When do we tacitly “permit” ourselves to use white lies? Research indicates that we are likely to tell a white lie for four common reasons (Camden, Motley, & Wilson, 2009). These are to avoid shame or humiliation; to keep conflict or disruption to a minimum; to end an inconvenient encounter; and to end a relationship (“It’s not you, it's me”).
Using white lies under these circumstances is considered socially acceptable, but when the goal of the lie moves towards deception of others for your own selfish purposes, these lies have turned a corner. No longer "white lies," they become an attempt at a “snow job” designed to take advantage of another. For instance, it’s OK to lie to save your partner's feelings if you say you “love” the meal he lovingly prepared for you, even if it’s not exactly what you’d ever make for yourself. However, it’s not OK to lie when the only feelings you’re protecting are your own.
When Do White Lies Become Hazardous to a Relationship?
Deciding what is an “OK” lie and what is a “dangerous lie” requires consideration of your motivation and the potential fallout if the truth were found out. When it involves too much interest in the activities or presence of another person who could be seen as a romantic rival or threat, the real question is why you are giving in to temptation if you know it’s a behavior that might land you on the wrong side of an argument with your current partner. However, the “lie” that you didn’t peek may be a bigger problem than the fact that your eyes momentarily wandered. Lies are used to cover up the truth and when lies are needed, partners begin to wonder what is really the truth.
In short, a white lie becomes hazardous when it’s used to protect your own hide, not when it’s done to protect the feelings of another. Think about it this way: What’s the probable reaction if a “white lie” was revealed for the untruth it was? In cases of actively checking out the social media postings of an ex, a partner may be a bit justified to find out their that his partner was doing this covertly. If he found out you were willing to re-watch an episode of Billions that you’d already “stealth-watched,” he’d probably be a little disappointed, but not threatened. Everyone has a different expectation regarding what issues require the absolute truth—either from themselves or others. If your intuition is urging you to avoid even a "white lie," follow your gut.
4 White Lies You Should Never Tell
Here are four “white lies” that you should never use with a current or potential partner if you want to be on the right side of relational behaviors:
- I’ll be in touch. If you know you’re never going to dial those digits again, don’t promise that you will. Protecting yourself from the pain of being the heavy isn’t worth the potential psychological and emotional pain you’re dropping that person into with a hollow promise.
- You’re the only one for me—I never even look at other women/men. If you’re already texting another potential partner or trying to think of ways to break off the relationship already. The longer you lead someone on, the more painful the actual break-up will be. Ending a relationship that’s going nowhere is like ripping off a Band-Aid—you can make the break quick, final, and clean—which can sting pretty sharply at that moment—but the pain will fade with time. Or you can slowly drag out the process which may seem less acutely painful at the time, but can be torment and torture as you wait for the final break to occur. Honesty and fair warning are always more valued—the white lies used to snow a partner are self-serving rather than chosen for the common good.
- We’re only friends, nothing more. If you were really “only friends,” it’s probably unlikely that you’d have any reason to try and convince a partner that an extra-relational companion is nothing more than a friend. Emotional affairs can be every bit as devastating as physical affairs to relationships. In fact, women are likely to be a lot more jealous if they think you’re growing too close to a friend, so claiming that another woman is “just” a friend isn’t the tack to take when you’re getting called out for potentially wayward behavior by a significant other.
- I promise I’ll quit (fill-in-the-blank) after tonight. Whether the behavior is flirting, gambling, drinking too much, smoking, or sitting on your butt while your partner is doing something constructive that you should also be doing, if your intention isn’t true, don’t even make a promise that you know is a lie. Your partner knows, too, and each time you make a “white lie promise,” you are doing damage to the relationship if it’s a high-stakes issue for your partner.
The Equation for Measuring the Risk of a Lie
So, the equation for deciding whether or not to lie would have a couple of variables:
- The measure of the intent of the lie
- The potential fall-out you will face if you’re found out
Weigh these variables before you risk telling the lie, no matter how “harmless” it may seem at that moment.
Camden, C., Motley, M. T., & Wilson, A. (2009). White lies in interpersonal communication: A taxonomy and preliminary investigation of social motivations. Western Journal of Speech Communication, 48(4), 309-325.
Lupoli, M. J., Jampol, L., & Oveis, C. (2017). Lying because we care: Compassion increases prosocial lying. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 146(7), 1026-2042.