"He has been suicidal over the lying, which terrifies me. It's all too easy for him to see himself as a liar, a monster, someone who shattered my trust completely and can't hope to get it back. I keep affirming that he's human, and that this is a behaviour he can change if he wants to."

None of this is your burden. The suicidal thing sounds like manipulation, honestly, and if he threatens it again (I know you are long distance) hang up and IMMEDIATELY call the police to do an emergency wellness check.

You are not a mental health professional. Your (ex) boyfriend 100% needs professional mental health intervention, not your "understanding."

Direct him to appropriate professional services and break up with him. You being involved is actually keeping him from getting the help he needs.

He won't change. Point him towards real professional help and exit this situation. Being involved is not helping him. You can't help him, he can help himself with the guidance of professionals.
posted by jbenben at 4:03 PM on April 17, 2015 [24 favorites]

PLEASE get out while you can. You're setting yourself up for a world of hurt and doubt, more than you've already experienced. Break up, tell him you'll consider getting together again if he is able to cure his chronic lying. Make it his job; don't waste your time trying to get past this, trust him again, help him, etc.

(And don't minimize his betrayal just because you love him. However he frames it, he betrayed you big time.)
posted by metasarah at 4:15 PM on April 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Simple: you tell him lying to you makes you way more upset than hearing the truth at the time it's happening. And you back it up. Don't get upset if he tells you he got dumped/ went to the movies/whatever he thinks will upset you. Say "thank you for telling me." And then don't make a big emotional deal out of it.

If this still doesn't work, strongly consider that he is feeding you a line about "feeling unsafe telling you things" and he's actually just doing it to protect himself and/or because he doesn't care.
posted by quincunx at 4:18 PM on April 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

Best answer: You should be able to get a better sense of how far you have to go in order to get your relationship to a more trusting place after you've had the opportunity to interact in couples' therapy. It's very informative to be able to just talk to and with one another with the guidance and observation of a third, formal, trained, impartial party.

I hesitate to tell you take the advice of a stranger, but... I hear some familiar tones in your narrative and I was helped by a very professional counselor who met with my partner (alone) and me (together with my partner) after he'd been forced to confess to a series of secret liaisons by extenuating circumstances (i.e. I got an STI in a monogamous relationship). It was difficult to talk about it among my friend group because, for lack of a better way of putting it, most of my friends have a very different temperament than I do on matters of sex and love and relationships. Just look at the responses you've already gotten here for evidence that the madding crowd can skew a bit negative, reflexively, without putting a primary emphasis on the parameters you've put in place as a guide for how you want to live. So be it, self-selected respondents tend to skew toward the negative, and sometimes we need to hear a negative-slanted wall or responses. But it's ok to put all that into a box labeled "friends/internet" and then have another box for "professional/in-person".

For what it's worth, we were able to get out of the worst of it and into a good place--essentially, a clean slate with clear terms and conditions for moving forward--with the help of our counselor. It was a lot of work, and the transition was rocky and emotional, but we're better for it. Truly, we talk about it and reflect on our past quite a lot. It feels like a very valuable thing to have done.

So take a deep breath, work on getting those counseling sessions together, and see where the days take you.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 4:21 PM on April 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

The suicide threat about his lying sounds like full on manipulation. Be very careful with this man. His instincts to save his own ass are likely stronger than any feelings he has for you.
posted by cecic at 4:21 PM on April 17, 2015 [12 favorites]

Why don't you just distance yourself for now? It would be a good choice for self-protection if you can't bring yourself to immediately dump this idiot. He sounds intensely manipulative.

And I do mean idiot. That is a lot of shitty behaviour. I'm sure people are depressed in their own ways and shitty in their own ways, but it does not match up with any shitty-because-depression behaviour I have ever engaged in myself or experienced from others and I'm really dubious that this is all the unavoidable offshoot of dire mental health issues.

Do contrast

Our relationship rapidly became one of those game-changers for us both; we love each other deeply and want this to last.


he's lied to me repeatedly... I don't know where I stand with my partner. I'm destabilised by the repeated revelations

It very much sounds like you got caught up in a thing where you fell in love with what you thought he was or could be, and not with the reality of this person.

Depressives do not get free passes to be manipulative liars. The two are separate issues. And they are both issues that you can't fix.
posted by kmennie at 4:23 PM on April 17, 2015 [25 favorites]

Everyone else is breaking up with him. Maybe they see something you don't.
posted by Scram at 4:28 PM on April 17, 2015 [44 favorites]

he doesn't believe anyone would care enough about him or his life to actually want an honest answer to “How are you?” He'll withdraw to "keep his mood from ruining my day"; he'll keep bad news from me to "spare" me; he doesn't want to burden me with quotidian details, despite my saying that those details (and communication in general) nurture connection for me.

He doesn't give a fuck what nurtures your connection. Maybe he just can't rather than won't, but it's the same effect in the end.

There is nothing you can do, no contortion, no voodoo, that will force him be honest when he doesn't want to.

