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Why Partners Lie to Each Other So Much

Research finds that lies are common, in even the most intimate of bonds.

Key points

  • Most individuals place a high value on honesty but also make frequent dishonest statements.
  • People underestimate their levels of false or misleading communication.
  • Dishonesty leads to distance, and more distant relationships are more likely to be dishonest, including rationalization, blame, and gaslighting.
Tirachard Kumtanom/Shutterstock
Source: Tirachard Kumtanom/Shutterstock

Eddie (names have been changed) was a dentist in his mid-thirties with commitment issues. He destroyed a relationship with a former fiancée when he backed out of the marriage.

He then pursued Denise, whom he met online. He volunteered to fly her out, put her through dental hygienist school, and lavish her with money and bling. She came, but it didn’t go well. When they visited with me in therapy, they both were entrenched in patterns of pretense. Eddie liked to exaggerate how hard his job was and often said he was working at friends’ houses playing World of Warcraft. He also claimed incompetence when she would get frustrated and want to talk, saying he “didn’t know how to talk about feelings.” When he forgot her birthday, he said he didn’t get her anything because she was hard to buy.

Denise would say she was ugly to get Eddie to compliment her and would make hollow threats to leave so he would take her shopping. Each made countless promises and follow-up excuses. Not surprisingly, they didn’t have a lot of trust and were constantly suspicious of each other.

Most agree that it is good to be honest, and to be authentic. We are drawn to those who are “down to earth” and don’t put on a front or act phony. One reason we appreciate this quality is because it isn’t all that common. People frequently put on a face to fit their situation and don’t realize they are deceptive.

In one study, strangers talked to each other for 10 minutes. The participants were asked to get to know each other. Then, upon reviewing these recorded interactions, the researchers asked participants what they said that wasn’t exactly accurate. Most could identify several things, including insincere compliments or embellished statements like: “Oh, I totally agree,” or “Wow, that is interesting!” About 60 percent of the subjects lied at least once during the 10 minutes, and the average number of lies was close to three.

When presented with evidence like this, people concede that they might lie about once or twice a day, but some research estimates it is closer to 10 times. College roommates are false with each other in about 38 percent of their interactions, with claims like, “Hey man, I don’t know whose dishes those are!” However, even in marriage, which should be the most intimate of relationships, about 10 percent of communication contains deception.

Eddie and Denise didn’t feel close even though they were strongly drawn to each other. Their distance resulted from a cycle in which the lying caused distance, and the distance led to more lying. Research has shown that when people feel less invested in a relationship, they are more likely to lie to each other. Unhealthy relationships are often replete with rationalization, blame, and gaslighting. However, this downward spiral can be reversed.

Eddie and Denise realized what they were doing. They became more open about their true motives and concerns and spoke directly instead of dropping hints or threats. This helped them feel closer, which led to an important conversation about what they really wanted from each other. Being authentic takes commitment and it may not come naturally, but honesty is essential to growing relational trust and security.

Facebook image: Tirachard Kumtanom/Shutterstock


Adapted from Love Me True: Overcoming the Surprising Ways We Deceive in Relationships. Cedar Fort.

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.

Kim B. Serota, Timothy R. Levine, and Franklin J. Boster, "The Prevalence of Lying in America: Three Studies of Self‐Reported Lies," Human Communication Research 36, no. 1 (2010): 2-25.

Bella M. DePaulo, and Deborah A. Kashy, "Everyday Lies in Close and Casual Relationships," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74, no. 1 (1998): 63.