The Six Signs He's Lying

Last Editorial Review: 10/23/2003

By Sally Caldwell
WebMD Live Events Transcript

Noted author Sally Caldwell chats with WebMD about a sensitive matter -- men who lie, and the women who suffer as a result.

The opinions expressed herein are the guest's alone. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Transcribed by WebMD staff

"Of course I'm not married!"

If he seems too good to be true, chances are he probably is, says Sally Caldwell, PhD, author of Romantic Deception: The Six Signs He's Lying.

Fueled by hundreds of interviews from women across the country and many years of extensive experience as a social researcher, Romantic Deception is the essential book for women having trouble with men who lie.

"Sure, we're all used to a bit of lying when it comes to dating and courtship, but 'romantic deception' is qualitatively different," says Caldwell. "Romantic deception isn't about the little white lies or excessive flattery or emotional misrepresentations. Romantic deception is about a man misrepresenting who or what he is -- lying about his marital status, education, occupation, or military background. It's one thing if someone tells you he's going to love you forever, but then the relationship goes sour. That's just an emotional promise that didn't come true. It's a different matter altogether when a man makes factual misrepresentations -- when he claims to be something he isn't. That's what I call 'romantic deception.'"

The stories in Caldwell's book are both shocking and familiar. She details a number of these from the perspective of a trained sociologist. In addition, she provides resources that can help you sort of truth from fiction.

Certainly, there are a lot of married men running around, pretending that they're single, but that's not the only type of liar out on the prowl.

"Let's start with the physician from England," says Caldwell. "He came to this country to practice medicine because he was tired of the system of socialized medicine ... or so he said. When the woman I interviewed met him, he was wearing a hospital badge with his name and department -- Dr. John Doe, MD, Pathology Department. They went out to his posh home, and they went all over town in his luxury automobile. But the truth eventually came out. The guy wasn't a doctor and he wasn't from England. Even though this character could come out of a dead sleep speaking in a British accent, he was actually from Iowa, and he had a pretty long arrest record. He was also the chauffeur for the man who owned the house and car he was using."

So, how do you know if he's lying? That's exactly what we asked Caldwell.

WebMD: Dr. Caldwell, can you define the term, "romantic deception"?

Caldwell: Yes, I have a rather straightforward definition. Romantic deception is the unrestrained misrepresentation of significant facts in the context of an intimate relationship. It has to involve misrepresentation of facts -- not emotions.

WebMD: How did you first get involved in this project?

Caldwell: I had the opportunity to observe two romantic liars -- men who pretty much fit the definition I just gave you. Over time I became intrigued with their behavior.

I eventually became so intrigued that I started doing some informal library research ---- just to see if anyone had ever looked at the topic. I quickly determined that it was one of those topics that was, for the most part, totally overlooked.

While still mulling the idea around in my mind, I heard a newscast one morning. The news segment that caught my attention had to do with a man who had died and left five wives behind. Of course, all of the women were in the dark. That's what convinced me it was time to do some formal research.

WebMD: Reading through your bio, I noticed you have a background in sociology. Are these romantic liars part of a larger sociological trend?

Caldwell: Sad to say, but I think you hit the nail on the head -- sad to say because I can't be too upbeat about the future on this topic. I see no reason to think this sort of behavior is going to go away. As a matter of fact, I suspect we will only see more of it in the future.

Member question: Is this a uniquely American phenomenon?

Caldwell: I doubt that is the case. Certainly my study was not a cross-cultural investigation, so I really have no evidence. My guess, however, is that lying along the lines I've described and in the context of intimate relationships probably goes on in most societies. It's probably only the nature or content of the lies that would change. I suspect people all over the world -- at least those who are doing the lying -- have a habit of lying about what society defines as important.

That's why men lie about status variables, and I suspect we would find that women, at least in our society, are lying a lot about age, or the number of times they have been married, or the number of children they have.

WebMD: So, what are the six signs?

