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The Anatomy of a Lie

January 22, 2018

L, if you are reading this: I am so sorry.

On November 8, 2014, I learned that my long-distance boyfriend of one year, "Ad" (short for "Adam"), was not who he said he was. In addition to adopting a completely fake name, he had made me, and dozens before me, an unknowing other-woman to his wife of five years. I was a starry-eyed 22-year-old living in Chicago. He was a professional 33-year-old working in Boston.

Unlike many catfishing scenarios (but not unlike many affairs), we regularly saw each other face-to-face. We had met through an online community, and his "identity" was corroborated by numerous mutual friends that we'd both met off-screen. Ad was well-known and well-liked and had even dated several people I knew. It never would have occurred to me that he wasn't real.

Long-Distance Visits

Despite a thousand miles of distance (and his wife),
we spent an average of 20% of each month together.

Though we dated for a full year and were friends for months before, I only knew Ad at the tail end of his existence. He had been fabricated three years earlier -- a desperate, haphazard, and ingenious solution to the social and sexual isolation that Real Ad felt in his marriage. A fake identity allowed him to meet women online with a degree of separation from his actual life. He didn't even use the opportunity to make himself seem more attractive or successful; the differences between him and Ad were almost entirely biographical.

Expecting to use the persona to find quick and detached one-night-stands, Real Ad was surprised when his pursuits led him to genuine connections. He found himself reluctant to let go of people, even if he only held on to them as friends. Over time, he developed networks and communities, and the number of people who knew "Ad" grew from dozens to hundreds. He was still sleeping with women whenever he had the opportunity.

Ad and me on a trip in Venice. He wouldn't let me post pictures of his face
to social media, so we would get creative with shadows and reflections.

The bigger Ad's network grew, the more elaborate his backstory became. To explain why he could never invite women or friends to his house, he invented an ex-fiancee named Katie. He and "Katie" had bought a house together when they were "engaged." She ostensibly moved out when they split up, but moved back in a few years later for financial reasons.

Ad insisted their relationship was civil and platonic, that they were just roommates. I suspected there was more to it, but didn't feel like it was my business. My relationship with Ad began casually, just like all his others. With a ten-year, thousand-mile gap between us, Ad and I had both dismissed the idea of dating seriously. What did I care what his home situation looked like?

But time went on and our relationship intensified. We talked for hours every day via instant messenger, relating to each other in ways we hadn't known were possible. We found it easy to be vulnerable with each other, expressing feelings and fears and conflicts and concerns in ways that felt enjoyable. Our relationship didn't have a label, but his frequent check-ins made me feel secure.

To tighten the gap that we felt in our physical distance, we constructed a network of Google spreadsheets pertaining to different parts of our relationship. One tab featured a thorough list of things that we wanted to talk to each other about. Another detailed things we wanted to do when we got together in person. A third kept each other accountable with daily self-care (like brushing our teeth and getting enough sleep). There were 16 tabs in all. It gave us something to do together.

An example of items on our to-do list.

After nine months of sharing spreadsheets and exchanging I-love-you's, I was tired of paying for hotels when I visited Ad in Boston, and I finally challenged him about why he was hiding me from his roommate. He admitted that he still had feelings for Katie and sometimes fantasized about getting back together with her. Ad and I were "ethically" non-monogamous, so this normally wouldn't be an issue -- except Katie was strictly monogamous, and dating her meant that he would have to break up with me.

I was heartbroken and furious. We fought intensely for a month or two, but in the end, I refused to stand by while he chose between me and the fantasy of another woman. We scheduled a final rendezvous in NYC, a closure-seeking hurrah before we parted ways. It was during this trip that I became privy to his real identity, thanks to a college friend who had recently become Real Ad's colleague (what are the odds?).

Real Ad claims that he was torn about telling me the truth during our final visit;
as proof, he showed me a spreadsheet he prepared in case he decided to tell me.

Needless to say, I was absolutely devastated. I spent the rest of the weekend dazed in NYC, unable to eat or go outside. I let Ad stay with me, hoping to find some closure. My family was afraid he was going to murder me.

When I returned home, I told Ad not to contact me, but I only lasted a week before I reached out to him -- I needed to make sure that his wife found out the truth, and I wanted to give him the opportunity to tell her before I did. He was reluctant to make her aware of the pain he had been inflicting on her, but once he did, she promptly left him.

I wish I could say I had the same strength and self-respect, but I didn’t. Now that he was actually single, I spent months clutching on to the relationship. When that didn’t work, I tried to be friends, but grew tired of his self-pity and narrow-minded pleas for my compassion. I cut contact with him, but my loneliness was agonizing.

These signs, which appear all over Chicago, used to make me smile.
Now they seemed like a cruel joke.

I forced myself to move on by beginning to date others. By some miracle, my ability to trust remained relatively unscathed -- I was able to recognize the abject absurdity of Ad's betrayal, and I refused to let the situation rob me of new connections or make me doubt my intuition. (Though I still feel relief when people share identity-verifying information with me, like IDs or credit cards).

