Why Your Lover Is Lying to You
The surprising research on deception in relationships.
Posted Apr 17, 2017
Mel was a foreman for a big-box store, where he oversaw shipping and unloading. He was a husky blonde, who was addicted to Juicy Fruit gum. He told me in therapy he had a “little gaming issue.” He didn’t want his wife to know, because he felt like she wouldn’t understand or would give him grief. Our conversation began with me asking him what, exactly, he was referring to. He explained:
“I sometimes play online poker or gambling.”
“Yes, but I often win, and I think I will make it all back soon.”
“How much are you in the hole?”
[Pause] “Say again?”
“But I am paying it down. Do you think I should tell my wife?”
Avoiding Conflict or Protecting Feelings
Mel’s claim that he didn’t want to upset his wife is one of the most common reasons for lying. He said he didn’t think his wife “would understand,” or that she would be angry “over nothing,” but these were excuses.
It was easy for Mel to claim he was protecting his wife by keeping her in the dark, but don't you think she would want to know about his house-sized debt? I would bet five bucks she would. The reason he didn’t tell her was because he didn’t want to stop gambling, and he didn’t want the fight that was going to erupt when his wife found out. Most people don’t like conflict, and it is easier to sweep things under the rug than to confront hard truths.
Lying for Love
Humans also lie because they love. Our raging desire to find a mate leads to schmoozing, preening, and pretending. In one study that examined lying between strangers, the highest rates of deception were from those who were instructed to try and “be likeable.” Imagine a situation in which Jack and Jean are starting to date and are feeling the love. He may not be as excited to see The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants as she is, but will happily watch to appear sensitive. She doesn’t really care about his carburetor collection, but will nod and listen to his stories about them, saying nonsense like, “Wow, that is really cool!” They will each watch for signs that their efforts are paying off, and adjust their words and bodies accordingly in order to woo the other. Like Jerry Seinfeld said about his 20 years of dating, “That’s a lot of acting fascinated.”
The irony, of course, is that the foundation of a relationship is trust. If you impress a future mate with bogus tales of adventure or fake interests, it won’t bring closeness. The bigger the deception, the more likely it is to backfire. It's one thing to discover that your flirty friend isn’t into a TV show that he claimed to love, but another to find out that he is married and didn’t mention it.
Although most agree that lying is bad in principle, in practice people are morally flexible about deceit. They say they want honesty from their spouse, but then admit in some situations, their own lies are acceptable. This leaves a door open for interpretation, depending on the situation. What one decides not to share (“Surely he wouldn’t want to know that I bought these dresses...”) might be considered important by the other (“Why didn’t you tell me you spent $350?”). When things are hazy or complicated, people often shape events in a way that favors them.
On one survey, only 6 percent of people said it is better to lie if it prevents conflict, but when asked if there was ever a time that honesty was not the best option, about two-thirds could think of times they wouldn’t be honest. In other words, people are saying, “It is not okay to lie to me, even to avoid conflict. But sometimes I need to fudge things just to keep the peace.” Huh?
We clearly struggle with this double standard. Should we be strictly honest about everything we think and feel? In future posts, I will discuss further reasons couples lie, some of the consequences of deception, and what honesty really means in a relationship.
Adapted from Love Me True: Overcoming the Surprising Ways We Deceive in Relationships (Cedar Fort Publishing, 2016).
Tim Cole, "Lying to the One You Love: The Use of Deception in Romantic Relationships," Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 18, no. 1 (2001): 107-129.
Robert S. Feldman, James A. Forrest, and Benjamin R. Happ, "Self-Presentation and Verbal Deception: Do Self-Presenters Lie More?" Basic and Applied Social Psychology 24, no. 2 (2002): 163-170.