Caldwell: Glad you asked that because that takes us to the heart of the book.

First, romantic liars are very good at what I call information control. So that's the first sign -- if your partner knows far more about you than you know about him, there's a chance there's a hidden agenda in play.

Another sign is the presence of a lot of "impression management" -- you have an idea of what your partner is like, but you've never really had any of the information verified.

A third sign -- and this seems to apply in so many cases -- deceptive relationships usually take off like a rocket ... like love at first sight, if you know what I mean.

Another sign is all the "tending and narrowing" that takes place in the relationship. Romantic liars have a built-in need to keep their partners on a short leash -- out of contact with the real world -- out of contact with people who might know the truth. As a result, it is common for romantic liars to go to some rather extraordinary lengths to limit a victim's contact with friends, family, co-workers, etc.

Finally, a very strong sign that you're mixed up with a romantic liar is that your intuition will eventually signal you. That's just the way it usually works.

Member question: Are there common themes that connect these men's lies?

Caldwell: Yes, there are, at least if my research is any indication. As you might expect, a lot of romantic liars tell "availability" lies -- they present themselves as being more available than they really are. A married man claiming to be single would be an example.

Some romantic liars specialize in "status" lies -- they lie about their educational background, their occupation, social connections, and so forth.

One of the more interesting themes I discovered is what I call the "personal tragedy" lie -- this involves a lie about a personal tragedy such as the sudden and tragic loss of a loved one or something along those lines.

And finally, there's the category that I ultimately called the "just plain crazy" lies -- the lies some me tell about working for the CIA or the FBI, or lies about being a war hero.

WebMD: What was the most extreme set of lies that you heard while doing your research?

Caldwell: The first case that comes to mind would be the case of a phony physician -- a fellow who claimed to move to the U.S. from England to get away from socialized medicine.

He drove his girlfriend all over town in an expensive car, took her to the finest places for dinner, even took her out to his lovely home. Then it was discovered that he wasn't a doctor and he wasn't from England, even though he could come out of a dead sleep speaking in a British accent.

An equally dramatic case involved a phony attorney. He met a woman, dated her for about 10 days, and then had to go out of town on business. He called her each day just to tell her how anxious he was to get back into town.

He eventually got back, and they continued to date for many months. Then, quite by accident, she discovered that his business trip was actually his honeymoon.

WebMD: Where did these stories come from? How did you research this subject?

Caldwell: The stories came from women all over the United States. I also had a couple of stories from women in Canada.

WebMD: Were these women fairly forthcoming about these stories?

Caldwell: Yes, the women I talked to were fairly forthcoming about their stories. But I should point out that I talked to women who were ready to tell their stories. A lot of women remain very embarrassed about an incident of romantic deception.

The really sad thing about that is that the women end up taking their feelings (the shame and embarrassment) underground. Many just don't want to discuss what happened. If more women would step forward, we could really bring this into the spotlight.

There's also another thing that operates against women telling their stories. It is not uncommon for people to blame the victim when it comes to romantic deception. In other words, it is common for people to assume that somehow it was the fault of the woman. I deal with that issue at length in my book -- it is a very important issue to any woman who has been though an experience of romantic deception.

WebMD: Is there a specific type of woman that attracts these men?

Caldwell: No, there is no profile that I was able to discover. The women come from all walks of life and all backgrounds -- some highly educated and others with minimal education, some in modest circumstances and others very well off.

I would also add that the women are not necessarily emotionally or psychologically vulnerable -- even though part of the conventional wisdom on the subject says that this is something that happens to emotionally vulnerable women.

Member question: Are these men mostly out for money or is there some other motive like adventurism?

Caldwell: That is a really great question because it points out one of the common assumptions -- namely that a romantic liar is a fellow who is trying to con a woman out of her money or other material possessions.

