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Is Lying Part of Loving?

How distortion of the truth may help maintain harmony in intimate relationships.

Source: Sjale/Shutterstock

The idea that lying occurs in all intimate relationships may be hard to accept. What may be even harder to acknowledge is that some of those lies may actually be necessary for love to thrive.

Yet, in more than four decades of working with couples, I have not observed a single relationship where both partners have been totally honest with each other at all times and in all ways. Though some lies are disastrous betrayals that can cause irreparable harm, many are chosen deceptions that caring partners use to protect themselves and the ones they love. All loving couples sometimes distort, omit, or deny truth to maintain harmony in their relationships.

There are two ways that intimate partners lie to each other: they can say something that isn’t true or they can withhold information. Both of these choices may undermine the authenticity and true intimacy of any relationship but many committed partners are willing to risk that loss. They absolutely believe that some lies are beneficial if the truth might cause more harm.

In addition to what to share, intimate partners are also concerned with when to share thoughts and feelings that could backfire. Many people, for example, represent themselves inaccurately or incompletely at the beginning of new relationships. They are concerned that too much information or the wrong kind of information, when delivered prematurely, could interrupt the potential for a long-term relationship. They rationalize that time will tell whether the partners care deeply enough later to endure more embarrassing information. Those kinds of “incomplete admissions” can be seen later as hidden strategies that are self-serving.

Once partners have committed to an exclusive, long-term relationship, they might choose to share more relationship-challenging secrets, hoping that they will be accepted. But, even in the most committed and ideal relationships, unpredictable events can happen that are game-changers. Even though many partners deeply believe in authentic and open communication, they might decide in any one situation to withhold certain thoughts and feelings during troubled times. They rationalize, or accurately reason, that their current crisis will abide and current disclosures might find a better welcome at a later time. They don’t want to overreact in the moment, and honestly feel that temporary withholding of possibly fleeting thoughts or feelings is the far better choice.

Memories often blur with time and most people’s recollections of prior events shift and change as relationships mature. Many partners exaggerate or falsify who they’ve been or what they’ve done in the past to gain traction in a new relationship. The inventions of the mind, reality based or not, may add color and excitement that positively contributes to the present experience. If the other partner never finds out that the past is somewhat embellished, was that distortion of truth helpful or harmful to the relationship?

Many people make earnest promises they cannot always keep in a timely manner but sincerely intend to later on. Fearful of their partner’s disappointments and negative judgments, they might opt to let the “slip” remain unknown in hopes it would not be discovered. They reason that telling a temporary “little white lie” would be a better choice than taking the chance of disappointing their partners.

Though there are countless examples, here are ten common variations of intended distortions of truth that many of my patients have shared with me over the years. Some were deceptions, some were withholdings, and some were both. Every one of these people loved their partners, wished they could have been totally authentic, but felt that they would create more heartache if they were totally honest.

My hope is that you will see your own understandable dilemmas within some of these examples and what you chose to do when you face similar conflicts. Please share these with your partner and talk about how each of you might have responded in a similar situation. There is no automatic right or wrong responses, only the very human dilemmas that arise in every intimate relationship.

