The idea that lying occurs in all intimate relationships may be hard to accept. What may be even harder to acknowledge is that some of those lies may actually be necessary for love to thrive.
Yet, in more than four decades of working with couples, I have not observed a single relationship where both partners have been totally honest with each other at all times and in all ways. Though some lies are disastrous betrayals that can cause irreparable harm, many are chosen deceptions that caring partners use to protect themselves and the ones they love. All loving couples sometimes distort, omit, or deny truth to maintain harmony in their relationships.
There are two ways that intimate partners lie to each other: they can say something that isn’t true or they can withhold information. Both of these choices may undermine the authenticity and true intimacy of any relationship but many committed partners are willing to risk that loss. They absolutely believe that some lies are beneficial if the truth might cause more harm.
In addition to what to share, intimate partners are also concerned with when to share thoughts and feelings that could backfire. Many people, for example, represent themselves inaccurately or incompletely at the beginning of new relationships. They are concerned that too much information or the wrong kind of information, when delivered prematurely, could interrupt the potential for a long-term relationship. They rationalize that time will tell whether the partners care deeply enough later to endure more embarrassing information. Those kinds of “incomplete admissions” can be seen later as hidden strategies that are self-serving.
Once partners have committed to an exclusive, long-term relationship, they might choose to share more relationship-challenging secrets, hoping that they will be accepted. But, even in the most committed and ideal relationships, unpredictable events can happen that are game-changers. Even though many partners deeply believe in authentic and open communication, they might decide in any one situation to withhold certain thoughts and feelings during troubled times. They rationalize, or accurately reason, that their current crisis will abide and current disclosures might find a better welcome at a later time. They don’t want to overreact in the moment, and honestly feel that temporary withholding of possibly fleeting thoughts or feelings is the far better choice.
Memories often blur with time and most people’s recollections of prior events shift and change as relationships mature. Many partners exaggerate or falsify who they’ve been or what they’ve done in the past to gain traction in a new relationship. The inventions of the mind, reality based or not, may add color and excitement that positively contributes to the present experience. If the other partner never finds out that the past is somewhat embellished, was that distortion of truth helpful or harmful to the relationship?
Many people make earnest promises they cannot always keep in a timely manner but sincerely intend to later on. Fearful of their partner’s disappointments and negative judgments, they might opt to let the “slip” remain unknown in hopes it would not be discovered. They reason that telling a temporary “little white lie” would be a better choice than taking the chance of disappointing their partners.
Though there are countless examples, here are ten common variations of intended distortions of truth that many of my patients have shared with me over the years. Some were deceptions, some were withholdings, and some were both. Every one of these people loved their partners, wished they could have been totally authentic, but felt that they would create more heartache if they were totally honest.
My hope is that you will see your own understandable dilemmas within some of these examples and what you chose to do when you face similar conflicts. Please share these with your partner and talk about how each of you might have responded in a similar situation. There is no automatic right or wrong responses, only the very human dilemmas that arise in every intimate relationship.
These common examples illustrate the kinds of understandable and legitimate conflicts that emerge in intimate relationships between people who genuinely love and respect each other. In any conflicted situation, each partner must decide whether any lie is worth the loss of authenticity that must ensue.
Many of my patients over the years have brought that dilemma into their counseling sessions, asking for my help to navigate these uncertainties. They want to be as open and honest as their relationship will bear and wonder if there are guidelines that might help. There is a way that intimate partners could better navigate these difficult dilemmas. They realize that they are not likely to achieve total transparency but want to get as close to it as they can. What can they do to make their communication as authentic and real as possible, while protecting themselves and each other from irrevocable damage?
Here are the guidelines that seem to work the best:
Even if you fully intend to be as authentic and open as you can with your intimate partner, it is highly likely that you will lie to each other at some future time. Whether a deliberate misleading, inventing or exaggerating the truth, withholding delicate thoughts or feelings, or intending to divert away from a painful situation, both of you are going to continue wrestling with situations that are just not that easy to resolve. But if you’ve followed the guidelines above and continue to process them as you go along, you may find yourself opening up to discussions that were off limits before. You may even learn to face situations together that you could not have in the past.
Consistent honesty and authenticity are not easy for anyone in every situation, and perhaps they shouldn’t always be the first choice. It is up to each couple to expand and deepen their intimacy by mastering every skill possible to make that happen. I deeply believe that one of life’s most beautiful experiences is to be deeply known and still beloved. The pursuit of mutual transparency is the path to that goal.
Dr. Randi’s free advice e-newsletter, Heroic Love, shows you how to avoid the common pitfalls that keep people from finding and keeping romantic love. Based on over 100,000 face-to-face hours counseling singles and couples over her 40-year career, you’ll learn how to zero in on the right partner, avoid the dreaded “honeymoon is over” phenomenon, and make sure your relationship never gets boring. www.heroiclove.com