When, if Ever, Is It Okay to Lie to Your Partner?
Research shows what you can get away with, and what you might not.
Posted Feb 10, 2015
You might think that there’s no room for lying in the best and closest of relationships. However, according to a recent New York Times column, good lovers do lie—and they lie quite a bit.
Basing this conclusion on his personal experience, along with the wisdom of a few philosophers, University of Missouri-Kansas City philosophy professor Clancy Martin wrote, “Relationships last only if we don’t always say exactly what we’re thinking.”
This assertion that it’s OK to lie fits with the observation by Bella DePaulo, a leading researcher on deception. She and co-author Deborah Kashy (1998) argued some years ago that "white lies" can be seen as “compassionate offerings” that serve to maintain a relationship.
By far, current psychological literature on intimacy votes in favor of total or nearly total honesty as the basis for healthy romantic ties. Close partners communicate openly with each other, and the closer they are, the easier it is for them to share their true feelings. By lying, the theory goes, you create boundaries between yourself and your partner. Over time, those boundaries become reinforced, since once you tell a lie, you have to continue to tell others to cover up the original fib.
The argument Martin makes is based not only on lies of commission, in which you actively say something untrue, but also on lies of omission, in which you leave out potentially hurtful truths. Your partner might be unhappy to find out that a chance encounter with your old flame led to an hour-long chat over coffee. You’ll have less explaining to do if you simply leave that detail out when sharing your day’s experiences over dinner.
Theory aside, this seemed like an intriguing area of relationship theory to explore, so I decided to put the question to empirical test. Reviewing the recent literature on deception and relationships, I came across a fascinating study by Texas Woman’s University psychology professor Christian Hart and colleagues (2014) that explored the use of “benevolent deception,” or white lies, by romantic partners.
Instead of using the usual college-student sample, Hart and his team surveyed individuals from a wide range of ages—and relationship lengths—through an online questionnaire. This approach gives us a chance to examine how lies function in the real world of relationships rather than the hypothetical world of undergraduates. The sample of 255 participants ranged in age from 18 to 71; approximately 40 percent were male.
Hart and his team used the appropriately-named 12-item “LIARS” (Lying in Amorous Relationships Scale) measure to tap whether people lie in their closest relationship. Questions on this scale, which participants rate from 1 to 5, include items such as, “I believe that lying to my romantic partner is the best thing to do if it means sparing him or her unnecessary pain.” To assess how people feel about being lied to, Hart and his coauthors created a 12-item reverse LIARS measure with items such as, “‘I believe that it is better for my romantic partner to tell me a little white lie rather than risk hurting me by telling me the truth.”
Try rating these two sample items for yourself. Contrast the way you feel when you’re the liar with the way you feel if you are the recipient of a lie. We all have a tendency to excuse ourselves for the same behavior for which we criticize others, and lying is no exception. You know why you’re lying to your partner when you do things like not mentioning the coffee with your ex—but if your partner engaged in the same behavior, you might feel more than a little suspicious.
The findings from Hart’s study show that people behave according to this lying/lied to differential. Scores on the LIARS scale were higher than those on the reverse-LIARS gauge, meaning that people felt it was better to lie than be lied to. Moreover, people who tended to lie also felt more positively about being lied to by their partners, and men had higher scores than women. In a heterosexual relationship, then, the man appears to be more likely to be the white liar than the woman.
Looking at the correlation between the lying/lied to scales, it seems likely that the people higher on both measures are also lower in intimacy. They prefer not to tell, or know, the truth about their partners. In fact, in a dissertation cited by Hart and his team, deception frequency is correlated with lower relationship satisfaction. Relationship satisfaction is a key ingredient of high intimacy. Telling lies to your partner may feel, to you, like you’re doing your partner a favor. Over time, though, you’re not doing a favor to your partner or your relationship.
It is possible for lying to work in a relationship—if both partners agree on the rules. University of California-Santa Barbara psychologist Katlyn Roggensack and colleagues (2014) examined obligatory versus discretionary rules about lying between romantic partners. The obligatory rules are those you and your partner agree to abide by, such as regulations on white lies, social media habits, or interactions with exes. Discretionary rules are those for which you leave the decision to lie up to your partner. You might also agree that you and your partner don’t need to share your emotional reactions.
Unfortunately, Roggensack et al.’s sample consisted of undergraduates and therefore not all the findings apply to real-world couples. Still, there was evidence that when couples agree on the rules, they’re less likely to experience conflict.
To sum up: If you’re going to lie to your partner and, conversely, not mind being lied to, you need to set up some ground rules. Preferably, you do this early in the relationship before walls built by lies become too entrenched. As time goes on, you may need to modify those rules, but if you start with a mutually-agreed-upon approach, lying doesn’t have to detract from your relationship quality. Just make sure it’s your partner you’re trying to protect from the truth, and not yourself.
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DePaulo, B.M., & Kashy, D.A. (1998). Everyday lies in close and casual relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 63–79.
Hart, C. L., Curtis, D. A., Williams, N. M., Hathaway, M. D., & Griffith, J. D. (2014). Do as I say, not as I do: Benevolent deception in romantic relationships. Journal Of Relationships Research, 5doi:10.1017/jrr.2014.8
Roggensack, K. E., & Sillars, A. (2014). Agreement and understanding about honesty and deception rules in romantic relationships. Journal Of Social And Personal Relationships, 31(2), 178-199. doi:10.1177/0265407513489914
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015