The single thing you have control over is whether you continue to be present for it.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:37 PM on April 17, 2015 [6 favorites]

You are not reacting badly. If he is telling you are, dump his ass immediately. I have been in this relationship and I swear to god I'd give anything to have left sooner. He has betrayed you over and over and over. He has not held up his end of the bargain. You know this. Trust your gut. No more chances. Don't turn yourself into the bad guy and discount your 100% reasonable, appropriate, and justified emotional responses right now. He's the one that needs to fix himself. Not you.
posted by Hermione Granger at 4:39 PM on April 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

So I'm with the other folks, this may not be the relationship for you, the current dynamic certainly seems unhealthy. And the "suicidal" thing sounds manipulative. But you've already got that chorus, so I'll go in a different direction:

One of the dynamics that I recently realized about my relationship is that my partner thought that "being supportive" meant "being a cheerleader". I'd lay out some bad news, and rather than getting commiseration I'd get a pep talk. I'd feel like I'd fucked up, and I'd get a "you're awesome, it sucks that the people at work can't keep up with that".

So I'd stop talking about the bad stuff. She'd feel shut out. Bad spiral.

If you decide to stick around with this dude, or for the next one, you might examine where being a cheerleader is different from being supportive.

I'm not him, but if four people had just dumped me, I'd be doing some soul searching. My happiness is not my partner's responsibility, and I don't need to wallow in self-pity, but my partner helping me to explore those negatives, rather than just being a cheerleader, is what I'd be looking for.
posted by straw at 4:40 PM on April 17, 2015

His depression isn't a hall pass, and I suspect that if you think it through, you'll find the lying isn't about what's best for you but what's best for him. It's not a reflex to protect you from the truth, it's a reflex to keep you from leaving him.

It doesn't actually matter much that this is a poly relationship, because what your partner did isn't poly, it's cheating. Were I you, I would proceed that way. If this were my partner, I'd read through Surviving Infidelity and treat this accordingly. Your partner needs to prove they are worthy of trust, and the way you do this with a known liar is through fill transparency -- you have access to his phone, his email, his everything. And while I know it can be particularly hard in a poly community, I would insist he (respectfully, kindly) go no contact with his previous partners. The point of a primary relationship is that it needs to be the priority at times, exactly like now.

If he's unwilling, he's more interested in hoarding information and control than in honesty.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:48 PM on April 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

I do believe him when he says the lying comes out of his depression...

No. His lying comes out of the fact that he's a liar. He's a person who likes to lie. Lying is what he does and it's who he is. Look, he has your encouragement to be with other people, and he hides it from you?

What is strange to me is that he's telling his other partners about me, since I'm apparently the “important” one, but... I'm not to be told the truth?

Yeah, it's strange to you because he's lying to you. He's not telling anyone about you. He's made it really clear that he lies to you. He will continue to lie to you as long as you stick around.

He has been suicidal over the lying, which terrifies me. It's all too easy for him to see himself as a liar, a monster, someone who shattered my trust completely and can't hope to get it back.

HE'S LYING. And this is SUCH a super-manipulative, dickish thing to do to someone. Please don't give him another chance.
posted by kinetic at 4:48 PM on April 17, 2015 [18 favorites]

I don't know how old you are but claiming to be suicidal because you got caught cheating and saying you lie because you have low self esteem are such classic moves they should be taught in some sort of "Pathetic Jerks Everyone Dates When Young 101".

He doesn't deserve another chance, but if you give him one you need to be ready to do what you've told him you'll do, which is break up.
posted by winna at 4:53 PM on April 17, 2015 [13 favorites]

Kmennie has it. You are learning about who this guy really is, and he is a whole lot different than who you thought he would be. You thought he was someone like you, who really takes that stuff about openness and honesty and communication seriously. He is not like you in this way. And it may be because of crappy self esteem or depression or whatever, but you know what? People who treat their "loved ones" like shit tend to feel shitty about themselves. It's not your job to help him get out of that shit/shame spiral and it's not noble to subject yourself to his crap while he does everything in his power to avoid dealing with it.

Please, please honor your deal beakers and get away from this guy. There are very many people out there who will meet your love and integrity with equal love and integrity. Leave this train wreck of a guy and open yourself to that.
posted by Sublimity at 4:54 PM on April 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

You had rules in your relationship and he broke them, repeatedly. That's defined as 'cheating' in my books.

Speaking from experience, don't let your dealbreakers slide--they'll happen again, more likely than not.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 5:15 PM on April 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

Am I asking too much of my partner?
On the contrary, you're not asking enough of him. Or you're asking too much of yourself.

Your life will be so much better when you are rid of him. It will hurt now but it will be an amazing freedom.

My ex threatened suicide so many times I lost count. I would walk into our apartment every day dreading and fearing that I'd be greeted by his blood and brains on the ceiling. It never happened. He's still alive out there somewhere. I suspect strongly that your boyfriend is doing what my ex did: threatening suicide partially because he does have a pit of pain so deep he doesn't think he can drain it and partially because he is a manipulator who learned that suicide threats generally get him what he wants.

Your life will be better without him. You probably won't leave now, even though it's in your own best interests, but when you do leave I can also promise that you will frequently ask yourself why you didn't leave sooner.

You deserve better. This is not polyamory. This is not love. You are being used.
posted by sockermom at 5:25 PM on April 17, 2015 [8 favorites]

Sorry, more thoughts.

You're not reacting badly. Needing to walk away from an argument to get your head on straight is mature and responsible.

His claim that you just have to ask the right questions in the right way and he will be honest is classic manipulation goal-post moving. I heard a lot of this from my ex. Classic. This is not your fault.

