How To Differentiate Between a Pathological and Compulsive Liar—And Navigate a Relationship With Either One

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While being honest typically carries a positive connotation and lying holds a negative one, the result of either action isn't always so clear-cut: Exactly how much truth you reveal and withhold at any moment, and the extent of any lie you might tell affects just where you land on the continuum between helpful and harmful. When lying becomes a force of habit, however, or the line between truth and falsehood begins to blur, it's likely to fall squarely on the darker edge of that spectrum. That damaging behavior is common in both compulsive and pathological liars—but learning the key differences between the two types can help you better understand a lying person's intent, and more effectively guide your relationship with them.

Experts In This Article

Though both types of liars tend to fib very often (no surprise there), a pathological liar tells lies with a particularly manipulative bent in order to get their way, save face, get out of trouble, or avoid blame, says clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, PhD, author of "Don’t You Know Who I Am?" How To Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. By contrast, the compulsive liar fibs out of pure habit, often to minimal consequence and for little to no tangible reason, says Dr. Durvasula.

"A pathological liar tells lies in order to get their way, save face, get out of trouble, or avoid blame." —Ramani Durvasula, PhD

Because the real effect of lying is, again, so dependent on the context (think: a friend lying about liking your dress versus a partner lying about cheating), it’s worth reiterating that the type of lie—and not just the frequency of the lying—is an important factor to consider.

For instance, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t told a single white lie—like, saying you’ve listened to a certain band when you haven’t, for example. But it’s when those little lies become the norm and are also interspersed with more nefarious capital-L lies that the issue veers more distinctly toward deceit and distrust.

Key differences between pathological and compulsive liars

Given their distinct motivations—the pathological liar with a self-serving end goal and the compulsive liar simply lying because doing so feels comfortable or familiar—the difference between pathological and compulsive liars is often most distinct in how they lie.

“The compulsive liar will typically lie in low- or no-stakes situations, perhaps saying they went to a certain vacation spot when they didn’t, or lying about what they watched on TV the night before,” says Dr. Durvasula. She compares this type of lying to petty crime: Though it may not do much harm in the moment, it can still speak to an underlying issue—in this case, a difficulty with confronting the truth, which could stem from early experiences in an environment where lying was routine or required.

The pathological liar, on the other hand, tends to embody a more manipulative approach to lying, often spinning elaborate webs of lies in order to achieve some personal gain. That often comes at the direct expense of others, for whom the pathological liar may show little regard, says Dr. Durvasula.

This lack of empathy or awareness for how their actions might impact others helps explain why pathological lying tends to coexist with a narcissistic streak or narcissistic personality disorder. But regardless of any linked mental-health condition, pathological lying is typically a defense or coping mechanism developed in response to early childhood trauma (as with compulsive lying).

How to handle a relationship with either type of liar

While pathological and compulsive liars may have different overarching motivations, Dr. Durvasula suggests proceeding with caution in a relationship with either. The effect of any kind of repeated lying can chip away at the strength of a relationship, no matter how or why the lying occurs.

“Deceit is dangerous because it can inform faulty decision-making by others, cause psychological fallout in those hurt by the betrayal, and undercut and undermine trust,” says Dr. Durvasula, adding that the trust component really is essential to any strong relationship (platonic, romantic, or otherwise). Much of being able to rely on another person and be vulnerable with them hinges on a foundation of trust—which, in turn, engenders intimacy.

In that vein, being able to have any kind of relationship with a pathological or compulsive liar may start with you lowering your expectations a bit: It’s unlikely that you'll be able to build enough trust with either type of liar to develop a partnership of depth or longevity, says Dr. Durvasula. “And engaging with a pathological or compulsive liar repeatedly over time can cause you to question what’s real, which can be destabilizing,” she says.

That said, setting boundaries in a relationship with either type of liar—particularly if it’s a partnership you have to maintain, like with a family member or co-worker—and being cognizant of taking what the person says with a grain of salt can allow you to maintain a basic, non-toxic rapport.

Learn all about protecting your personal boundaries in the episode of the Well+Good Podcast linked below.

“If you’re dealing with any high-stakes information that you need to be sure is accurate, make sure to get confirmation of that intel from someone else,” says Dr. Durvasula. “And avoid confronting the liar, should you catch them in a lie.” This is especially true with a pathological liar, who's likely to respond to any confrontation with denial or defensiveness—so, you’d be better off saving yourself the stress and bandwidth, and opting to source the truth elsewhere.

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