NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, November 23, 2013

When Trust Breaks Down in Relationships - Lies of Omission

In prior blog posts about couples counseling, I've explored the topic of trust with regard to infidelity in relationships. This is one important aspect of mistrust in relationships. In this blog post, I would like to explore another aspect of trust and mistrust that I see as a NYC therapist who works with individuals and couples, specifically the topic of "lies of omission."

When Trust Breaks Down in Relationships: Lies of Omission

When we talk about trust, generally, we recognize that, in most cases, there are degrees of trust rather than either total trust or total mistrust, and this can change over time in a relationship.

We also recognize that when trust is an issue in a relationship, like most other issues, the individuals' family histories are often a contributing factor as to how the issue plays out and how it affects the current relationship.

A composite vignette should help to illustrate these points. As always, composite vignettes are representative of numerous cases and do not violate confidentiality:

Sandy and Tom:
When Sandy and Tom came to see me for marriage counseling, they were married for three years. Both of them were accomplished professionals in their 30s.  It was the first marriage for both of them.

The main issue that brought them into marriage counseling was that Sandy felt she could not trust Tom at times. They both agreed there were no issues of infidelity.

The main problem seemed to be that, over time, Sandy detected a recurring pattern where Tom deliberately withheld certain information from her about an insignificant aspect of whatever topic he was discussing.

Her concern was more about the recurring pattern of deliberately not telling her certain things and not about the particular piece of information that he left out. She was completely confused and hurt about Tom's lies of omission.

Tom acknowledged that he often felt a compelling urge to withhold information from Sandy. He agreed with Sandy that, when each example was looked at by itself, it didn't seem significant. However, when looked at as a pattern of his communication with Sandy, it raised a "red flag." He seemed to be just as baffled by his behavior as Sandy was, and he wanted to change this pattern.

Lies of Omission: Tom acknowledged that he felt a compelling urge to withhold information from Sally

To illustrate her point, Sandy gave numerous examples. Each of them seemed to be of no particular importance, except when looked at together as a pattern.

A typical example was when Tom told Sandy about a business dinner and discussed each person in detail--except one. He never mentioned that person at all. There was nothing particularly significant about this one person's attendance at the meeting, and Sandy had no reason to be concerned about this person.

What was significant was that Tom felt the need, as he often did, to withhold a particular piece of information from Sandy.

He acknowledged that he had deliberately withheld this information, and if he had not withheld this particular piece of information, he would have withheld some other insignificant piece of information.

Usually, later on, whatever Tom had omitted would come to light in some other way, and Sandy would be confused about why Tom had not told her.

Exploration of Tom's background revealed that both of his parents were loving and nurturing towards him, but they were also highly intrusive. As a child, Tom was not allowed to close the door to his room because his parents wanted to be able to see what he was doing at any given time.

As a result, Tom felt he had no privacy until he moved out to go to college. Tom had never thought much about this before but, as we continued to explore his family background, he traced back his pattern of engaging in lies of omission to the time he was about 10 or 11 years old.

Over time, as we continued to discuss this in marriage counseling, Tom realized that he resented his parents' intrusiveness and he compensated for it, without realizing it, by finding ways to withhold certain information from them.

Unconsciously, he found a way to preserve certain things for himself that he did not want to share with them. None of the things that he kept from them were significant--it was more the idea that he could have something for himself that his parents could not intrude upon.

Realizing this was a major breakthrough for Tom and it served as a starting point to change his pattern of communication with Sandy. And, once Sandy understood more fully how his parents' intrusiveness affected him, she felt a lot more compassion for Tom, and she became more patient.

When looked at from the perspective of a young boy who felt relentlessly impinged upon by his parents, you could begin to understand how Tom would develop an unconscious pattern of withholding information.

As a child, he didn't have the ability to stop his parents from being intrusive or to communicate his discomfort to them or to cope with it in other ways. As a result, he did the only thing he knew how to do to preserve a sense of privacy for himself.

So, what started out as a way to cope with intrusive parents developed into a maladaptive form of communication with his wife. And since his wife was not an intrusive person, in reality, Tom had no reason to continue this pattern, but it had become habitual.

Although it took a while for Tom to feel "safe" enough to be more open with Sandy, eventually, he did learn to stop engaging in lies of omission, and this significantly improved the relationship.

Tom Was Able to Change His Pattern of Lying After He Worked Through Childhood Issues

An Excuse to Lie?
Reading this vignette, some people might think that Tom used his family background as a convenient excuse to be withholding with Sandy.

However, as a psychotherapist in the room with a client who is describing the pain and feelings of powerlessness of never having privacy as a child and feeling constantly intruded upon by well-meaning but intrusive parents, I have a clear sense that this type of family background can have a profound effect on a child.

It's not a matter of condoning this behavior, but of understanding the origins of it. And the unconscious patterns that we develop as children often don't disappear automatically when we become adults. Often, we carry these patterns into our adult relationships where they have adverse effects.

Without understanding the significance of how certain patterns develop and just looking at these circumstances on the surface, many people might say, "Why doesn't he just get over it?"

However, often, once the roots of the problem are traced back, we can see the complexity of the problem more clearly.

So, rather than looking at it in terms of someone making convenient excuses for his problem, it becomes a starting point for understanding the problem and it often contains the key for the resolution.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you and your partner struggle with similar issues in your relationship, you could benefit from attending couples therapy with a licensed mental health professional to overcome these problems.

About Me
I am a NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing who works with with individual adults and couples. I have helped many individuals and couples to lead more fulfilling lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during regular business hours or email me.