Your title says it all. He's got you thinking that this is YOU. Your fault, your problem. Just learn to give him what he wants and he will be a good partner. It's easy! NO. That's not how adult relationships work.

Oh he's dismayed at his behavior? Huh. My ex was disappointed in himself too after he bashed a door down and threatened to beat me because I calmly walked away from an argument where he was berating me for no reason. Didn't stop him from bashing my head into the mirror a few months later. Dismay and remorse aren't enough. "Sorry baby, I am trying but it's so hard to treat other people that I supposedly love well, I am super disappointed in myself, but what can you do?"

Paying lip service to change is NOT changing.

Your partner is not the one that needs support now. It's YOU that needs it. Your partner betrayed your agreement. If he cared at all about this he would be doing everything in his power to honor you and support you and to make sure you felt safe.

Why do you feel responsible? This is not your fault. It's not your problem to solve. You are the aggrieved party, not him, as much as he tries to twist that around on you.

Take care of yourself.
posted by sockermom at 5:36 PM on April 17, 2015 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: Folks, thank you for your answers to date.

Let me be clear: this is not a referendum on whether I should stay with him. I have made my decision on that, in view of everything I wrote here and everything that doesn't fit into a MetaFilter question (even one as long as mine tend to be!). That's not what 'm asking.

Historically, we haven't had these problem. This is a new development in the past few months, and an uncharacteristic one. I've met a bunch of his other partners, past and present, and am friends with several of them because he introduced us. It's only since I moved away that things have gone so awry.

It could be that he (or we) can't do long-distance relationships in a way that works for me, but I'm willing to give this a chance to improve before I decide that.

The last six months have been ridiculously stressful for him - they'd be unconvincing in a work of fiction, but I was there to see what happened. Everything from losing his apartment to a plumbing/electrical disaster upstairs, to horrible health stuff that nearly killed him, to side-effects from a new medication causing uncontrollable panic attacks and worse.

That last one's particularly important: it's possible that this is how he reacts under absurd amounts of stress. But it seems more likely that we've been dealing with some brain chemistry changes that are now (hopefully!) settling down again, and we're very much hoping the suicidal ideation will subside with them. He's been fragile and vulnerable (and probably making some bad decisions), and I know why.

And then there was his having to watch his recently-moved-away partner (me!) deal with a health crisis of their own, that had me suicidal myself from acute untreated/undertreated pain, resulted in urgent surgery so I could keep walking, and my own awful medication reactions. It's been a rough few months.

It seems I should have found a way to include all that in my initial question, but I couldn't find a way to express it succinctly. And despite the week we've been dealing with this, it's still painful for me - trying to communicate it to people who haven't been here for it all is complicated!

Anyway, I am giving this relationship a chance, with therapy.

I promise you, he's Owning His Shit and trying to make things right - I'm just trying to do my bit to support that. And since this is my place to ask questions, you're hearing me ask about what I can do, not what he can do.

So far, quincunx has given the most helpful answer to my actual questions. (Thanks!) I'm managing that most of the time - it's easy to be supportive when he tells me the truth, happy when he's had a date go well, or sympathetic over the breakups when they're not making me re-evaluate what I thought I knew. But it's much harder when I'd come to believe things were different and I'm now having to process that as well as the facts.

I firmly believe that if someone expects the truth, they have to make it okay for people to tell them the truth. My partner and I have both had people scream at us, pull emotionally abusive crap, or break up with us abruptly for telling the truth, and that's great aversion conditioning. I want to make sure that I'm not asking him to be honest with me, then hurting or punishing him for it.

So, even if it is surprising/unsettling to me, how do I deal with that truth in productive ways while honouring my own feelings?
posted by Someone Else's Story at 5:41 PM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

If this still doesn't work, strongly consider that he is feeding you a line about "feeling unsafe telling you things" and he's actually just doing it to protect himself and/or because he doesn't care.

Or because he gets off on doing something "forbidden". It doesn't even matter if he could plainly state that he's doing it and be in the clear. The thrill is in the hiding.

This is a very specific kind of asshole behavior. And it's very childish, like sneaking ice cream after your parents go to bed even if they'd just give you some if you asked.

Anyone who does something they could just do if they asked permission sneakily is in it for the sneaking.

This is really pathetic, and won't change. People who do this kind of stuff don't stop unless they grow out of it, and most people do that around high school.

I was vaguely on board with "maybe this guy has issues" until I reflected on that. He does, but they're not your problem and nothing that's going to change on a reasonable timetable. It also has nothing to do with depression, it has to do with being a manchild.

You also need to consider that if you have other rules, he's probably breaking those too. As in, he might be having unprotected sex with these people and lying/omitting. Definitely get tested, and take any other steps that seem relevant to protect your personal safety under the assumption he's breaking and has broken EVERY guideline you've agreed upon.
posted by emptythought at 5:54 PM on April 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

So, the reason he lies to you is in some twisted way your fault? It's because you somehow don't make it okay for him to tell you the truth?

This is classic, manipulative gaslighting: "I didn't tell you the truth because of your reaction! You didn't ask the right question! You didn't specifically ask if I was out with someone named Cam; that's why I didn't mention I was with Cam! You can't blame me! You asked the wrong questions!!"

