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The Complicated Truth About Lying to Your Partner

While most lies start as self-protection, they end as self-sabotage.

Key points

  • Lying is fundamental to human beings and it destroys trust in relationships.
  • Research shows that small lies make it easier to tell bigger lies.
  • Overcoming the inclination to lie begins with making honesty with one's partner both a conscious decision and a habit.

The truth is, we all lie. Social scientists acknowledge it as a deeply human trait. The most popular and socially adept among us are usually the biggest liars of all.

The reasons we have for lying are of no surprise, and they range from innocent to sinister: We don’t want to hurt the people we care about, we want to control the perception other people have of us, we want to maintain or raise our status, we lie to protect our own selfish interests, and we want to control others. But as fundamental as lying seems to be to human beings, trusting relationships is also a basic human need, and as we all know, lying destroys trust.

Research shows that small lies make it easier to tell bigger lies. When you add in self-justification, sometimes the lies become so big you start to believe them yourself until you are caught and forced to sustain the relationship-damaging consequences that deteriorate the bond you have and may ultimately end up destroying the relationship completely.

Lies often start as self-preservation but generally turn to self-destruction. It is common to think that the consequences of telling the truth outweigh the risk of telling a lie, but even when you don’t get caught, a lie often damages the relationship.

I once worked with a client who spent over a year in therapy talking about his goal to find a great partner, and while he was able to meet several wonderful women, he kept wondering why he couldn’t feel close to them. While we explored various dynamics from his family and past relationships, he seemed fairly certain that the problem was that he had just not yet found "the one,” and that he should continue looking.

I agreed this was certainly possible, but I asked him to articulate why he was so certain of that before we moved on. He stated to me that the women he was dating must be flawed, because all he ever did was lie and cheat on them, and still they all professed to love him. Not surprisingly, he had never mentioned the lying and cheating, and was indeed also lying to his therapist. He had almost no insight into the fact that his lies and relationships with multiple women at once were preventing him from finding what he really wanted, which was a special, close bond with one woman. It had never occurred to him that these women didn’t actually love him; they loved the person he was pretending to be, and this was one of the things he feared most.

If I asked him why he lied to them, he said he didn’t want to hurt them. If I asked why he omitted from therapy the fact that he was seeing multiple people at once, he stated that he didn’t want to look bad. He thought the lies he was telling were self-preserving when they were really self-sabotaging.

Now, while it would be easy to label this person as simply narcissistic, the truth is that most people’s lies stem from a similar desire to self-preserve in some way, but are ultimately self-destructive, because lying, even if you don’t get caught, prevents you from having something most people want, which is an authentic connection and bond with another human being.

Does the intention matter? People often believe that their intentions justify the lie. Lying not to hurt someone else’s feelings is kinder than hurting them. Right? This type of lying is a very slippery slope. My client above justified his lying to multiple women by saying that he didn’t want to hurt them, which in one respect was true; the bigger truth, however, was that he wanted to control their perception and didn’t want to get caught doing something he knew was bad enough that he needed to lie about it. His lie wasn’t about their feelings; it was about his intention to manipulate and control. What about lies of omission? What if you never actually say something that isn't true? Is that a loophole that lets you off the hook? If you tell a lie or deliberately leave out important information to avoid hurting someone else that ultimately is about hiding your own behavior, you can be assured you have crossed the line and are violating the right your partner has to make his/her own choice about whether your behavior is acceptable or not.

So how do you overcome the natural inclination we all have to lie from time to time?

Make honesty with your partner a conscious decision and a habit. When you make a regular effort to be truthful, even with the small things, it makes telling big lies less easy. Knowing that the consequences almost always outweigh the benefits is something you have to keep present in your mind. For many people, finding a good, trusting relationship is a monumental life task. Destroying a perfectly good relationship because you didn’t think out the consequences of a lie is in some ways a tragedy.

Next time you are tempted to lie, instead tell the truth about why you want to lie: “I’m really afraid you will be upset with me, but here is what happened…”; “It feels like it would be easier to lie to you, but the truth is…”; “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but since you asked here is what I really think…” Telling the truth can have the opposite effect of lying. Instead of creating distance and inauthenticity, it creates trust and bonding, which is what most people genuinely want in their relationships.

More from Jennice Vilhauer Ph.D.
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