The most challenging part of moving on was re-establishing my expectations for love and relationships. When I found myself feeling unsatisfied in my next romantic endeavor, I couldn't help but compare it to the way I'd felt with Ad. He might have been fake, but my feelings and experiences were real. Was it reasonable to expect to feel that way again, or would those feelings have been implausible if the relationship had been founded on honesty?

Lucky for me, I had a goldmine of information about our relationship, courtesy of our diligent spreadsheeting. My hope was to use this data to paint a portrait of our relationship that I could then analyze. I focused my attention on the tab called LIST, where we'd kept track of things we wanted to talk to each other about for more than a year.

We kept track of who contributed which topics, when we started and stopped
talking about them, and what the conversation was about.

This particular spreadsheet was extremely effective for us; we recorded a total of 549 conversations, adding anywhere from 40-90 topics each month. We proposed new topics pretty equally, ending with a 52-48 split.

Number of Contributions

We wound up talking about 91% of the topics we proposed, starting 73% within a week of their proposal. We would wrap up most of the conversations within a day, but some of them lingered on for months before we decided we were done with them.

Length of Conversations

Half of the topics were things we wanted to discuss, and the other half were stories we wanted to tell. "Stories" could range from anecdotes to opinions, and they generally did not require input from the other person.

Before I found out the truth, Robin Stories (RS) appeared twice as often as Ad Stories (AS). Part of this is because I really liked talking about myself (I was nine times more likely to propose an RS than to request an AS), but I imagine Ad had a harder time talking about himself because he wasn't a real person.

Types of Conversations (Before Truth)

After I found out the truth, these numbers looked totally different. Ad was 19% more likely to talk about himself and 80% less likely to ask about me. I asked Ad about his life almost as much as I talked about my own. Both of us proposed more discussions.

Frequency of Proposing Different Types of Conversations

At this point, I was really curious about how deeply the lies infiltrated the intimacy I'd felt in our relationship. Ad insisted that his deceptions were unimportant details, that he had never felt a more authentic connection with anyone. To me, the notion that our connection was unadulterated was so absurdly objectionable, I was willing to go to great lengths to illustrate exactly why and how this was misguided.

To make my case, I needed a way to visualize the composition of our conversations -- what sorts of things did we talk about, and how often? To get these answers, I transcribed our spreadsheet onto hundreds of tiny notecards and began a cardsorting journey that iterated over a year and a half.

Generous friends lend their cardsorting perspectives.

I found that there were eight distinct categories of things we'd want to talk to each other about: identity, society, health, sex, our relationship, non-monogamy, people in our lives, and day-to-day updates. Each of these topics had sub-categories, and I was able to explore how each of them were affected by different types of deceptions -- a conversation was "tainted" if it would have been different had Ad not been lying to me.

The analysis obviously doesn't capture off-the-cuff conversations (of which there were many), but it's a reasonable representation of the sorts of discussions we wanted to have. As such, the following interactive tool is useful for understanding exactly how much of my enamor was based on manipulative garbage.

< standards andself-respect insecurities boundaries,expectations,and check-ins finances,plans, andlogistics arguments andtroubleshooting lovey-dovey help, reminders,and favors spreadsheetmaintenance management andtroubleshooting boundariesand desires prospectsand partners mentalhealth medicationand self-care physicalhealth substanceuse idiosyncrasies childhood,growth, anddevelopment rants, ideas,and opinions stories goals andaspirations personalprojects anecdotes evocativemoments plans andappointments work andschool conversations exes friends news andupdates family gossip articles psychologyand sociology ethics andphilosophy trivia IDENTITY(90) DAY-TO-DAY(57) PEOPLE(82) SOCIETY(95) OUR RELATIONSHIP(137) SEX(30) NON-MONOGAMY(31) HEALTH(27) NUMBER OFCONVERSATIONSIN CATEGORY: 31-40 26-30 21-25 16-20 11-15 6-10 1-5 1-20 21-40 41-60 61-80 81-100 PERCENT OFCONVERSATIONSTAINTED: LOVE | LIES testytestytesttest
Ad lied every time he made promises about our future.
Lying outright.
Ad neglected to mention that he shared his finances, or that he had to plan our visits around his wife's availability.
Neglecting to mention
meaningful context.
Ad liked to ask for my opinion about ethical topics because he was seeking permission or forgiveness for his misdoings.
Seeking insight or experiences
for undisclosed reasons.
All of our fights and relationship-building conversations were pointless, and he knew it.
Working towards a future
that can't exist.
Ad made a point to bolster my confidence and set me up for a future of successful dating, knowing he wouldn't be a part of it. He also fished for compliments to boost his own confidence.
Using leverage gained from
having less emotional risk.
Any time I wanted to share trivia about weddings or marriages (I was working in a relationship psych lab), Ad had to respond as if he had never been married.
Keeping opinions consistent
with stories.
Ad was concerned he was addicted to marijuana; it's hard to imagine that his alternative life did not affect his substance use, or the actions he might take to address it.
Conversations that probably
meant something different
to him, but who knows.

