Repairing Relationships

Building intimacy and joy into your relationships

Do Lies Help A Relationship?

Does deception spare your partner from hurt feelings?

Oxford University Evolutionary Psychologist Robin Dunbar and a team of researchers associated with the Aalto University School of Science released a study this week that found that people who tell pro-social lies tend to form stronger links with others in their social networks. These "white lies" avoid conflict and create a false feeling of cohesion between people, papering over their true differences.

This strategy certainly pays big dividends during courtship, creating the illusion of compatibility. You will hear enraptured couples declare, "I have found my soul mate!" The perfect behavior will prompt their partner to wonder aloud if they ever get angry about anything. These "mirages" will appear to have no boundaries. Sadly, the cost of suppressing their true feelings, goals and emotions is high. A tremendous resentment builds up over time.

For many hen-pecked men, constructing a fake persona based on white lies becomes a way of life.  Todd, an ambitious 24-year-old glove salesman, knew he couldn't tell his girlfriend that he was pretending to like the honey-baked ham that was regularly served Sundays at her parent's house. He continued to act as if it was as much a treat for him as it was for her family. He believed that even sharing his true conflicting opinion on something as trivial as food might lead her back to the multitude of other pro-social lies he had spun since they had first met.  

Many hen-pecked men have no problem living indefinitely in the world of pro-social lies until after the honeymoon peak of the union fades. Then physical intimacy will lose its pain-killing potency as he  gradually tires of always accommodating his partner. She will have no idea why her spouse's heart is no longer in the activities and events he seemed to enjoy so much with her during those halcyon days of courtship. The only way for him to preserve the relationship is to continue the charade of pro-social lies to avoid conflict and accede to her wishes. Thus he must keep saying "Yes, dear," even though he feels trapped. He eventually looks to his beloved as his oppressor and often begins to live a secret life, doing the things he really enjoys behind her back.

You hear of husbands like this, portraying an image as a devoted family patriarch, but every so often going on golf outings, horseback rides,  fishing trips, camp outs or gambling weekenders that include a clandestine visit to the local Gentlemen's Club or a house of ill-repute. They will enjoy lap dances and more at sleazy strip joints, willing to pretend with women the age of their daughters or granddaughters. They will tip toe into the house at 2AM, throw their perfume stained clothes into the washer, shower off and remove all evidence of their night out "with the boys." Yet the next morning they will re-adjust their halo and resume their life of the compliant "Yes, dear" husband.

Such people react angrily when confronted about their deceptive lifestyle. They really think they are fooling everyone around them. But their consciences cause them to seek ways of numbing the pain of living such a deceptive lifestyle whether it be workaholism, sports addiction and religious addiction or more conventional pain killers like alcoholism, tobacco or narcotics.

Professor Dunbar is correct that the effect of white lies does create a tighter bond, but there is a terrible price to be paid later on if and when the life of deception is discovered and the spouse realizes it was all fake. Consider a letter to an advice column from "Silently Weeping In Kansas", who discovered upon her husband's death that he was a prolific sex addict. The  grieving and posthumously betrayed widow wished her husband had properly disposed of the incriminating evidence of phone numbers and credit card records so she didn't have to face the harsh truth of their phony relationship and all those wasted years. Pro-social lies will give one the illusion of intimacy,  but in fact you are just fooling yourself and your poor unsuspecting partner.

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

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