New Thoughts on Polygraphs: Part 2

Last week I gave you a look at mine and my husband's history with polygraph examinations as part of disclosure. As I alluded, the story didn't end there. It's been a long journey and we've learned a lot about the abilities and limitations of the polygraph in helping heal relationships where sexual betrayal/sexual addiction is part of the story.

Can Polygraph Exams Help?

Now despite our disastrous experiences, polygraphs have been used to help many wives "start a new page," in their relationship with their husband. Assuming the process is managed by experienced therapists and technicians, and assuming the couple approaches the experience in the right vein they can be a blessing.

So what's the right vein look like?

  • The husband has worked hard to come into the light and start rebuilding trust; he sees the polygraph as an opportunity to corroborate that he has truly changed
  • The wife sees the exam, not as a way of policing her husband from here on in, but as tool to see if he has made the major leap forward, as he says he has
  • If the wife feels that if her husband passes it will provide her with a sense of safety in her life with him

When It Doesn't Help

From that list above you're probably already getting the impression that there are going to be situations in which (I feel) the polygraph is not going to help. These situations include:

  • When the husband needs the threat of the polygraph to "make him" confess behaviors he's continued to hide
  • When the wife will not believe her husband has come into the light even if he passes (some women have said things like, "you can game the system," "they don't ask the right questions," etc.)
  • When rather than rebuilding "trust" in the relationship the wife relies on her husband passing polygraph tests regularly

With regards to this last point, I am aware of a case where a wife made the decision to stay with a husband with high risk behaviors. This decision was made in part due to their age and his mental illness. The polygraph, was for her, a way of protecting herself from potentially life-threatening STI's. In her case, she had no hope of rebuilding the marital trust, and thus there was nothing to lose by policing her husband through the use of ongoing polygraph exams.

Also, as regards to rebuilding trust, (a cornerstone of any relationship), there will always be some facets of our husband's behavior that a polygraph cannot delve into: e.g. emotional affairs, lusting. At some point, we need to develop our instincts, and our relationship with the God who brings all things into the light in His time. This isn't as easy as giving a third party the responsibility of passing judgement (i.e., "he's a liar/he's honest,") but it results in more personal, spiritual and relational growth.

Our Latest Polygraph

Having supported a couple through a very successful "disclosure with polygraph" process last year, Michael was keen to try out Auckland's newest (male) polygraph technician.

I was a bit dubious at first. After all, I'd made peace with our situation and my decision to "go with my gut over technology." Still, he seemed keen, and after a particularly triggering business trip (triggering for me, not him) I agreed.

This time, almost all of the "right" boxes were ticked: Michael had had enough time to process, we had an examiner trained in the less agressive school who understood he was part of the team to help confirm Michael was in the light... or help him get there if he wasn't.*

Polygraphs for All?

Does this mean we will be promoting polygraphs for absolutely every couple we support? No. Polygraphs, though a useful tool, still have some limitations. These include:

  • Accuracy — they are only 80-90% accurate in general. Moreover, they don't work at all with psychopaths (thus if your husband has been given that diagnosis or you have studied up on this form of personality disorder, discussed it with professionals, and think it's possible, you'll want to give it a pass).
  • Pricing — polygraph exams are pretty expensive which puts them out of reach for some couples
  • Time consuming — it takes our own (and often others') time and energy to do a polygraph exam properly and get the benefits from it. The "others" should include a trained therapist and possibly support people.

Thus, any couple that would just as soon not bother, will be getting our support on that decision. Still, where there's been a long history of lies and deceit, and a wife wants to make sure "this time it's actually different," I will probably mention the polygraph option.

The interesting thing with the polygraph is that often just the mention of it to a husband gives you a lot of information about "whether this time is actually different."

If you're in New Zealand and would like to know more about which therapists work with the polygraph technician we went with, feel free to contact me. If you are in the U.S. and you are interested in working with a therapist/polygraph examiner team, please contact Ella Hutchinson.


*The only piece missing for us was that we were still not working with a therapist directly. This was in part because our most experienced therapist in therapeutic disclosure in the country has slightly less experience than we ourselves do. Nevertheless, I do not recommend couples embark on a polygraph for disclosure on their own. See part 1 of this series for the reasons why.