There are lies—and then there are lies. Some lies are self-serving, covering up bad behavior to avoid negative consequences. Other lies are benevolent, trying to save someone from hurt feelings or information that will harm them.
While most philosophers maintain that lies, in general, are bad or wrong, some are willing to make ethical distinctions between different lies based on their effect or motivation, considering benevolent lies to be less bad, wrong but excusable, or perhaps even justified.
The same goes for lying in romantic relationships. Generally, we should not lie to our partners, but many people would admit that some lies are worse than others. Self-serving lies, such as those told to cover up an affair, are obviously wrong; they compound the betrayal of adultery with deception, both of which prioritize the cheater's selfish interests over their partner's and deny the latter the respect they deserve.
Lying about less bad behavior—such as sneaking a cupcake when you'd promised your partner to give up sweets—could be regarded as even worse because the deception was used to hide such a minor transgression. "It isn't the cupcake, Harold," Sally might say. "It's the fact that you lied about it." And if Harold lied about a cupcake, Sally thinks, what else has he lied about?
Benevolent lies, however, are a different matter. It could be regarded as foolish to be completely honest when answering the question, "Do these pants make me look fat?" We can easily imagine that the person asking that question doesn't expect or even want complete honesty, but rather reassurance and compassion! But there is a class of benevolent lies that, however well-intentioned and selfless, can be just as corrosive to a relationship as self-serving ones: lies told to withhold or disguise what partners need in their relationships.
Take Harold and Sally again. Suppose that they have been married for 10 years, fairly happily, with no affairs or major problems in their relationship. Individually, though, each has had their own issues over the last couple of years. Sally suffered some medical problems that caused changes in her body that she fears have made her less attractive to her husband. Harold has had an ongoing argument with his brother about their parents' long-term care that drudged up some emotional issues from his past, and all of this has eroded his self-confidence.
Harold's problems have caused him to withdraw from Sally physically at exactly the time that Sally needs his attention more than ever, and Sally's feelings about her body have made it harder to connect emotionally with Harold when he needs someone to talk to about his family. Although each knows basically what's going on with the other, neither is willing to say what they need from each other.
Instead, they dismiss their needs by saying, "I'm OK, I'm fine, don't worry about me, you've got your own problems to deal with," motivated by a sincere and warmhearted reluctance to put any additional burdens on their partner. But in hiding what they need from each other, and lying about what they really need, they are not only hurting themselves but also each other, and corroding their relationship itself when they need it the most.
We form relationships for many reasons, and perhaps the most important in the long run is mutual care. The fun times are great, and even better when we have someone special to share them with, but it's when we are suffering that we realize how much we truly need someone else to be there for us. Of course, this person can be a family member or a close friend, but for many of us, this will be the person with whom we have chosen to share our life and home, our romantic partners.
But this essential purpose of relationships is defeated if we withhold our needs from our partners, the people best equipped to help deal with them. Furthermore, in all likelihood our partners know that something's wrong and that we need them, but they feel powerless because we won't tell them what it is we need. We may think we're being kind, benevolent, and selfless—to be sure, this reluctance to share our suffering does come from a good place. But we forget that our partners want to help us. To have our compassion rejected when it's needed the most can be incredibly hurtful and damaging.
Sally and Harold need to be upfront with each other about their problems and what they need. Not only would both of them likely be relieved and gratified to be able to help, but the simple act of helping each other will make them feel better about themselves and possibly help with their own issues as well. Sally and Harold are in a relationship for many reasons, including to be there for each other through life's rough times. But to do this, they need to be honest with each other, as do we all when we're suffering and there's someone nearby who can help, wants to help, and maybe even needs to help.
In these cases, benevolent lies may be the most harmful type of all, because the benevolence itself is self-defeating, if not illusory. As noble as they may seem, selfless relationships don't work; people want to be needed, especially by those they love. Although it may feel selfish, being honest with your partner about what you need from them is a truly benevolent act.
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