I didn't find that in my research at all. I really think that is part of the myth that is portrayed in the media -- a myth than can, in a way, be a dangerous one. I suspect there are a lot of women who see stories about romantic deception on television (say a made-for-TV movie) and they tell themselves it is all very interesting but it "couldn't happen to them" (presumably because they don't have a lot of money). Unfortunately, that is the sort of thinking that sets up a woman as a perfect target -- the woman who thinks it could never happen to her.

As to why these guys do this --- I don't know. I suspect there is a strong strain of power/control motive operating here. Indeed, I'm inclined to see this as a form of intellectual abuse, so I think you can link it to a power/control desire.

WebMD: Do you have any idea how many people are affected by these men? Are we talking dozens ... or millions?

Caldwell: I have no quantitatively based method to estimate the number, but I suspect the cases run into the millions. I say that because it is rare for me to discuss this topic with any woman who doesn't claim to have been through an experience of romantic deception or who doesn't mention someone she knows who went through it. In short, I'm afraid this is one more "dirty little secret" about the way life gets lived in our society.

Member question: What is it that makes women so susceptible to these people?

Caldwell: I think women are vulnerable to lying the same way men are vulnerable. We're all vulnerable because most of us operate with a "truth bias" -- the assumption that people are telling us the truth unless we have evidence to the contrary. We're also vulnerable because we are socialized to tell the truth and socialized to be polite.

In fact, many people are socialized to hold truthfulness and honesty in such high regard that they can't imagine that they could ever end up in the company of a liar -- at least not in an intimate relationship. Besides that, the subtle rules of etiquette work against us. Someone tells you that he's divorced, do you say "prove it!"


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Member question: Should I do a background check on the men I date before I trust them?

Caldwell: In my opinion, yes ... it is something you should do. How formal and detailed you want to be is up to you. But I think it is something that a prudent woman would do. I can tell you this, most of the women I interviewed are certainly of that opinion -- at least now they are.

Member question: Is this specific to men, or can women be romantic liars, too?

Caldwell: There's no doubt about it. Women can be romantic liars. In fact, I received several calls from men who wanted to tell me their stories ... stories about how they were deceived by women.

WebMD: Planning a sequel?

Caldwell: I'm thinking about it. I'm still collecting stories. I can't turn loose of it. So with more and more stories, the idea of a sequel is a natural.

WebMD: So, when you find out he's lying, what should you do?

Caldwell: Another really good question. It is natural for someone to want to confront a romantic liar -- the desire can be overwhelming. But you couldn't make a bigger mistake.

I would tell anyone to simply exit the relationship as soon as possible, saying as little as possible. It is safe to assume that some of these characters have some strong narcissistic tendencies. Let someone in that category know that you've caught them in a lie and you should take cover. Many romantic liars become very abusive when they are confronted.

WebMD: Let's talk for a moment about recovery. What can one do to pick up the pieces after this happens?

Caldwell: I have some pretty specific suggestions about that in my book -- suggestions that, in part, deal with the fact that the recovery from a relationship such as romantic deception can be very different from recovery from other relationships gone bad.

Probably the first thing a woman should do is find someone she can tell her story to -- a trusted friend, family member, therapist -- someone who will be very high on the trust level. It has to be someone in that category because that's what this is all about.

It is also very important that the woman realize that recovery won't be immediate. For all practical purposes, recovery from an experience of romantic deception can be similar to recovery from having spent time in a cult. There are many similarities between the tactics used by a romantic liar and classic brain-washing. Those are just some of the things I would emphasize. Remember -- romantic deception involves the alteration of perception. That is serious business.

WebMD: Any closing thoughts, Dr. Caldwell?

Caldwell: I guess I would just mention what I noted earlier -- namely that I'm afraid that this business of romantic deception is just another dirty little secret about the way life gets lived. We probably don't want to think about it too much, but I'm afraid that's just the way it is -- there's probably a lot more of this going on than we're willing to admit. I wish I could be more positive about the future on this, but the evidence won't let me.

Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson, January 2002.

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