Secrets and Lies

Understanding the identity-warping nature of secrets and lies.

Cheap Lies

If you lie to your husband about how much stuff costs, are you betraying him?

Are "lies of omission" still lies? If you don't tell the truth, are you a liar?

If you lie to your husband about how much stuff costs, are you betraying him?

Perhaps you know stories of women who, while financially dependent on their husbands, nevertheless squirreled away hundreds, even thousands of dollars, by skimming small amounts of money off their usual allowance for household costs. I do. I had an aunt who could have bought a Porsche on what she managed to "put away." She didn't see this as cheating her husband or family, but instead she regarded it as prudent. It made her feel safe; it made her feel like she could plan for an emergency or a rainy day.

Sometimes this packet of private information can include the serious secrets of an affair or an undisclosed sexual history. But it can also encompass everyday secrets, like not admitting exactly how much a purchase actually cost, saying it was on sale when it wasn't, explaining it was a gift when it wasn't, or saying a dress had been hanging in the closet for months rather than admitting it was bought that day.

Some men and women go through similar motions in terms of their emotional lives: keeping feelings of happiness or sadness, shame or guilt, pleasure or joy to themselves in order to keep something back from their spouses. They create a version of an emotional I.R.A.; they believe that if their mate doesn't know everything about them, the better off everyone will be. They put their genuine wishes and dreams into a form of "self-storage" in order to keep them free from the contamination of the evidence.

In particular, women were often told to avoid emotional dependence since financial dependence, for example, was assumed. Even though she wouldn't have put it in such terms, it's what my aunt was doing when she skimmed money off the housekeeping bills.

Women would hold something back for themselves in order to retain a small measure of autonomy.

Women found ways, in many cases, to subvert the authority they felt they had to hand over to their husbands. It also permitted them a form of breathing room. And, perhaps most importantly, it provided insulation against the pain that someone you loved deeply would be capable of inflicting.

These lies offer some women an emotional buffer-zone from their husbands which, in turn, help them to feel more in control of their relationship. But at what price?

The woman who lies ciphers out of the relationship anything she feels will not be missed. She appears to be a team player while refusing to pool her emotional or other resources.

The worst danger is this: She comes to mistake her withholding for genuine independence. Such a pattern of even minor deceits offers, however, only a dangerous method of securing a sham form of independence.

The answer, therefore, is yes: when you don't tell the truth, you're hiding something. "Hiding something"—especially if it becomes a pattern, a habit or, as would be the story for my old Italian aunt, a way to rationalize an act you know is wrong—is a form of betrayal.

Tell the truth and cheat the devil. In terms of integrity and in terms of a solid relationship based on trust, there's a policy of no returns. 

 

-revised from an essay first published in 2010

Secrets and Lies