Listen. You have asked him to be honest. He's not. He says he's not honest because he's depressed. He's suicidal. He's blah blah blah.

You're wondering what YOU can do? What you can do is recognize that you're dating a liar.
posted by kinetic at 6:10 PM on April 17, 2015 [20 favorites]

It sounds like you need time away from him to calibrate your own values. You sound very enmeshed, enabling, and nothing you have described is a healthy, mutually supportive relationship - or even the potential for being one. Your behaviour in this dynamic is harming him and impeding his ability to have a healthy relationship with someone else in the future. Couple's counselling will further distress both of you; no ethical professional (especially one with training in poly relationships) will work with you - any others that would meet both of you will cause a great deal of harm. I'm sorry, I know this is hard.
posted by saucysault at 6:12 PM on April 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Ok, so you don't want to be upset because what he told you hurts.

But which part hurts? Does it hurt that he was seeing other people (I expect not, you're poly, but even poly folk can get jealous)?

Or does it hurt that he lied?

I'm guessing it's the second. In which case the issue is that he lied, and you are allowed to be upset about that. Particularly if you tell him, explicitly, that you are hurt not by *what* he revealed, but by that he hadn't told you earlier!
posted by nat at 6:13 PM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I want to make sure that I'm not asking him to be honest with me, then hurting or punishing him for it.

So, even if it is surprising/unsettling to me, how do I deal with that truth in productive ways while honouring my own feelings?

If you're saying that his doing things he's allowed to do still makes you feel upset, then it's the rules of this relationship that aren't working for you. If you like him but don't like the rules, change the rules. If he likes you, he should want what you want.
posted by bleep at 6:47 PM on April 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Feeling and expressing hurt, disappointment and anger upon finding out your partner has lied to you (...again) is not "hurting or punishing him" for being honest.

It's being honest with yourself and him about how much his lying hurts you.

It's not your job to protect him from the consequences of his dishonesty by attempting to conceal the hurt that he is causing you.
posted by ottereroticist at 7:09 PM on April 17, 2015 [17 favorites]

Something's not right. I mean, other than the obvious. If you're poly and it would be ok for him to just say he's seeing someone, why would he not just say that? In what way is it better/easier/what for him if you think he's not seeing someone else? Are you not as poly as you think? Are these people you would not approve of?

I think there's more to this story.
posted by ctmf at 7:19 PM on April 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

I firmly believe that if someone expects the truth, they have to make it okay for people to tell them the truth. ...
So, even if it is surprising/unsettling to me, how do I deal with that truth in productive ways while honouring my own feelings?

I would try to unpack this a bit. Are you really saying you believe that NO MATTER WHAT your partner tells you, you can't get mad or break up with him over it because that would be punishing him? Obviously this is an extreme example, but suppose your partner tells you "Hey, I'm a pedophile!" or "Just FYI, I'm planning to murder someone later this afternoon and here's the details." You're not allowed to react negatively because he's "being honest"??

Look, if him being honest to you is upsetting, it's probably because you actively don't like the truth he's telling. Maybe you guys need to re-set the rules of your relationship, or maybe you're just not compatible, or whatever. But it's not an automatic rule that you can't break up with people for things they tell you, just because they were honest! The content of what they're saying DOES atually matter. So I would think about that content and decide, indepdently of the truth and lies bit, whether it is something you're truly okay with. If so, then ask yourself why he is really hiding this? If not, then you guys need to work on that part.
posted by rainbowbrite at 7:27 PM on April 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

You may find something useful from the five geek fallacies of sex
posted by saucysault at 7:39 PM on April 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: If you're going to stay in the relationship, I would wait and do all this talking with him in the therapist's office rather than twisting yourself into knots in the meantime and getting further entrenched in a dysfunctional dynamic. Make finding the couple's therapist a priority.
posted by jaguar at 8:29 PM on April 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

This person is a sex and relationship addict, he lies to get his fix, he is considerably more than polyamorous. His activities put you in danger from physical illness, his suicide threats are straight up manipulations. I am not sure where he would even come up with enough time to leave you with the feeling you are in a significant relationship.

You go to therapy, and tell a licensed professional on your nickel, everything you expressed here, and ask for help to escape this individual. There is nothing deep on his side of the equation, he seems a black hole you pour your infinity into.
posted by Oyéah at 9:16 PM on April 17, 2015 [8 favorites]

Regarding your follow up. He may not have been a lying douchebag before, under different circumstances, but that doesn't mitogat the fact that under these circumstances he is a lying douchebag.

People get under pressure and face intense personal challenges all the time. In fact if you spend your life in committed relationship with someone it is absolutely guaranteed that they will at some point be under intense pressure and need to cope. Some people--many people--manage to retain honest and respectful behavior even u dear very trying circumstances.

He is showing you what he does in those circumstances.

Think on this. Usually circumstances that put immense pressure on one partner puts equally intense stress on the other. Niw you know the dysfunctional, shitty, disrespectful stuff he does when he's at the end of his rope. The question is, if you stick with him, when you are BOTH facing intense challenge, do you want to have to also deal with a partner who chooses to cope by cheating and lying to you?
posted by Sublimity at 9:49 PM on April 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Let me reiterate: nothing you do will make him commit suicide. It may create stress for him, but whether his discomfort with that is caused by himself or the depression within him, the choice to commit suicide is that person's choice. He is the only person who can decide to seek treatment and make those treatments mean something. He is the only person who can decide that the world is not a place where he wants to be.

