Polygraph – Too Soon or Not Soon Enough?

Often spouses who have been betrayed sexually, emotionally, or with some other major breach of trust will be instructed by a therapist or friend to have their spouse take a polygraph. On the surface this can appear a sure—fire way to “force the truth” and transcend spousal denial, ambiguity, minimization, or avoidance. While the polygraph can detect the difference in truthful compared to untruthful responses regarding some overt behaviors (e.g. “have you had sexual intercourse or oral sex outside of your marriage in the last _____ days?”) often spouse don’t know the extent or range of behaviors, their frequency, starting points, circumstance or context, and whether or not the behavior has ceased. Rarely will a forced polygraph equate to healing, trust, or full knowledge of someone’s secret life.

Sometimes the polygraph provides a missing and expedient way to validate safety from such things as STD’s, infection, risk to children, and other scenarios that are laden with immediate concern such that choosing to defer information will dramatically increase fear, uncertainty, and risk to mental health and emotional well-being of the spouse. I such cases the mitigating factors over-ride the collective wisdom that would caution against early polygraph use.

The biggest reluctance around compliance with early polygraph requests is that clients fear that even if passed the experience it will “set a precedence” for a sea of new questions and permission a spouse’s unceasing inquiries via more and more polygraphs, especially if the spouse has done no healing or prep work themselves. Often an addicted or accused client believes their spouse is convinced that they just haven’t “come on the right set of questions” to “trap” the client in their dishonesty. In such cases the polygraph is not being used to corroborate truth but as a desperate “witch hunt” to indict. Frequently, with these kinds of polygraph the questions are too ambiguous, narrow, or misdirected to reveal the full range of suspicious or trust-breaking behavior. Therefore, appeasement to reactivity and fear is a sign the polygraph might be pre-mature. Instead waiting to first initiate and validate voluntary transparency and planned disclosure via formal and consistent “check-ins” allows the opportunity for healthy disclosure after shame and hiding have been addressed in the process.

Another “caution” that would dissuade a pre-mature or early poly exam is that choosing to initiate a polygraph too soon in the therapeutic process only validates truthfulness up to a given point in time. So a person who has sexual compulsivity might possibly “abstain” for a time up until the polygraph but immediately go “act out” once they are out from under the scrutiny of the immediate accountability the polygraph “appears” to bring for the moment. This is why early polygraphs rarely instill trust. Instead, a client needs to embrace a therapeutic change process structured over time such that the polygraph is only one of several sources of validation for consistency and veracity. This is why a counselor (or spouse) might proscribe or request an annual or bi-annual polygraph to help assure progress and truth-telling are truly sustained, 2nd order changes … and not just “white-knuckled”, static events.


Jeff VanZant

Justin Vorhees