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. Continue Reading →

Taking A Polygraph: Framing a “Win-Win” Outcome for Truth and Corroboration

taking a polygraphThere is a lot of intentionality needed as to the timing and wording of an effective polygraph: one that doesn’t fall into the breach as either too vague or too specific. A truly therapeutic polygraph then is one that is usually positioned after a period of transparency and trust building so that the results will confirm or corroborate regularly observed behavior as well as the written disclosure that often accompanies the experience.   You are limited to just a very few questions in the poly, usually no more than four and often one of these is “where you honest, forthcoming, and thorough to the best of your awareness in your written and/or verbal disclosure?”.

More and more the inclusion of polygraphs are becoming a preferred way to help clients corroborate their truth. However, it requires dialogue, education, and avoidance of intentional (or perhaps accidental) “setup” or pitfall questions in the design and drafting of a good polygraph battery. When eventually demystified and embraced as a “helpful partner” in truth seeking the polygraph exam can be made to serve as part of a “truth and trusting” process rather than a line-in-the-sand static event or fodder for ultimatum that will circumvent the healing process.

There is also the potential for ambiguity, misinterpretation, and disconnect in the sexual area when interpreting wording and semantics if a spouse is bringing questions ad hoc.  For example, someone can answer “no” to the polygraph question “were you sexual with someone else?”, but if they in their own definitional vocabulary have determined or interpreted “sexual” to imply “intercourse” they might “pass the poly” with “good conscience”.… but all the while may have engaged in touching, kissing, or even foreplay with another person (or some other trust breaking behavior).  Obviously, in such a case the polygraph question is belatedly found to have been too ambiguous.

Much rarer is the case that someone registers a false negative. In other words, they would “fail a polygraph” (or more accurately, respond affirmatively and somehow admit to a “behavior” … but at a different threshold than the question intended). For example, I have had a client reveal a “yes” answer to the question “have you pursued relationship outside of your marriage?” This is a poorly worded question because the client was only trying to acknowledge that they had received generic, unsolicited and uninvited one-time platonic phone or email contact from an old girlfriend. But because they did not immediately acknowledge they were currently married, as well as check this encounter in with their group for accountability, their fear-based conscience wondered if they were somehow subconsciously or passively “pursuing” the long lost person.

Obviously, a spouse could easily become reactive and fast-forward, “awfulize”, or project a strong intentionality to the “yes” answer without understanding the context of fear or conservative response the answer was provided in. So again the question above was too ambiguous to provide a meaningful or definitive revelation. However, the polygraph can be framed as a welcomed and very helpful resource when both parties want corroboration and peace of mind that a passed polygraph examination can bring to them. I encourage clients to dialogue with their therapist about all the ramifications and impacts a decision to use, omit, or decline a polygraph might have for their trust journey.

Blessings, Jeff VanZant
Edited by Justin Vorhees

Taking a Polygraph: No One-Size-Fits-All Panacea For Trust-Building

Taking a polygraphTaking a polygraph too early in the discovery/disclosure process (whether with strong evidence … or just the suspicion or perception of betrayal or dishonesty) is usually ill advised for several reasons.  Until they are better informed some spouses will be suspicious the counselor or polygrapher are somehow “in cahoots” and either directly conspiring or indirectly “coaching” the client on “how to pass” the polygraph (as if there were some secret or universal trick that could deceive the machine). Keep in mind that most clients view the polygraph as a forensic experience (i.e. for suspected criminals) and so may have some strong stigma to overcome to see this as a helpful and healthy part of their recovery. Also, even if the poly reveals the presence of new or suspected behaviors a couple will not have a therapeutic context or “container” with which to process the meaning, duration, frequency, or cessation of behaviors, … or to explore various options going forward, unless they are seeing a professional counselor.

Polygraphs often flow from very fear-based agendas that are unintentionally too broad or too narrow to bring helpful information. For example, if upon experiencing first awareness of secrecy or betrayal a spouse might rush to learn immediate truths around a “red-handed” discovery (i.e. porn viewing) but fail to inquire about a variety of other suspicious behavior areas (e.g. travel, spending, phone use, physical infidelity, etc.) which they are “overlooking”, either by knowingly avoiding for fear of the truth (e.g. “spousal denial”) or because they are fixating all their energies in just one direction. They may be “hyper-focused” by the trauma of their discovery (or discoveries) and consumed with their current “check list” of suspected behaviors (e.g. porn, infidelity, emotional affairs, etc.) sometimes overlooking a variety of other non-sexual behavior that is secretive.

Conversely, the spouse might incorrectly assume the accused is dangerous to children or committing a host of extreme behaviors that are very likely not in the accused partner’s “arousal template” (i.e. not a temptation for them). In this scenario the polygraph questions are being used to “rule-out” the worst case fears but not to hone in on the truth of what is happening. This is usually because the spouse’s own internal “truth detector” is askew or “off”, sometimes due to crazy-making or long-standing patterns of dishonesty or hiding.

Blessings, Jeff VanZant


Edited by Justin Vorhees

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