Using Polygraph Tests to Keep Sex Addicts Honest

By Linda Hatch, PhD

Costs Benefits Choices On Signpost Showing Analysis And Value Of An InvestmentAsking a sex addict to take a polygraph seemed ludicrous to me at first. First off, it seems like something you do with a criminal, not with a patient who has come in for help with a sexually compulsive behavior.

It is certainly true that addicts are world class liars. In fact, as I have argued in previous posts, they often seem sociopathic in their dishonesty and lack of accountability to anyone. But in treatment we are trying to help addicts learn to be honest. We want to promote honesty as a value, not coerce them into it with police tactics.

I recently presided over a formal disclosure with an addict and his wife along with her therapist. The addict disclosed “everything” about his history of leading a double life including extensive use of prostitutes, strip clubs, sexual massage parlors and pornography.

Later in a group therapy session he was discussing the fact that his wife still felt he was keeping secrets. I said that sometimes therapists recommend a polygraph test and he quickly said he was unwilling to consider that. He added that he would be afraid to take a polygraph because there were things he hadn’t told his wife. It turned out that these were not minor details either. In this case the mere mention of a polygraph was enough to get the addict to come clean with the group, the therapist and ultimately his wife.

So what would be the rational for considering or discussing the use of polygraphs with sex addicts or couples?

For the sake of the addict

For sex addiction recovery honesty is not a luxury; it is a necessity. Obviously addicts cannot address their problems in treatment if the nature or extent of those problems is hidden. The goal of sex addiction treatment is not just abstaining from a compulsive behavior pattern. It also involves breaking down the compartmentalization of the addict’s life: the normal life vs. the secret sexual acting out life. The new and healthier way of living is one in which the two parts of the addict are integrated. When an addict becomes integrated he or she can then behave with integrity, and can integrate sex into life in a more normal way.

Honesty is also essential as a way to combat the shame that many addicts feel about their acting out behavior. Shame thrives on secrecy and when the addict comes clean he/she can begin to deal with the problem with much less of the judgmental baggage.

While I would never suggest that therapists give their addict clients lie detector tests as part of treatment, it is certainly true as in the example above, that discussing the use of polygraph tests can itself jolt the addict into the admission that he or she is not being fully honest with anyone.

Part of what happens when sex addicts have been living a lie is that they get used to trying to control everything, particularly how they are seen by others. Forcing them to admit what they are hiding can help them let go of this “impression management”. If they can be induced by whatever means to admit their secrets they have a chance to see that someone– a therapist, a group, or a fellowship — accepts them as they are and that they are human. This then opens the door to their making a commitment to rigorous honesty going forward.

For the good of the spouse or partner

Disclosure of a sex addiction is always staggered. Addicts reveal only what they think they have to and are focused on damage control. Sometimes they rationalize this by saying that they don’t want to hurt their partner any more than they already have. Sometimes they are aware that they just don’t want the additional fallout. But the continuing discovery of more secrets is part of what makes it so hard on the partner or spouse. It is sometimes referred to as “trickle truth”.

Initially partners feel that they will never be able to trust the addict again. Ultimately, with recovery they can and do. But many partners experience haunting doubts both at the beginning of recovery after all has supposedly been disclosed and ongoing into the attempt to reconcile. They feel like “when will the next shoe drop?”

The willingness of the addict to take a polygraph may actually help the spouse or partner to feel that they can let go of trying to second guess everything the addict says. It is realistically hard for spouses to deal with the uncertainty about whether to trust the addict and they can get stuck in a pattern of trying to investigate and verify everything the addict does or says. Unless the addict is an out-and-out psychopath, he or she will probably not be able to fool a polygraph.

When is it inappropriate to talk about polygraphs?

In the beginning most addicts doe not recognize or even remember the full extent of their sexually addictive behavior. As they put the pieces together and connect the dots about themselves they see more and remember more. This is inherent in the process of treatment and will not be helped in any way by lie detector tests.

Later in therapy or treatment, the addict will have been working a recovery program. At that point polygraphs have not point as the addict will have embraced honesty as the guiding principle. If they have not done so then they are faking it, and until they admit this they will not be amenable to getting help.

Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource



Leaving a Sex Addict: 5 Frequently Asked Questions

By Linda Hatch, PhD

Businessman Chasing His WomanDivorce is always a big adjustment and often carries with it a period of grief and other strong emotions. But breaking up with a sex addict brings its own strange set of challenges.  Here are some of the questions people in this situation have to deal with.

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9 Good Reasons to Stay with a Sex Addict

By Linda Hatch, PhD

happy coupleI do not take sides on the issue of whether it is better to stay in a marriage or committed relationship with a sex addict or whether it is better to get away and start over.  I think there are many valid arguments on both sides depending on the situation.

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The Inner World of a Sex Addict

By Linda Hatch, PhD

looking insideA reader asked how it feels for a sex addict to lead a double life. This is an interesting question and to some extent the answer is “It depends on the addict.”

New studies in progress using the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory), The Millon Clinical Inventory and the Sexual Dependency Inventory suggest that different general types of sexually addictive behavior tend to clump together with different personality types or traits. These types vary from less to more severe.

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4 Tips to Avoid Picking an Addict

By Linda Hatch, PhD

Man shaking woman handI was starting a romantic relationship a while back with a guy I liked a lot. I was talking to a friend about it and the friend said “how does he get along with your dog?” This was a striking question at the time because the guy, as nice as he seemed, didn’t relate to the dog at all! As it turned out I should have trusted my friend– and the dog.

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Why is Institutional Betrayal so Traumatic?

By Linda Hatch, PhD

Overworked - businesswoman with strong migraineSince the posting on psychcentral a year ago of the article called “Organizational Infidelity Amplifies Sexual Trauma“there has been a great deal of attention paid to the poor handling of sexual trauma by institutions such as universities, the military and the church.

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When is Flirting a Sign of Sexual Addiction?

By Linda Hatch, PhD

young man and wemen at the barFlirting is a normal part of life. Not only is it enjoyable, it is a healthy part of courtship. And yet flirting is problem for a large proportion of the sex addict patients I see, I’m guessing maybe a third or more of them.

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5 Surprising Ways to Make More Time in Your Day

By Linda Hatch, PhD

lovely girl with a mug of coffeeGetting pulled in all different directions, putting out fires, dealing with one problem after another—pretty soon the day is gone.  Many of us can’t find time to work on our own growth and recovery because obligations, decisions, and all kinds of distractions crowd into our awareness and fill up our time before we know it.

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A Troubled Past: When to Remember, When to Forget

By Linda Hatch, PhD

sweeping leavesWe often hear two conflicting messages about the painful events of the past.  Treatment for addiction and psychological problems involves remembering working through hurtful experiences.  At the same time it seems as if growth and change involve letting go of the past; forgiving, forgetting and moving on.

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5 Signs you are Involved with a Narcissist

By Linda Hatch, PhD

narcissismBasically you can’t get close to a narcissist.  A relationship with a narcissist will be a problem, and the more narcissistic they are the more it becomes impossible.

Sex addicts and addicts generally are often described as narcissistic, but many non-addicts are narcissists as well.  Trying to have a relationship with a true narcissist can be an extremely tortuous and confusing experience.

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Check Out Linda Hatch's books,
Relationships in Recovery & Living with a Sex Addict.


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