One of my Atlanta counseling and psychotherapy specialities is to help people who have a problem with chronic infidelity and sexual deception. This kind of behavior happens for many different conscious and unconscious causes. Even though there is no single reason for this kind of behavior, if I had only one piece of advice and 10 seconds to give it, it would be this:
Stop lying. Forever. About anything.
Simple? Yes. Easy? Hardly!
I recognize that I'm expressing this advice in the negative form (i.e. "don't lie") rather than as a positive statement ("be honest"). I usually prefer language that promotes the presence of the positive rather than the absence of the negative. But in this instance simply saying "be honest" is too general. Almost everybody will respond "I'm an honest person" as long as that statement is mostly true, even in the presence of significant exceptions. The commitment to not lie under any circumstance is a much more definitive and difficult decision that leaves no wiggle room (which is exactly the room where all the trouble begins).
A person who doesn't have a history of engaging in deception probably wonders why this advice is even needed. But to a person who is accustomed to living in a manner that involves a pervasive sexual double life this commitment to rigorous honesty can be eye-opening. A recovering alcoholic once told me "when I finally 'got it' that if I want to stay sober I have to stop drinking it was like Helen Keller figuring out the word for water: a whole new world opened up for me." Profound truths can sound really simple, but here it is anyway: if you want to live in truth you have to stop lying.
The benefits of rigorous honesty are profound. Most importantly, it is the only way to live authentically. Telling the truth protects integrity. A person who never lies is free of the nagging fear of someday being found out, which is an anxiety that is very familiar to anyone with a conscience who has engaged in chronic deception . Finally, a commitment to honesty prevents the spread of further deception that inevitably happens when one lie leads to another until eventually it's too hard to keep all of the stories straight and easier to just shut down into an ever-tightening circle of isolation surrounded by a fortress of bulls**t.
Please understand that it is not necessary to be completely transparent to be completely honest. You have a right to establish and maintain the limits and boundaries of what you reveal to others. Of course this also means that you must accept the consequences of your choice to withhold information. It's not dishonest to say some version of "I'm not going to tell you what you want to know". This may result in all kinds of difficult and even painful consequences but such a statement has honesty going for it if nothing else.
If you are leading a double life it may seem like you only have two choices: continue the secret or stop the behavior. The reality is that there is one more option, which is to do what you want and not lie about it. However, some people find a kind of solace and safety in secrecy, making the deception almost harder to give up than the behavior it protects. Counseling often reveals that at some vulnerable earlier time in life the terrible lesson was learned that it is not safe to be fully known.
If you have spun web after web of falsehoods you may be convinced that the best way to protect yourself and others you care about is to keep your secrets hidden. But in many cases continued deception is ultimately much more destructive than revealed truth. Yes, revealing a history of lies to your partner can damage his or her relationship with you, but continually distorting the truth can damage your partner's relationship with reality itself.
Ultimately, the person who is most short-changed by lies is yourself. Shakespeare wrote: "This above all: to thine own self be true. And it must follow, as the night the day. Thou canst not then be false to any man."
A life of rigorous honesty is an ideal that may never be fully attained. However, those who have developed long-term patterns of signficant deception benefit greatly by holding themselves to a higher standard than people without this problem.
I fear that I may seem harsh or judgemental with this whole topic, which is not my intention at all. I know first-hand about the hardships that must be faced to live with honor. When my clients tell me about their struggles in this area I offer my respect and support for their efforts and help them examine their gains and challenges.
If you have a struggle with a history of deception, or if you've discovered that your primary partner has deceived you, especially if it's been more than once or over a lengthy period of time, contact me if you would like my help to figure out how this came to be and what to do about it so that it is no longer a problem in your life.
I appreciate you reading this all the way to the end. And that's no lie!
Bill Herring is an Atlanta counselor and psychotherapist. His services are available in person or online.