New Thoughts on Polygraphs

Those of you who have read Beyond Betrayal know something of mine and my husband's history with polygraphs. The short version: not good.

However, since doing a little more digging around — talking to therapists who use them regularly, for example — I've changed my thoughts on the use of polygraphs for couples where there has been sexual betrayal. Well... I've changed some of my thoughts.

Why Our First Three Polygraphs Didn't Work (Maybe)

At the time of publishing Beyond Betrayal I was already aware of other men who had failed polygraphs... only to pass them later, on the same questions. Since then, I've become aware of more such cases. Here are some of the common factors I've heard of in those cases:

  • The counselor/therapist was inexperienced with the use of polygraphs.
  • The counselor did not allow enough time to pass from the initial disclosure. Since the person with the addictive behaviors is in the habit of "stuffing" the memories of his acting out, it often takes a couple months of "trying to remember" before he can recall all/most his acting out behaviors. If a man senses he may not have remembered everything yet, he will likely fail on a question about whether he has "disclosed everything."
  • The examiner was not familiar with the use of the polygraph in a therapeutic disclosure setting — but rather only in a foresnic (criminal investigation) setting

Our first, traumatic (for both of us) attempt at a polygraph ticked all three of these boxes — despite the fact that the polygraph was entirely my husband's idea and he was really keen to do it to "rebuild trust."

After a few months of recovering from that experience, where he was very much "treated like a criminal" (including being taunted and mocked by the examiner), he offered to try again.

Why the next test came back inconclusive is not as clear, but here are some factors that may have influenced that fuzzy result:

  • Our examiner was an attractive young woman (my husband was still highly anxious around attractive young women due to habitual objectifying/lusting behaviors he was working hard to stop)
  • Our examiner was not very experienced
  • Our examiner allowed me to stay in the room during the exam
  • Michael was triggered during the exam back to the trauma of the first awful experience

Because that test came back inconclusive she offered to do a third test for free. She felt uncertain of the results of that test as well, so she sent the results back to her teachers. They decided it looked more like a fail than a pass.

Different Schools

We have also since learned that there are "two schools" of thought under which a polygraph technician can be trained — one that says "it is more important to err on the side of a false "fail," and thus catch every criminal (along with a few non-criminals); and the other that says the opposite: it's better than the odd liar get away with it than any innocent person be called a liar."

When it comes to work in our field (if not every field), we want polygraph examiners trained in the latter school. We also want examiners who understand that the purpose of the polygraph in disclosure is not to "catch him being a liar," but to assist in the process of a man "coming into the light." The latter attitude will feel far safer for a couple navigating disclosure.

The surest way to make sure you have the right polygraph examiner, trained in the right school, is to work with a therapist/team who have an examiner they use regularly for disclosure.

Next week we'll look a bit at how polygraphs can help, when they harm and... I'll give you the new ending to mine and Michael's polygraph story.

For now, you may find it helpful to watch/re-watch this interview I did last year with the lovely Ella Hutchinson.