Repairing Relationships

Building intimacy and joy into your relationships

Can White Lies Make a Romance Better?

Deception endorsed by relationship experts?

Tell me lies

Tell me sweet little lies

-Fleetwood Mac

 

Writer Eric Alder described the subtle process by which romantic partners are deceived as "little lies, blatant fabrications, deliberate omissions, secrets kept about actions or thought: all are part of the panoply of falsities that can creep into relationships and even reside there permanently."  Wall Street Journal columnist Elizabeth Bernstein, writing this week on this very same topic of misleading your romantic partner, reported that DePaul University Professor of Relational Communication Sean Horan surprisingly says that full and honest disclosure between lovers or spouses is not always best and that LaSalle University Professor says her research also shows that sharing too much is a "source of relationship dissatisfaction."

Researchers have coined the phrase "protective buffering" for this behavior when lovers or spouses are telling lies or omitting the truth to "shield each other from things they don't need to know  and protect their relationship." In a previous era  this was referred to as "little white lies."

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This practice of "protective buffering" eventually forces the deceiver to live two lives: one above ground that promotes the romance or marriage and is designed for the mate to see, and another life, their true self, underground, not fit for view because of its toxic effects on the union. It also requires a great memory to keep the conflicting stories and accumulated lies from the two lives straight.

Ms. Bernstein says researchers distinguish "protective buffering"  from "avoidance", where one partner lies or omits the truth to protect themselves and not their oblivious partner. Apparently the big difference between the two terms is motive: protective buffering is done out of altrusim, while avoidance is based on being selfish. Ms. Bernstein quotes University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign  Communication Professor  John Caughlin, who cautions that  that his research found that "When people overtly lie about something, they can take something innocuous and make it into a bigger problem." That is, if they get caught. In the short term, deceiving your partner gets you through the day without ruffling their feathers. The long term effect is an altogether different matter.

The biggest problem with using "protective buffering" is the effect on the quality of the relationship. The stress on the deceiver is enormous. The deceiver is like a circus performer walking on the high wire without a net, not knowing if a gust of wind will come out of nowhere and send them plummeting to the ground. According to psychologist Harriet Lerner, deception in a romantic union creates distance between the partners and "erodes connections and blocks authentic engagement and trust and strips the couple of spontaneity and vitality and keeps them operating on a higher level of anxiety." Thus, in a quest for a fulfilling, intimate companionate relationship, the deceptive means results in a physically intimate union without the capacity for true emotional intimacy. 

The seductive lure of "protective buffering" is the  promise of blessed short term relief from the prospect of endless arguing, tears, shaming and rejection. The deceiver knows that if their true actions, temperament, opinions and goals were ever revealed, the very foundation of the romance or marriage might be fractured. No wonder writer Lesley Dorman observed in the women's magazine Redbook that "What are you thinking?" are the four most terrifying words in the English language. And sadly, the longer you stay in the relationship based on protective buffering, the  more the lies build upon themselves eventually up to a 100 story edifice. If the deception is ever discovered, the collapse into a heap of rubble is great indeed.

 

J.R. Bruns, M.D., is co-author of The Tiger Woods Syndrome, a book about repairing relationships.

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