The choices he makes are not your fault.
posted by St. Hubbins at 9:56 PM on April 17, 2015 [7 favorites]

When you say that you have to make it okay for a person to tell you the truth - that's right, but I think you're putting yourself more in the position of a parent or authority figure than a partner. A parent or authority figure has different truth-hearing responsibilities than a partner because they have different power - if a kid does something awful, it's important for a parent to manage what feelings they show and to clearly demonstrate that they value the truth above all. A parent doesn't treat a [non-adult] child like an emotional equal who has a baseline responsibility to manage their emotions, because the kid is still developing and the parent can use their power to hurt the child with the child lacking the skills and the power to protect themselves.

Similarly, a therapist needs to be able to hear with limited judgement because part of the therapeutic relationship involves telling and discussing. But the therapist is in an asymmetric relationship - I adored my therapist (now, sadly, promoted to training others) and I think we would have gotten along well had we known each other socially; the therapeutic relationship was very successful between us as well. But I knew nothing of their life at all and had no enmeshment with them. If I lied to or yelled at my therapist, I could probably have made them feel bad, but only in the moment and only in a professional context.

From how you write this, I feel like you're trying to act as a parent or therapist toward your partner in this aspect of your relationship. Not only is this a bit rough on you, but it's going to change your relationship dynamics over time and put you in a therapeutic or authority-figure role (ask me how I know). Your partner may also be parentifying you if he really expects you to suppress all your perfectly average and normal feelings in order to support him. Part of being an adult in a relationship is accepting that the other person may have feelings which are difficult to deal with, may have anger, etc.

I had trouble putting my finger on what was concerning to me about your email, because it sounds very nice and compassionate and non-bourgeois-morality and so on, but I think that the issue is that you are taking on both more blame and more power than one person can possibly healthily carry in an adult relationship. It's true that part of being an adult is making it safe for people to tell you the truth; but also part of being an adult is taking responsibility for being able to hear difficult truths, and that's where I feel like your partner and you need to figure something out.
posted by Frowner at 12:00 AM on April 18, 2015 [24 favorites]

It sounds like perhaps he is in a stress induced self sabotage cycle and that cycle includes messing up his relationship with you. It also sounds like you wish you could regain control of the degenerating situation by denying your own feelings and needs ("maybe if I don't get upset when I find out he's lied and cheated, he will stop lying and cheating"). The thing is that your feelings, and the expression of those feelings, are right and appropriate for the situation. The problem isn't that you are upset at being lied to and cheated on, the problem is that he's doing those things.
posted by feets at 1:36 AM on April 18, 2015 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I'm sorry you're going through this.

That said, it seems to me that the main issue here is not his lying. It's your need to be more honest and accepting of how you feel about his lying. You've said a few things that suggest you have trouble accepting your truth: His lying upsets you. The only way to not be upset when you're upset is to lie to your self.

Handling someone's truth doesn't mean that you have to be okay with it. You also do not have to make it okay for someone to tell you the truth. The whole point of having integrity is being able to tell the truth even when the truth will engender negative consequences.

Let me give you a concrete example so that you can see the difference between your partner and someone who has a healthy relationship with truth telling. My partner is one of the most honest people I've ever met. She tells her truth even when she knows that it will upset me. I do not pretend to not be upset when she tells me things that make me upset. I've had to leave the room, I have cried, we have had long intense conversations, discussions, even arguments after she has spoken some aspect of her truth. But none of this has turned her into a liar, because she is not a liar. Instead, when and if she begins to feel that my reactions to her truth have become too uncomfortable for her, she simply tells me another truth: "I no longer feel safe discussing XYZ with you." Or she shares whatever she is feeling in the moment. When this happens, it's a signal to me that I need to make some adjustments in order for me to meet my need of being honest about my truth and for her to continue being honest about her truth as well. This might mean, for example, taking a timeout in order for me to sit with my uncomfortable feelings long enough for me to clearly express my emotions as well as my needs in a way that is constructive for our relationship. At no point in time does either one of us require the other to be "okay" with how the other is reacting or feeling. If she's angry or sad or afraid, she can tell me, and vice versa. I do not want her to pretend not to feel what she feels, and she doesn't want me to pretend to feel something other than I actually feel. What we do want is a way of communicating that is honest but also constructive and respectful.

This dynamic works both ways. When she is upset with my truth, she tells me. If I feel uncomfortable with how she might react to something, I tell her that I'm afraid of hurting or disappointing her. At no point does lying become The Thing To Do in order to not upset her. Healthy adults do not behave that way in a relationship.

The key to all of this truth telling, for us, is that we also have to be true about what our boundaries are. What this means is that individually, we have to know how we honestly feel about what we will and will not except for our own behavior as well as the behavior of our partner in a relationship.

Being honest about this with yourself is important, because it allows you to know that you have a legitimate basis for your reactions when you see that your partners has violated the agreements that you've made together, or the boundaries that you've established for acceptable behavior.

