Rick Reynolds, LCSW
by Rick Reynolds, LCSW
Founder & President, Affair Recovery

The Use and Abuse of the Polygraph

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Several times a month, I get asked about the use of a polygraph to aid in reestablishing trust in the relationship. So, today, I'll share some thoughts about the use and the misuse of taking a polygraph test. In no way am I claiming to be an expert in this matter. It is always best to do your own research. If you choose to go the route of a polygraph test, try to find a polygrapher who has experience in working with infidelity and sexual addiction.

The first point I want to make is that a polygraph test should never be used as a punitive device or for punishment of the person who was unfaithful. For that reason, I will not refer to it as a lie-detector test. In my opinion, that term itself is punitive and anxiety-provoking. You'll hear me say over and over again that polygraphs should be used when the unfaithful spouse offers the polygraph test as a gift. It is a tool to help reestablish safety and trust in the relationship.

What is a polygraph?

A polygraph examination consists of three parts: a pretest interview, the examination, and the data analysis. In its simplest form, the pretest interview is a conversation between the polygrapher and the client. It is intended to give the client information and orient them to the procedures, the purpose of the test, the equipment used, and the questions that will be asked. The second part is the examination itself which includes the relevant questions that are targeted to the client's involvement in their behavioral issues that are being questioned. All questions should be simple, direct, and use no legal jargon or psychobabble. Each question must address a single behavioral issue. You can't lump things together. The third part is where the polygrapher will analyze the client's response to the relevant questions compared to his response to the control questions.

That is my simple explanation of what happens during a polygraph examination. If you choose to go this route, the polygrapher will be much better able to explain each phase in more detail if you need that. Please remember that whether to use a polygraph as a part of your recovery journey is a deeply personal one that warrants some thought, respect and care for yourself and each other.

Additionally, I want to make a distinction between the two different types of polygraph tests. The first is what we call the disclosure polygraph which is typically given very soon after everything has been disclosed. Keep in mind that many therapists handle the disclosure process differently. Regardless of the manner in which the disclosure is given, you need to take the polygraph as soon as possible. Please don't drag this out for weeks or months. Not getting a polygraph when it is needed in a timely manner can make matters much worse for both of you. If you were working with sexual addiction, you may take another polygraph in three months; we call that one a maintenance or aftercare polygraph test. If you pass that one, you take another one at six months and then another one at one year post-disclosure. If you're working with infidelity rather than addiction, the schedule of polygraph will be very different depending on the couple, the type of affair, or any other number of variables.

I'd like to make a disclaimer: The majority of the cases in my career have been men that were unfaithful, but that's not to say that women are never unfaithful or don't need to a take polygraph. That's just to say that, for the purposes of this article, I will use masculine pronouns for the person getting a polygraph and feminine pronouns for the betrayed spouse.

How does a polygraph help?

There are multiple answers to that question. First, I would say that you have been living with a person who has been deceiving both you and themselves for possibly years now, but now he is trying to do things better. Hopefully, he is working a good recovery program and he needs you to have faith in him, and you need to have faith in him. You need to believe that he's doing good work. It's probably not perfect, but it's good. In the early stages of recovery, it's hard to trust anything because there is a history of deception. A polygraph test can be a great tool to help rebuild the psychological and emotional safety and diminish at least some of the uncertainty. At the beginning of recovery, the two most important tools you have are honesty and empathy. Your partner's willingness to be transparent and verify his honesty by taking a polygraph is a big step in the right direction. When done correctly, a polygraph is a reliable tool that can give you both some hope.

Second, polygraph takers have told me over the years that once they get through the initial anxiety of a polygraph it becomes one of their strongest motivators that helps the arc of their sobriety. It can be very supportive for the work that they're doing. Oftentimes, that first polygraph is very challenging because it is anxiety-provoking. That is common. Being strapped up to a bunch of equipment will produce anxiety in all of us. Frequently, there is a victim mentality that emerges for taking the polygraph, but I've seen this mindset change when they begin to realize that it's an opportunity to be honest with themselves and to reestablish safety and trust with their partners. Whether they take one polygraph or four, they begin to see it as an opportunity to rebuild trust in the relationship when they know and you know that they're working a really good recovery program.

How does a polygraph test work?

