The Cruelest Lie: Saying "I Love You" When You Don't

If you are not truly in love, it's better not to pretend that you are.

Posted Feb 12, 2019

If you’ve ever been lied to by a family member, a close friend, or someone you admired, and you discovered that you’d been lied to, you might understand just how painful the realization of the lie—not just the truth, itself—can be.

There are times in life when the old saying that the “truth hurts” is, well, actually true. When we find out information about being deceived by someone we care about, we might wish we’d been lied to a little longer. However, there are times when the truth, no matter how painful it might be, is better than a lie.

Who Are You Trying to Protect?

When you are on the verge of telling a lie, the litmus test of your motivation to tell the lie is found in the purpose of your deception. If you are deceiving another merely to protect yourself, chances are that the lie you’re preparing isn’t in the best interest of the person with whom you’re going to share it.

Prosocial lies, though, are a different breed altogether. If you’re lying to spare others harm or pain, that’s considered prosocial lying. In fact, the desire to appropriately use prosocial lies is often a sign that you’ve got a well-developed sense of empathy. This shows that are able to choose to act compassionately towards others. When your lies are designed to protect others, not yourself, the justification to use an untruth is a lot more substantial. If you’re lying to keep yourself out of trouble, that’s not exactly a testament to your altruism or kindness.

Early in romantic relationships that we are hoping will grow deeper, we may be more willing to offer a few more “little white lies” to our partner in order to keep the peace and prolong the harmony. We might “exaggerate” our interest in a hobby of a partner, we may feign more enthusiasm than we actually feel about a film genre, music genre, or which cuisines we actually prefer. These are examples of prosocial lies and these are used to build up social bonds with others. It makes sense that we’d be eager to please a person we’re hoping will like us as much as we like them.

When we exaggerate our income, our position at work, our social standing, or bowling average, those lies have moved a bit closer to the line which is never a good one to cross. While we are still focused on building up a bond between ourselves and a potential partner, the focus of the lie becomes self-aggrandizement and reflects an increasingly selfish goal.

The Fallout of Being Found Out

When a person lies about basic facts of their lives—not past times, favorite foods, or less “weighty” matters—the loss of trust that can occur when the lie is found out may sink the relationship no matter how far it’s already moved. You can laugh off a “pretend allergy” to a spice you just don’t like; it’s hard to laugh off a lie that reflects serious ethical issues about where you draw the line of honesty and integrity.

Crossing the Line

Lies that are used only to get you what you want, without concern for the well-being of another, are seldom justifiable among most people. One falsehood revealed tends to encourage people to look for the next one to be uncovered. Trust is not always easy to earn, but it’s much harder to earn it back once it’s been lost.

Promising Love When You Have None to Give

There are many “white lies” that crop up in romantic relationships. Perhaps the earliest one to show up might be, “I’ll give you a call…” Even when there’s no intention to ever dial those digits again, some people feel it’s the “right thing” to say after even a bad date. Just don’t say it. You may think that you’re protecting the other person’s feelings by offering this line, but you’re really just trying to “cover” for yourself in the moment. The momentary “save” you tell yourself you’re doing is going to be a lasting bit of resentment in the heart of your recipient.

Another white lie that sometimes shows up is, “Don’t worry, we’re just friends.” This can show up at any point in a relationship and the more you find yourself protesting that “we’re only friends,” the more likely that your actions are telling a different story. Jealousy is a dangerous emotion to inspire in others and it’s best to either pull back on the “friendship” and stop the “friendly contact” or be up front with your partner if the relationship is anything more than friendship.

The Big Lie: Saying “I Love You” When You Don’t

Finally, we come to the cruelest lie that we might ever tell someone about whom we might actually care . . . “I love you.” There’s a lot to be said for openly declaring your feelings to the person with whom you are romantically involved. But when you throw out those three words, if they are untrue, you have created the inverse of what an intimate relationship should be.

The commitment to another through these three words is a sought after goal for many individuals—and when those words are first uttered, they may carry more weight than any other three-word sentence you’ve made to date. Undoing “I love you” can bring more heartache and emotional distress to the person who’s feelings you thought you were protecting than not saying those words could ever do.

How to Avoid Saying “I Love You” When You Don’t

If your romantic partner blurts out this confession of their feelings, and you’re not in a place where you can honestly return the sentiment, that’s okay. Depending on where you’re at with things, you could respond in a couple of different ways.

If you’re still very much into the relationship, but just haven’t reached your own tipping point for the “I love you” stage, let your partner know how much you care about them. Talk about the ways the relationship makes you feel and what you enjoy most about being a couple.

If you know the relationship doesn’t have a chance of moving to the metaphorical next step, maybe it’s time to be honest about your overall thoughts and feelings about the relationship in a caring way. It’s okay to begin untangling the relationship now—especially if someone is imagining long term promises and you’re ready to look at the relationship as a short-term involvement.

The Ultimate Mistruth

If you really only want to use the words, “I love you,” as currency to get what you want from your partner, then you’re doing a disservice to your trusting partner, risking your reputation as an ethical individual, and creating a web of deceit that might be very painful for both you and your duped partner to untangle. When a lie serves only the liar, it’s deceit plain and simple.