My suggestion at this point would be to completely allow yourself to be okay with not being okay about your partner showing themselves to be a liar. Stop trying to make yourself lie about how you really feel. You're hurt and disappointed and angry. These are all normal and reasonable reactions. If you didn't feel this way, you would not be human. You have a right to not be okay with this. That doesn't mean you have to break up with him (although honestly I think that any healthy person would), but it does mean that you should take a good long look in the mirror and learn to accept your feelings and reactions as legitimate.

As others have said, individual therapy could really help with this.
posted by Gray Skies at 2:30 AM on April 18, 2015 [19 favorites]

How do you know he's depressed? Did he tell you?
posted by tel3path at 4:53 AM on April 18, 2015

...and [he] only realised the next day that in telling me about it, he'd completely omitted the fact that...

It seems worth pointing out, since it sounds like you didn't catch it, that this was definitely another lie. I'm sure he convinced himself in the moment that it wasn't, but that's how successful lying works. I'd be especially wary of these sorts of second-order lies, lying about lying. (Does therapy work if you just keep lying to the therapist?)

It's all too easy for him to see himself as a liar, a monster, someone who shattered my trust completely and can't hope to get it back.

And this sounds like outright manipulation. Converting your justified concerns into this hyperbole of monstrousness is another way of evading responsibility under the guise of owning up to it.

I think the key thing to emphasize is that he has a problem and he's going to have to really work to fix it.
posted by nobody at 5:09 AM on April 18, 2015 [5 favorites]

The real question you ought to be asking yourself is, "do I trust this person anymore?"

Consider that by not disclosing these other partners he has potentially put your sexual health at risk. Presumably you have some rules limiting partners for a reason. He has violated those rules, repeatedly. He also seems to be either a mentally unstable individual (suicidal, depressive) or a manipulative liar, depending on how you interpret his mentioning of self-harm.

So, do you trust this person?
posted by deathpanels at 5:25 AM on April 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am not going to say that you should leave. I am going to say that I was in a similar situation once, and I didn't leave until it got worse, and now in retrospect I wish I'd bailed sooner - but that was my life and my situation and I can't say what would work out best for you.

However. The one thing in particular I really wish I'd handled differently is that I let his issues, and his (totally legitimate and real) problems, and his depression, and his self-loathing, dominate all the conversations we had about him lying to me. At the time that seemed like a compassionate thing to do - he's calling himself a worthless liar who hates himself and doesn't deserve me etc etc, of course I should reassure him! But looking back, the result was that most of the time we spent talking about him lying to me was spent with me making him feel better. I don't think it was deliberately manipulative, but I absolutely think it was manipulative.

I worry that you are in the same situation now. It is very hard to have a direct and honest conversation about how you feel, when the other party is talking about feeling suicidal. And honesty is not just telling the truth about facts X Y and Z - it's also about being able to have honest, genuine conversations about tough issues, ones where the subject at hand (he lied, you are hurt) is not dodged and replaced with something else (he feels so bad, you try to help him).

I am not saying you're wrong to give him another chance, but I think that chance should start off with you making very, very clear that you are not his therapist and that conversations about how he's hurt you cannot primarily be about how bad he feels about doing it.
posted by Catseye at 7:42 AM on April 18, 2015 [16 favorites]

Best answer: even if it is surprising/unsettling to me, how do I deal with that truth in productive ways while honouring my own feelings?

Maybe naming those feelings in nonaccusatory ways? Unpacking both your side and his side (to make clear that you're both having feelings that stem from your own internal thoughts), asking for what you need, looking for his positive intent, and again, being able to clearly describe about what you feel in a compassionate and gentle way.

E.g., "oh wow, that's surprising to hear. My head is reeling. ... Do you mind if i take a quiet minute here, because I didn't expect that and need to see how I really feel about it." .... "Okay, I'm ready. Thanks for the quick pause and thanks for letting me know. I am having a lot of feelings but I also have some questions, if you're up for that. How long were you dating this person?" .... "I can hear that you were really trying to protect me, and you felt vulnerable yourself." ... "Right, you felt insecure and almost like sharing with anyone would add to your sense of shame. That sounds really painful, I'm sorry you were feeling that." ... "So, On my end, it's clear you weren't intending to do this, but I'm actually feeling really hurt. I was under the impression that we'd be telling one another, so I'm surprised to learn all this had been going on, and I'm asking myself 'doesn't he trust me? is it my fault in some way?' But I sense that my rush to blame myself is because the feeling I'm having is like getting punched in the gut. I know that wasn't your intent, and I am glad you told me now, thank you. But it's also really painful, and so I want to figure out how we can prevent it because if this happened repeatedly, I'd really start to lose trust in the relationship."

One caution. It doesn't sound like this is what you're doing, but there can be a tendency to think "if I do or say things perfectly, I can fix this," when ultimately, it's a two person problem or primarily on them to fix. So, I wouldn't focus too much on this idea of how you react unless there is history you're not mentioning, like you flying off the handle or something.

I also think it'll help to be clear about your boundaries. Repeatedly violating your own sense of what you're willing to put up with starts to quickly slide toward a sense of disrespect (from you toward them), like they're a child and the relationship is only continuing due to your forbearance. That's unfair to them as an adult and a waste of everyone's time. So be clear what you want and hold him accountable when he doesn't hold up his side of the equation (there wasn't any of that in my example above).
posted by salvia at 9:15 AM on April 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I would like to affirm that you are not reacting badly to having your trust damaged, and it's not your job to make your partner feel okay with telling the truth.

