Do Relationships Need Lies to Survive?
Save a relationship with a lie? Not a serious one.
Posted October 12, 2009
Recently, a reporter from the Daily Mail discovered my new book, Behind the Door of Deceit: Understanding the Biggest Liars in Our Lives, and got in touch about an interview. She had a hunch, she said, that relationships need a dash of deceit to survive. When she said relationships, she meant romantic ones. Readers of this Living Single blog know that "relationship" has a much bigger, broader meaning to me, as does "love."
So taking the bigger meaning first, let me answer the reporter's question with an anecdote. Because I studied deception for so long, and have found in my work that lying (or, at least the telling of little lies) is ordinary rather than extraordinary, occasionally I get challenged. A conversation partner or student or someone in an audience at one of my talks will claim that they never lie. Even more interestingly, some will vow to spend the next several weeks without telling any lies at all. I never suggest or encourage this, but I do ask them to tell me about their experiences.
Only a few people have actually followed through with their personal experiments in honesty, but the result has been the same each time. They have to call it off after a few days, and go back and apologize. They say they are sorry to the person whose party invitation they declined with the honest response that the person's parties are always boring - or that the host him or herself is boring. They ask for forgiveness for saying to the friend who asked that she really does look like she gained weight. They try to make it up to the coworker whose contributions they described, in all honesty, as not up to par.
I draw a big line between little lies and big ones. Serious lies - the big time betrayals of trust - are probably never good for relationships of any kind. Little lies are often a different matter entirely. Sometimes people tell these lies not because they don't value honesty, but because telling the truth conflicts with something else they value, such as being compassionate or loyal or reassuring.
As I've noted before, romantic relationships are hotbeds for serious lies. Serious lies are often told by and to other close relationship partners, too, such as parents. For example, when parents hide a grim diagnosis of a grandparent's illness from an adolescent, sometimes that grandchild will still feel badly about the deception many years later. There is an intriguing exception, though, to the rule that the most serious lies are told by and to the people who are closest to us: In the 238 stories of serious lies that we collected, only 6 of them involved a best friend.
The reporter wrote an interesting story on the questions she asked me; you can read it here. Because she sent me her questions in advance, I wrote out some answers, so I thought I'd share them with you. (DM means Daily Mail.)
DM: How prevalent is lying in romantic relationships?
Bella: It depends on whether we are talking about the little lies of everyday life or the big, serious lies. We have a good idea for the little lies. In romantic relationships that are not married relationships, people lie in one out of every three conversations. With a spouse, they lie in one out of every 10 conversations. We don't know whether people become more honest as they become more serious about the relationship, or whether they are more honest from the outset with the person they will eventually marry.
It is different for serious lies. When people lie about something big - such as an affair, or about some other terrible thing they did, or just about anything else they consider serious - they are more likely to tell those lies to the people they care about the most. Our spouses and the other people we feel closest to are the ones who have the highest expectations for us. That means it is especially hard to tell them that you have fallen so short of those expectations.
DM: Are all lies bad?
Bella: It might seem so in the abstract. But we live in the real world. We might value honesty and want to be honest, but we sometimes value other qualities at the same time, such as compassion or loyalty. Sometimes, two noble goals come into conflict. If you tell the truth, you will be unkind, and if you say something kind, it will be a lie. Sometimes when people lie to the ones they love, it is because they are valuing something else more than honesty. Maybe they are trying to be loyal, or to avoid hurting the other person's feelings. Maybe they think that the other person isn't in a good enough place, emotionally, to hear a painful truth.
Liars sometimes claim to tell lies so as to spare the other person from pain. Sometimes they really mean it. But they can also be using that as an excuse to give themselves an out.
DM: Why do people lie to their partners and what do they lie about?
Bella: Sometimes people tell what I call "kind-hearted lies." Those are the lies told to spare someone else's feelings or make them look better to others or feel better. Examples include: "I know just how you feel;" "you did the right thing;" "you look great." If you care about someone, you are more likely to tell them those kinds of lies.
Many of the other little lies of everyday life are told to make the liars look better or feel better or get what they want. Those are the self-serving lies. They can be told because the liars really are acting in a self-centered way, but there's another reason, too. Sometimes liars claim to be smarter or kinder or more accomplished than they really are because they are trying to impress the other person. So, they puff up their own image because they care so much about what the other person thinks of them. They want to create a good impression, but they are not sure whether their true self will be good enough. So they lie. Probably more of this kind of lying goes on when potential partners are first getting to know each other.
Serious lies are a whole other matter. When we asked people about the most serious lie they ever told to anyone, and the most serious lie anyone ever told to them, they described lies about many different things. But the most common were lies about affairs.
**** Interested in reading more? 1. Behind the Door of Deceit: Understanding the Biggest Liars in Our Lives, my brief book about serious lies, is available here, here, and on Kindle. 2. Want to read the originals, in all of their gory academic detail, of six of my professional papers I am asked for most often? I've collected them in The Lies We Tell and the Clues We Miss: Professional Papers. It is available here and here. 3. With co-authors Wendy Morris and Weylin Sternglanz, I published a chapter, "When the truth hurts: deception in the name of kindness," in the new professional volume, Feeling Hurt in Close Relationships, edited by Anita Vangelisti. A note about reading professional papers: Journal articles and other papers written for professional audiences can seem inscrutable, but usually, it is only the statistics in the Results sections that are truly daunting. The introductions and discussion sections can be readable. Sometimes the tables are informative too when they present accessible statistics such as means (averages) and percentages rather than, say, regression coefficients (don't ask).
A note about the order of topics I address: I’ve been mentioning several topics I’m going to get to and haven’t addressed yet. So here’s a word about the order in which I write these posts. First, if something is timely and likely to draw a lot of attention (such as that awful cover story in Time), then I try to write it as soon as possible. If I miss that narrow window when the blogosphere is abuzz, then it gets added to my “get to this eventually” list. Items on that list sometimes move to the top when I think I can get a post out fairly quickly (such as this one, because I had already written out answers to the reporter’s questions). Beyond that, it is often a matter of mood. I’m not being flip. I discovered while writing Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After that if I’m really in the mood to write about something, the resulting piece is much better than if I’m just doing it because I think I should get some writing done that day. Still, I’m always open to being nudged, so if you wish I’d hurry up and get to something, just let me know.