A polygraph measures physiological changes such as changes in blood pressure, blood volume, respiration (inhalation and exhalation), and electrodermal skin resistance (basically, sweat gland activity). Those are the basics. It's a little more complicated than that, but it is essentially measuring physiological changes in your body at the onset of a relevant question about a specific behavior.

What if he can't remember?

A polygraph can't test memory, it will test if he's telling the truth about not remembering. If he really doesn't remember, there won't be any physiological change at the onset of the relevant question.

How reliable is polygraph?

Remember that polygraphs are performed by human beings and, just like doctors and therapists and teachers, there are skilled ones and there are not-so-skilled ones. However, assuming that you have a good polygrapher with a fair amount of experience in working with betrayal trauma, you're going to get results that are at least 90% accurate or better.

Can someone fool a polygraph?

There are websites that try to teach people how to fool a polygraph, and every polygrapher that I've ever worked with knows what all those tricks are. I also know that polygraphers will throw people out of their office if they catch them trying to fool the polygraph (and you don't get a refund). Just think about it: that's deception, and he has failed the test before it ever began. The intention was to take a polygraph and be willing to answer every question truthfully. For years, spouses have told me that they are hesitant to trust a polygraph because their husband or wife is an excellent liar, and that may be true and, certainly, that's very sad. The hard truth, though, is that while he knows exactly how to fool you through years of practice and experience, it is going to be extremely difficult to do in the office of a polygrapher.

Another common question is, "How does taking drugs and medication affect the outcome?" There are certain prescription medications for high blood pressure as well as anti-anxiety medications that can affect the polygraph. It is best to talk to the polygrapher and follow their advice about all medication that you take. If you don't, you could end up with an inconclusive result, meaning you didn't pass and you didn't fail, which is a waste of time and money.

Another issue that causes problems with the results of a polygraph is when the client knows that there are things in his past that would possibly affect his wife if she found out. Even though it has nothing to do with what is covered in the polygraph, it's possible that he will fail because he's still being deceptive about something important that he's keeping from her. He is still keeping secrets, and when you're giving yourself to this program, I believe conviction begins to beat you up a little bit. It may show where your heart's not in it and you're still keeping secrets, and that will always cause problems on a polygraph. Thus, disclosing a complete sexual history—your sexual experiences from birth until today—might be important to do before you go take a polygraph.

What if he refuses to take a polygraph or says he won't base his marriage on the results?

I tell couples that you're not going to base your marriage on the results of a polygraph whether you pass or you fail. A polygraph is just one piece of the recovery journey. You can go take a polygraph and pass it with flying colors, but if there is still no empathy for what your actions have cost your spouse there will be big problems.

Can the spouse be present in the room during the polygraph?

It is against rules and ethical standards for anyone to be in the examination room except for the polygrapher and the client. Most polygraphers that I have worked with don't even want the spouses to come to the testing center. Rather, they welcome the spouse's participation at the very beginning of the process. Before the pretest interview, you can email or have a conversation with the polygrapher about all the questions that you have and, typically, the two of you will agree on the final set of questions. Just think about it: Everyone is going to be anxious that day. You're both very stressed, but you want and need him to pass. You need to know he's being honest, so you want to give him every chance to do that. If you're sitting in the room and you're hurting and angry, it can negatively impact the results of the polygraph.

Why aren't polygraphs admissible in court?

This is probably the biggest myth that there is around polygraphs. Rules vary from state to state, but polygraphs can be used at several stages of a trial. They are often used at a Grand Jury to determine whether they're going to send someone to trial. Also, a polygraph is a type of evidence, and we know that prosecutors and defense attorneys agree and disagree on how much or what kind of evidence will be admitted into the court. I've also heard of instances where judges ordered people to take polygraphs to be used at their trial.


I want you to remember that a polygraph is not to be used as a punishment of any kind. It can be a powerful and helpful tool in reestablishing relational safety and trust. We are committed to helping people succeed in every step along the way in building a life of meaning and purpose. If you choose to use a polygraph as a part of your healing journey, remember that it's just one part and is never a replacement for empathy, compassion, and care.

If you and your spouse are struggling through any kind of betrayal trauma, I'd invite you look into the Emergency Marrital Seminar Online. It's a 13-week course that will walk you through the critical steps that are needed to address infidelity with the intention of reestablishing trust and reconnecting as a couple. I think you'll find it is a safe place for both of you to heal where we don't shame or blame.