Other elements of your question have been well-covered by others, but as someone who has been in a long-distance relationship with someone who struggled with self-esteem and depressed feelings, this also happened to me:
He'll withdraw to "keep his mood from ruining my day"; he'll keep bad news from me to "spare" me; he doesn't want to burden me with quotidian details, despite my saying that those details (and communication in general) nurture connection for me.
It was the relationship killer. Trust was fine with my partner, absolutely rock-solid, but our connection withered.

So while the lying is the bigger issue, this is not a minor problem, either, and your boyfriend needs to be sure to work on this, as well.
posted by EvaDestruction at 10:42 AM on April 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

How do I make it safe for my partner to tell me the truth when it's repeatedly been so startling to me, and painful for us both? How else can I support/encourage him to do so?

Would you be able to try Not-Knowing, and practice being OK with that? He who cares the least has the most influence. So the less you care about whether he tells you the truth, the less incentive he'll have to manipulate the information.

Are there any books/resources you can recommended for either of us?

Look at resources for coping with borderline personality disorder in male family members. I'm presuming this guy does not qualify for full-on diagnosis. Still, you might find that some of the male-BPD traits described line up with your experience of him, and that some of the suggestions are helpful.
- Here's a book review of Hard to Love on a site with a lot of good material.
- Here's a rambling, often insightful article and a short article with bullet points.

Am I asking too much of my partner?

Yes, I think so. Your expectations of a *partnership* are, if anything, too low. But to expect healthy relationship needs to be met by this individual, given all the limitations he's shown you, is asking too much in the same way that expecting a toddler to drive an 18-wheeler cross-country would be.

Beyond seeing how the therapy goes, what can I do?

Focus on your own happiness and other relationships, and platonic friendships.

How can we improve this?

It doesn't sound like there's a lot of *we* in this situation. Since you want to give this relationship your best shot, *you* can improve your own happiness apart from him, and practice loving detachment skills. That might result in a situation where you're OK with the level of authenticity and connection he's able to provide without your cajoling.

I firmly believe that if someone expects the truth, they have to make it okay for people to tell them the truth.

I see this differently. A big part of being an empathic human is having bad feelings when it comes to your attention that you've hurt someone else. A big part of being *mature* in relationships is processing those bad feelings *constructively.* The way I'm reading your description of what you believe, it sounds like you're trying to take this entire aspect of being a healthy adult human away from people you interact with.

So, even if it is surprising/unsettling to me, how do I deal with that truth in productive ways while honouring my own feelings?

Salvia gave lots of good examples of things to say. There's also a written exercise that helped me a lot in dealing with my own *feelings* in being around someone like this. Feel free to PM me if you'd like details.
posted by wonton endangerment at 12:35 PM on April 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: It seems like you're dancing around the issue: your boyfriend has cheated on you (given the explicitly stated rules of your relationship), repeatedly and purposefully. It wasn't an accident, it wasn't because he was depressed (even if he is), it was because he made a choice to do that.

This is worth re-iterating. I was in an open relationship with someone who repeatedly broke every rule we established, and had a similar pattern of dramatic claims of self-harm/suicide, which retrospectively just seem like extreme selfishness and manipulation, whether knowingly or not. These behaviours, and other similar related ones,absolutely wore down the trust we'd established, and helped kill the relationship.

You've given this guy mile-wide boundaries, and he's still bumping up against them regardless of how you'll feel about it. It's extremely selfish - he's just doing what he thinks he can get away with, and, like me, you've shown your partner that it's just as easy, or easier to get forgiveness than permission.

Were I to be in that situation again, I'd make it crystal clear what my boundaries were, and that crossing them was not OK, and that if the partner felt like they couldn't stick to them, to please talk to me first. And if they were crossed - I would walk, no matter how much I loved them.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 2:38 PM on April 18, 2015 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, and my view on open and poly relationships is that the primaries need to treat each other better and communicate more than people in monogamous ones. If what you're getting is worse, and less, then a serious re-evaluation is needed.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 2:40 PM on April 18, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I think you should see you're own therapist for awhile. I don't get the sense that you appreciate how impossible it will be for you to get your needs met in your current relationship configuration - not while suicide and fragile mental health are in the picture. You risk hurting yourself more, you risk harming him if you try to navigate this without your own professional guidance.

You want to embrace the truth about his lovers. I don't see how you can get there until you can embrace the truth about what's going on with the suicide and fragile mental state. It's the pink elephant in the room - you see it, but I don't get the sense that you understand it's implications, how incompatible it is with what you want.

If he's genuinely struggling with thoughts of suicide, if he did in fact experience an emotional crisis so severe that it compelled him to do things he would never do otherwise, then you absolutely can not in good conscience focus on your own needs in this relationship right now. You have to get your needs met elsewhere. The crisis isn't over. You're hopeful it's almost over, but it's not over just yet. Until it's over you must table all conversation about the lovers, about your pain, re-building trust until he gets well. You can not pressure him to do this while he's this unstable. Excepting someone sick to to attend to you and your relationship is cruel. He's not suicidal because he lied to you. He's suicidal because he's experiencing a mental health crisis, the lying and his guilt are a piece of that crisis, not its cause.

