In the fifteenth year of my marriage, I stumbled upon a computer printout on my middle-aged husband’s desk of a girl who looked to be the age of one of the high school students I used to teach.
When I called him up to question who it was, he told me that since he had taken up drawing again, he had just been printing out photographs of random people from the internet.
I knew he was lying; I could feel it powerfully in my gut. Only after asking him nine more times did he then admit that the person in the photo was the love of his life, and although they had never met, he planned to fly her across the world and move her into one of his father’s apartments.
What bothered me almost as much as his delusion was the fact that he continued to lie, even when confronted with the evidence.
Over the next couple of years, I uncovered such a web of deceit that it felt like the past two decades of my life had been a complete facade.
Making it far worse was how every single time I discovered another lie, he would continue to evade the truth, later confess in the face of hard evidence, and then finally insist that I now “knew everything” and could start to “relax” since everything was out in the open.
Yet almost every weekend for the next couple of months, there would be more: a new slew of graphic email texts, another online affair from years back. It just didn’t end.
The fact that I was crying every day, exhibiting clear symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and experiencing daily panic attacks and insomnia didn’t phase him. I begged him to just tell me the truth so that I could make a clear decision and move on with my life, but he just kept lying.
One day, I asked why he lied so much, and I think he answered me honestly for once; saying, “It’s just easier than telling the truth.”
What a relief to hear something I could finally believe.
A pathological liar, often also called a compulsive liar, will lie habitually, so much so that lying has become second nature.
In the article “11 Fascinating Scientific Facts about Pathological Liars” by Carolyn Steber, psychologist Dr. Michelle Barton, Director of Psychology Life Well, claims “a pathological liar is somebody who lies without effort, someone for whom telling a lie comes more naturally than telling the truth.” She says that it has become such “a part of the liar’s everyday life to the point where their whole existence is a fabrication.”
Most people tell white lies to avoid hurting someone else’s feelings, but a pathological liar will lie for no apparent reason. We don’t really understand why people do this, but compulsive lying often occurs in people with personality disorders, such as narcissism and other toxic personality disorders.
It can also result from low self-esteem or anxiety. Experts seem to think that extreme lying could be related to the combination of a need to impress and a tendency towards impulsive behavior.
Dr. Barton claims that pathological lying can also be rooted in childhood trauma, as these individuals may have been raised by very strict parents who did not accept who they were. Therefore, the child had to create a persona as a coping mechanism to avoid punishment and vulnerability. While most children and teenagers outgrow normal lying, which she considers a normal part of development, pathological liars do not.
Barton says that anxiety and a deep-seated fear of rejection is always present. “It’s when they cannot handle the truth or they cannot handle presenting the truth or the consequences, they can quickly relieve their anxiety with lies as if believed.”
Adrian Santos-Longhurst in her article, “How do I Cope with Someone Being a Pathological Liar?” describes some textbook characteristics of these types, who often:
- believe their own lies
- tell detailed and dramatic lies, which have no clear benefit
- don’t usually show common body language associated with lying, such as avoidance of eye contact
- portray themselves as victims or heroes
She goes on to give common examples of pathological lying, which can include
- creating a false history to impress or garner pity
- claiming to have non-existent life-threatening illnesses as a way to get sympathy
- providing different versions of the same story, because they have probably forgotten details from the last telling
Being in any kind of relationship with a pathological liar is unsteady, and extreme lying, which can become addictive, can destroy both personal relationships and professional careers.
You’d think there would be satisfaction in catching a pathological liar, but instead, as in my case, it is endlessly frustrating. The first reaction from a pathological liar is often absolute denial, which quickly can turn to rage and shock at being accused.
Don’t expect any remorse either, as pathological liars lack empathy and often have no sense of the consequences of their lies on other people’s feelings.
In the article, “The Truth Behind Pathological and Compulsive Liars” by Kathleen Doheny, Dr. Paul Ekman, author of Telling Lies, claims that compulsive liars “tell the stories they think want to be heard,” and that even after something is discovered to be untrue, will continue to lie. He claims that they usually get away with it because they say things that we want to believe.
It can be even more confusing when parts of the story are true, which is a common tactic used by pathological liars to build a foundation for their house of cards.
Is there a way to tell if someone is a liar when you first meet? In the article, “How to Recognize Pathological Lying,” author Nadia Khan recommends a few things to look out for:
- behavior and body language, including excessive eye contact or a penetrating stare
- inconsistencies in their stories
- a history of unstable relationships, substance abuse, and frequent loss of jobs which are often indicators that do not match up to the grandiose stories
Excessive charm and a heightened sense of intimacy that occurs too soon are other warning signals.
In the article, “6 Subtle Characteristics of the Pathological Liar” by Tamara Hill, what resonates is her statement that a pathological liar “believes they are smarter than everyone and will never be found out. The very fact that the pathological liar’s work life, home life, and reputation could be in jeopardy as a result of the lies, does not phase them. Guilt, shame, or regret does not affect the liar. Consequences also do not seem to affect the liar.”
Why? No one can say for sure, but we do know that most pathological liars feel pleasure at confusing others. According to Hill, the following personality traits are included within the scope of pathological lying:
- Narcissism or self-centered behaviors and thought patterns
- Abusive attitude
- Obsessive, controlling, and compulsive behaviors
- Jealous behavior
- Manipulative behaviors
- Socially awkward, uncomfortable, or isolated
- Low self-esteem
So what to do now? How does one deal with a pathological liar? Hill suggests keeping the following things in mind:
- know that a pathological liar will study you, and often use sexual or emotional arousal to distract you from the truth
- remember that the liar lacks empathy and is manipulative
- all liars do not exhibit the same body language
One of the most important things you must understand is that pathological lying is a problem that does not get better over time and certainly does not just go away.
In the final moments of our marriage, I remember asking my ex, “Whatever did you think would happen when I found out?”
His admission was another truth: “I didn’t think you ever would.”
If you suspect that someone you know is a pathological liar, the root cause could be a toxic personality disorder, like narcissism. Been There Got Out has a free toxic personality quiz you can take online to find out.