All in all, 60% of the topics that Ad contributed were tainted by dishonesty, compared to 38% of the topics I proposed. Conversations about our relationship, sex, and non-monogamy were almost entirely contaminated. Ironically, conversations related to identity were proportionately less affected than conversations about health and society.

Making this graphic erased any doubt that my connection with "Ad" would have been the same if he had not been lying to me. I realized that his security-inducing check-ins were often a means of assuaging his guilt, to justify to himself that what he was doing was okay. Ironically, I wouldn't have felt as safe with him if he hadn't been lying to me. Our relationship would have had different stakes. It wouldn't have felt as intense.

To further show the devastation of being lied to, I cross-analyzed the relationship data with the reasons I cried before, during, and after I found out the truth. The data comes from a project I published in 2016, in which I tracked my crying habits for an 18 month period.

Relationship Data vs. Crying Data

The project overlapped with most of my relationship with Ad and continued well after we cut contact.

While the full analysis featured seven categories of crying (breakups, relationships, friends, family, work, life, reflection), I'm going to focus solely on my relationship and breakup with Ad. These two categories accounted for 63% of my crying during the 18 months I was tracking, which is pretty impressive considering they competed with highly distressing events like family emergencies.

Reasons for Crying During 18 Month Project

For every time I cried about something that is "typical" of a relationship (grieving long-distance, or feeling lonely after a breakup), I cried twice as often about made-up conflicts, infidelity, and betrayal. One single fib -- Ad wanting to get back together with his ex-fiancee -- accounted for 40% of the distress in our relationship, despite the conflict spanning only 15% of the time we were dating. If you needed proof, this is why lying is bad.

The feelings that emerged from the lies were complicated, accounting for 18% of the 44 unique emotions that drove me to tears. If you take all the emotions related to breakup and infidelity cries and throw them into a word cloud (where the size of the word is proportional to the frequency it occurred), you can see some of the paradoxes:

At times, it was easier to cry out of empathy for his (ex-)wife, or even out of compassion for him,
than it was to confront my own trauma.

The most beautiful part of this project, in my opinion, is the way you can see how my feelings evolved over time. If you look at the the most common post-truth emotions, the data elegantly mimics the Kubler-Ross stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance):

Reasons for Crying (After Truth)

Intense devastation followed by a lull of hurt and misery, which bubbles into anger,
which softens into sadness, which tapers off until all that's left is mourning.

During the months after I learned the truth about Ad's identity, our list of conversations grew by another 137 topics. I didn't categorize these items, because I found I didn't need to: we only discussed 66% of them, and 71% were Real Ad's contributions -- often either confessions or stories he couldn't tell me earlier.

The tone of our conversations changed drastically after I found out the truth.
(We also started using his real initial, which I have altered to protect his identity.)
Post-truth discussion topics, sorted by who proposed them. Can you guess whose pile is whose?


In creating this analysis, I learned some silly but interesting things. I talk about (the roles of) my exes more than I talk about (the roles of) my friends and family. I realized I'm kind of gossipy, and that sharing day-to-day details is an important type of intimacy for me. I never tire of discussing boundaries and expectations in relationships, and sometimes "spreadsheet maintenance" is a necessary category.

I also confronted a lot of nasty, powerful flashbacks and feelings. I felt nauseous when I realized how often Ad asked for my opinion about ethical dilemmas I didn't know I was participating in. I fumed about the arguments we had about non-monogamy, when Ad would get jealous about the guys I dated. I felt grimy and disgusted when it occurred to me that his enthusiasm for our sex life was likely motivated by the once-a-month opportunity to get laid, rather than desire. I resented that he'd spent time with my family. The list goes on.

In processing these realizations, I dismantled many of the rigid expectations I'd held for love and relationships. I stopped comparing my feelings for new partners to the way that I'd felt with Ad and no longer see our tireless efforts towards communication as the strict gold standard. I started taking more stock in commitment and less stock in passion. I seek less rigidity in the way people express their feelings for me (and now prefer it to not be via spreadsheet).

I probably didn't need to make a graph to come to all these conclusions, but it's powerful for me to be able to share my story in a way that lets people see what happened to me -- there's a reason it took three years to find the right words and illustrations, and I still feel like they fall short in conveying the intensity of this situation's impact on me. But if it can convince even one person with a guilty conscious to stop their selfish nonsense, I'd be ecstatic.

Even though I chose to throw a lot of our relationship away, dating Ad led to growth in good, lasting, and ironic ways. He taught me to love and respect myself in a way that I (and he) didn't know how to. He introduced me to feminism, taught me that I didn't need to tolerate men's impertinent advances. He boosted my confidence with respect to my personal projects and encouraged me to share them publicly. These changes have had a much farther-reaching, more positive effect than any problems I've had with being newly trusting or vulnerable.

I'm not black-and-white enough to believe that it is always best to be honest, but I do think it is always damning to mislead. Ad's lies altered the course and significance of our interactions in more ways than either of us could have realized. It's true that I spent the majority of our relationship blissfully in love... But if I had been given the option, I would have chosen to know the truth.