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Comments

Polygraph helped my WH and the marriage

My wayward husband lied to me for a year. His individual counsellor and mine were adamant that polygraphs don't help rebuild trust. Unfortunately, we didn't go to infidelity specialists for counseling. Had we done so, it might not have come to him having to take a poly. If you're reading this my advice is to go to a counsellor that specializes in infidelity. I cannot state how deeply I wish we'd have done Affair Recovery from the start. Second piece of advice - don't be afraid to use a polygraph. I wanted to early on but like I said it discouraged by both my counsellor and his, even though he admitted lying while he was in his second session! It was swept under the rug as his counsellor focused on my husband's childhood. Having been through hell and back this entire year maybe my experience will help someone else out there avoid the trap. Don't be afraid of using a polygraph (of course I fully endorse what the article says about it not being punitive, etc.). My husband finally took a poly (once he got out of his individual counselling and I requested it) and the amazing thing is that it helped him as much as it helped our marriage. He had to face his demons not just from the affair but from years of emotional dysfunction. TI am not defending his lying at all - he knew better and the effect has been gut wrenching - but to hear and truly understand what it is like to have so many lies running around in your head is eye opening. I don't know how he managed to keep it together, and the truth is that he wasn't. He was starting to act out again because he had this burden of lies weighing him down. What a terrible way to live. It hurts everyone. The saddest part? The stuff he revealed to me was not earth shattering. Had I known it all from the start I could have understood things better and healing would have happened sooner. If your WS is dribbling the truth, just do it. Ask them to take the poly. They'll probably reveal it all before they even get in the polygrapher's office. And whatever you do make absolutely sure that your therapists / counsellors specialize in infidelity.

Right on Time!

This article came the day after I'm setting up an appointment for my UH to sit a polygraph (he doesn't know he's going to sit it yet). I hate that I even have to do this. I do believe my trust was truly shattered- on top of him lying to me for the past 12 years of multiple affairs (involving some fellow "church sisters", persons at his work, his sister's friends) while holding leadership in church, as if that wasn't devastating enough- it was really after he continued to be deceitful and lie after the first disclosure (where I confronted him) and it took him 3 more months to do the 2nd disclosure. It was then my trust was completely obliterated (and I don't think it will ever return). It's hard for me to love this man I see before me- I feel like he killed my husband and now I have this piece of human crap. He's trying I guess and we're in recovery but I honestly don't know what to expect for the future. I feel little to nothing for him now....and maybe this polygraph can help in some way. If it weren't for us having small kids, I wouldn't even try to see if the marriage could be saved. This would be the first time he's doing a polygraph (first disclosure was over a year).Everyday feels like a struggle. I don't know if it's crazy, but sometimes I look at small things like this as little signs/blessings; these are the things that help to keep me going. So thank you AR for sending this article out at this time!

polygraph

My husband volunteered to take the polygraph test which I though was progress but the morning of the test he said he had more disclosure to share before he went in. This was after a full AR online course and much counselling. He revealed an affair with a friend and collogue and with my cousin. He passed the test but the new info was another devastating blow so the results did not make me feel that I could build trust back through this process. Still struggling to feel safe.

I was excited to see this

I was excited to see this title but disappointing in the contents. I am not sure what I expected but I wasn’t thinking this would be about polygraphs. I guess I was hoping for practical tips for catching him in lies. Although I guess it wouldn’t matter, he still wouldn’t admit it unless I had the proof in my hands. I wonder what he would say if a polygraph detected deception.
He has lied to me so much in the past two years I don’t what is real anymore. I discovered his affair by complete accident and was totally blind sided. We are still in therapy and he had an online affair in the middle of that. I discovered that one by snooping on his phone. He has lied not only to me but to therapists. Twenty eight years of marriage and here I am trying to learn to trust him but how can I do that when I am unsure if he is being truthful or not?

Types of polygraph questions

Hi AR. Thanks for this article; but my polygrapher asked me for a list of questions to ask UH. I don't have any experience or history with polygraphs and I was wondering if AR would be able to maybe have a suggestion list of generically constructed questions that could be asked to an unfaithful spouse in a polygraph that could be used or tailored to forming my own.

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I would highly recommend giving this a try.
 
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