Maybe something else is going on with the suicide talk. Maybe it's serving a purpose you don't see or understand. I don't know what that purpose is. No one here can say. The suicide talk itself means something is wrong. You can't make much progress on your relationship until whatever is wrong is resolved.

So you asked how you can support him. Support him by taking what he tells you seriously. Taking the depression and suicide seriously doesn't mean reflexively and uncritically believing everything he says about it, it means accepting that it is A Thing that needs to be stabilized before he can be a partner in the full sense of the term. Support him and yourself by respecting the delicacy of this and don't go it alone without your own therapist.
posted by space_cookie at 5:27 PM on April 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Perhaps the conversation has moved on, but I wanted to build on what emptythought said: If he has been telling other people about you but not telling you about them, that is not actually evidence that you are the "important" one - it's evidence that he's taking the intimacy he should be sharing with you and sharing it with others instead. Perhaps the concept doesn't apply in the same way if you are poly, but this is exactly what an affair looks like.
posted by Cheese Monster at 6:39 PM on April 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think it's kind of ironic that you are having all these issues with him for lying and being dishonest about his own feelings, while you are simultaneously lying to yourself and minimizing your emotions about your own hurt and anger about his lying and emotional dishonesty.

You can't ask him to be honest if you aren't being honest with yourself. Even if it's coming from a supportive place.
posted by zug at 6:40 PM on April 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you to everyone who answered with compassion. I appreciate your taking the time to share your thoughts with me; there are some interesting perspectives here.

I have a great therapist myself, and I agree that's essential when dealing with something like this. I have had his counsel through the crises of recent months, and expect an interesting session this week. My therapist has supported my being in this relationship to date, having more information that I can put into a single post.

It's not my partner's being honest with me that's the problem, it's finding out that I was lied to previously. When I'm not having to drastically revise my understanding of where things stood, I have no trouble with the agreements in this relationship.

I'd also like to note that I'm quite aware of how I'm feeling about this, and I'm conveying it to him. I'm not lying to him to spare him my feelings - which is part of why he feels so bad for messing things up and is determined to repair them. I also have other supportive people in my life to talk to as I work through this.

However, there's a difference between how we feel and how we act. My aim is to express my emotions in a way that is true to my values, to have compassionate and constructive conversations when I can (and look after myself when I can't), to not interfere with his sorting his own stuff out, and to do my part to ensure this relationship is as healthy as it can be. I have some new things to consider as I do these things.

Thanks again, MeFites.
posted by Someone Else's Story at 2:28 AM on April 19, 2015

Best answer: I have no idea if anything in this (very long) answer will be helpful, but I'm going to put it out there in case any of it resonates with you.

It's really hard for me to imagine depression leading someone to lie, but I could see how severe anxiety might contribute to this. I definitely get into anxiety/shame spirals, which can start out small and then just get totally out of control.

In case this is at all helpful in giving you some insight, here's a loop I'm caught in right this very minute: I have to email someone to set up a meeting to do something that I don't really want to do, but it's only a minor inconvenience, and really not a big deal at all. But I was very busy and stressed when it first came up, so I put off dealing with it, and then I keep telling myself, "Oh I really need to do this thing," but then I start feeling guilty about putting it off, and so I'll pick a day to deal with it, but then I decide to wait a little longer, and the longer I wait, the more guilty I feel AND the more relief I feel when I put it off, and so on and so forth. And this is how I spend weeks torturing myself over this thing that really is pretty minor.

I bring this up because in your update you mention that your partner is dealing with panic attacks. Now, this isn't on the level of lying to an SO, but my point is that anxiety can make us do really irrational things, and these loops can be really difficult to snap out of.

If this is the trap your partner is stuck in, my biggest concern for your situation is that I think it's a big red flag for your partner to be getting into these loops in your relationship. This tends to happen to me in work contexts or with family members that I have a difficult relationship with. It's more concerning when someone withholds and avoids things like this with an SO.

Now as far as solutions: The number one thing that helps me is to challenge these anxiety spirals is to do the thing I'm avoiding. Once I actually do this thing, then I realize that it was never that big a deal in the first place AND I can see what a relief it is to do this thing and get it over with.

I'm glad to hear that you're pursuing individual therapy and couple's therapy. (On that note, I would encourage you to vet potential couple's therapists to see if they have experience working with couples in poly relationships.) In the meantime, since the long distance thing seems to be part of the problem, would it be helpful if your partner had an alternate means to tell you these things? Maybe he could write things out first, and then read what he's written to you, or send an email or something.

Alternatively, would it help to have a state of the relationship conversation at certain intervals? Not in the sense of a big scary talk, but maybe a designated time each week where you can each clear the air about everything and share updates about new partners. You might even decide that he can wait to tell you about new partners until these talks. I'm thinking that this might help diminish that constant sense of "is he lying/withholding again?" when you are interacting the rest of the time, and possibly having this designated time will take some of the pressure off of him.

I also want to add that my initial response was going to be to echo the DTMFA responses, but upon reading your update and in the spirit of trying to answer the question being asked, I'm offering this perspective, since I can relate to doing pretty irrational things when I get "stuck" in this anxiety spiral. Still, I hope you keep in mind some of these other answers, and that you do trust your instincts enough to leave if it becomes clear that this situation isn't salvageable.
posted by litera scripta manet at 6:44 AM on April 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

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