Relationship Connection: How can a small lie create so much damage in my marriage?

Displeased woman drinking coffee while man reading newspaper in the kitchen at home. | Photo byWavebreakmedia/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images; St. George News

Question

My husband and I have had a stressful marriage and I’ve felt distant from him for years. Something happened recently that has now created even more distance and I’m not sure how to fix it.

When I first met my husband, he told me that his mother had left the children to fend for themselves while she started a new life in another country. He told me that he was 16 when she left. I knew this was a big deal for my husband, because he dropped out of high school shortly after she left. I have repeated this story to my close friends for 18 years of marriage and it has informed my view of my husband and his entire family.

My husband was recently talking to my son about his teen years and the math didn’t match up to what I had always understood. After some questioning, he revealed to me that he was actually 18 when she left and that he had dropped out of high school in 11th grade. He also revealed that he had been held back two years in school. He had never told this to me.

I understand that he lied about the age he was when she left because he didn’t want me to know that he had been held back two years in school. I don’t even care about the fact that he didn’t graduate high school. My own father wasn’t able to graduate due to family problems.

After revealing this lie (although a small one, it’s still a lie) he’s held for 18 years, I told him strongly how it made me feel. He retreated and started reading a magazine.

We haven’t talked about it since. I now feel so utterly disconnected from him. I feel like now we have little chance of ever rebuilding our relationship. Where do I begin?

Answer

Surprises such as this are difficult to navigate under any circumstances, but especially when there already exists a painful disconnect in your marriage. Your husband is not only embarrassed and ashamed of his past, but he has been hiding from it himself all of these years. This doesn’t mean you should ignore the impact it’s had on your marriage, but it’s important to keep all perspectives in place as you seek to resolve this with him.

Your husband allowed you to believe something about him that wasn’t true. It has organized the way you saw him, his family and yourself. Psychiatrist Ana Fels describes this type of deception as robbing someone of the narrative of his or her life’s story. She continues:

Insidiously, the new information disrupts their sense of their own past, undermining the veracity of their personal history. Like a computer file corrupted by a virus, their life narrative has been invaded. For many people, this discrediting of their experience is hard to accept. It’s as if they are constantly reviewing their past lives on a dual screen: the life they experienced on one side and the new “true” version on the other. But putting a story together about this kind of disjunctive past can be arduous.

Even though it may seem like a small detail, it was a detail that aligned with your own personal narrative of your father’s story, which allowed you to be flexible and understanding of his lack of diploma.

Learning that he dropped out of school because of family problems was only part of the story. The most shameful and humiliating part was his inability to succeed at school long before the dropout occurred.

Granted, his struggle in school was most certainly affected by his chaotic home life, but it’s a detail that would have been easily understood had he trusted you with it in the beginning. Hiding it from you all of these years can feel personal, as if you’re not worthy of his trust. This can feel so confusing when supposedly you’ve shared everything with each other in 18 years of marriage. It can also make you wonder what else you don’t know about him or his past.

Just because he was discovered and doesn’t want to talk about it now doesn’t mean you have to back away from the discussion. You are hurt and need him to understand how that creates more distance. Obviously, you need to address this revelation, but you also want to close the distance you’ve experienced from him all of these years.

Keeping secrets always creates distance – whether intended or not. His unwillingness to reveal this part of his story automatically drew a line between the two of you built on the belief that you could never love him fully if you knew the truth. Therefore, he had to keep distance in the relationship. What’s sad is that you were never given the option to fully accept him because you didn’t know the truth.

When you are ready, approach him and let him know you want to close the gap that has existed once and for all. Reassure him that you can handle the truth, but you can’t handle secrets. See if he will commit to revealing any other embarrassing or shameful details he has concealed from you. Professional help is often recommended in delicate situations such as this.

If he has the courage to put his struggles and secrets in the light, you can come together as a couple in a unified way. You’ve never been given the chance to fully be there for him with all of his struggles. Hopefully he will let you.

Stay connected!

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are his and not those of St. George News.

Have a relationship question for Geoff to answer? Submit to:

Email: geoff@lovingmarriage.com

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5 Comments

  • comments January 11, 2017 at 12:10 pm

    Seems like a very innocent little story he made up. She’s blowing it way out of proportion.

    • .... January 12, 2017 at 1:48 am

      Oh wow here’s Bob and another one of his conspiracy theories

  • Sapphire January 11, 2017 at 1:07 pm

    Most people lie. It might be something as simple as saying your boss isn’t in when he is, or as serious as cheating on your spouse. I hope all her bad moments with him weren’t about such trivial things. Since she told him how she felt about being lied to, she should drop it and move on. It was his business not hers. I detest being lied to and try very hard to be honest about everything, which is hard when you are an employee with a boss/supervisor that likes to avoid customers or has dubious practices, but this example seems silly even to me. Love the photo that tells us what we are looking at as if we can’t figure it out ourselves. Funny!

  • ladybugavenger January 11, 2017 at 4:35 pm

    Her marriage was in trouble before this revelation happened.

  • knobe January 12, 2017 at 7:30 am

    Any person who is more obsessed with minutia details than about the actual events & their impact is too self absorbed to be in a relationship .
    He needs to exit and she needs serious therapy to get past her over valued sense of entitlement .

    She clearly thinks the planets revolve around her and her feeble construction of what’s a priority .
    I do hope no children have been subjected to having her as a mother .
    Hoping the husband finds a good mate eventually .

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