  1. A passionate, very sexually active man may only feel fulfilled if his partner is equally aroused every time they make love. Perhaps she doesn’t have the same drive, but thoroughly enjoys the contact, even though she isn’t always orgasmic every time. If he knew that she was pretending, he might not look forward to their sexual connection in the same way. She is afraid he will lose his erection or his desire for her. Should she just continue to keep things as they are, hoping that her body will respond better the next time, or risk telling him the truth?
  2. A woman knows that her partner has wanted a certain gift for many months and thinks he’s going to get it for Christmas. She was supposed to have saved up the money by now but she spent some of it on something she wanted. She knows how he feels about not incurring debts but to cover, she borrows the money from a friend who won’t tell him. She has it all figured out how she is going to repay it when she can without disclosing what she’s done. She can’t bear letting him down, especially when it was her fault. Is she wrong to just let him enjoy his special day and take care of it on her own? Is keeping him in the dark a better choice even if she isn’t being truthful?
  3. A couple gets married within their faith and practices its rituals rigorously. Over time, the husband begins to feel uncertain about the teachings of his faith. His religious pastor tries to help him, but the advice doesn’t seem to quell the uncertainty. Not wanting to disturb his wife and family, he decides to explore an alternative spiritual path on his own, believing that he will eventually return to his original religion. Should he take the chance to risk their finding out when they probably would never suspect? Is his willful withholding of thoughts and feelings that would certainly upset his wife, the right choice for him to make? Should he decide, instead, to be honest from the start no matter what the outcome?
  4. An attractive young woman is living with her boyfriend, but not certain if the relationship is moving towards a long-term commitment. She and her partner encourage each other to go out with friends once a week, trusting each other totally that “wherever they get their appetite, they’ll come home for dinner.” She meets an attractive, single man whom she would date in a minute were she not already semi-committed. Though she isn’t looking for an affair, she does enjoy the attention and flirts back, just playing with possibilities in case her current relationship doesn’t pan out. When she gets home, she feels more amorous with her boyfriend and tells herself that what she did was ultimately good for her relationship and doesn’t rule out doing it again. Is telling him a lie just a self-protective way of thinking or the right kind of thinking?
  5. A couple has been voting for the same political party since they’ve known each other and have absolutely agreed that they will never “cancel out” each other’s votes by supporting opposite candidates. In the current election, he has really changed his mind and wants to vote against her choice. He is certain that this will be the only time they will disagree and doesn’t want to upset her. Should he just go to the polls and secretly do what he wants. After all, she will never know, and why cause unnecessary conflict when this might be the only time? Is that a justifiable non-disclosure or just a legitimate need to be independent without incurring a hassle he doesn’t want?
  6. A man in a committed relationship is having some physical symptoms that worry him. He’s been to the doctor who has told him that the current findings are currently unremarkable but could be indications of something worse if the symptoms continue. He doesn’t want to worry his partner unless a crisis is inevitable but is having trouble concentrating and difficulty sleeping. His partner is concerned but he pretends that he’s having some pressure at work to divert her from her concerns. He is stoic by nature and a non-complainer, so he decides that he will keep his own counsel until he is ready to share, even though he knows she would prefer to process this with him. Should he decide instead to include her even if he’s uncomfortable, or to keep her in the dark until he has something concrete to share? Is this “postponing of the truth” a justifiable deception?
  7. A young man is having difficulty maintaining erections and has decided to try Viagra. He is embarrassed that he “needs something to help him” and doesn’t want his new girlfriend to know. He makes excuses when they are eating out, to make sure he doesn’t have a full stomach or has had too much wine, because his doctor told him that the medication won’t work as well. He also has to monitor the time needed for the medicine to work once they begin having sex. His subterfuge is making him more anxious and she expresses concern. He reassures her with some plausible reasons, fearful that she will leave him if she knows. Should he take the chance and bring her in on it? What if they break up and she tells other people? Is he justified in keeping it to himself?
  8. A woman’s best friend tells her she is having an affair with her husband’s brother, who is married. She is very close to her sister-in-law. They are out for an evening together and her brother-in-law has too much to drink and lets some information slip. Her sister-in-law senses that something is up and challenges his disclosure. He denies any wrongdoing and just tells her he was joking. She calls the next day and says that she suspects something and wants to know if there is anything going on. The woman has two choices: one is to confess her part in the cover-up and take the chance of destroying the family. The other is to continue the deception in hopes the affair will lose steam and just end. She decides to pretend she doesn’t know and urges her friend and brother-in-law to protect her. Was that decision to withhold information from her sister-in-law the best choice even though it was a lie?
  9. A man finds out that he has a very low sperm count and might have difficulty conceiving children. He falls madly in love with a woman who clearly wants a family. He doesn’t want to lose her and is certain she’ll move on if she knows. He hopes that, over time, she will grow to love him so much that it won’t be a problem to adopt if he can’t get her pregnant. He makes a decision to tell her after they’ve committed to each other and to tell her he didn’t know before so that she won’t feel deceived. She tells him she loves him so much that she wants to spend the rest of her life with him, which he desperately wants. Does he tell her what he knows even though she might leave him, or just hope that he’ll be able to give her what she needs when the time comes?
  10. A woman meets a man who is everything she’s ever wanted and he tells her he feels the same way about her. He’s had very few intimate relationships in his past and makes it clear to her that he doesn’t have a lot of respect for women who’ve been intimate with a lot of men. She doesn’t personally regret the number of men she’s dated, but is pretty sure he’d look at her differently were he to know about her past. As they get closer, they are hanging out with many people who know about her past relationships. Should she let him know more about her past before he finds out some other way and take the chance that he won’t leave her, or just hope their relationship will be so good that he’ll see her as an exception? Is just not telling him all of who she is a fair deception considering that the relationship might not go anywhere anyhow?

These common examples illustrate the kinds of understandable and legitimate conflicts that emerge in intimate relationships between people who genuinely love and respect each other. In any conflicted situation, each partner must decide whether any lie is worth the loss of authenticity that must ensue.

Many of my patients over the years have brought that dilemma into their counseling sessions, asking for my help to navigate these uncertainties. They want to be as open and honest as their relationship will bear and wonder if there are guidelines that might help. There is a way that intimate partners could better navigate these difficult dilemmas. They realize that they are not likely to achieve total transparency but want to get as close to it as they can. What can they do to make their communication as authentic and real as possible, while protecting themselves and each other from irrevocable damage?

Here are the guidelines that seem to work the best:

  1. Talk with your partner about any areas in your relationship where each of you feels the most vulnerable, and talk about why you feel that way.
  2. Be honest when you tell your partner why those specific areas are difficult for you to share. Help your partner by telling him or her any past experiences that may have contributed to your fear of disclosing them.
  3. Examine where your thoughts and feelings may be biased. If you are not open to the way your partner may see things differently, you may risk shutting him or her down.
  4. Observe carefully where or when your partner “lies” to others and what his or her motivations are. If they seem well-intended and legitimately sparing of another’s feelings, you can assume your partner does the same with you. Agree that you can talk about your observations of each other’s behavior.
  5. Talk openly with your partner about being “too” sensitive. Some people wear their belt buckles above their foreheads. If you can’t talk to your partner about things that are of crucial importance, you may both need to work on being less sensitive or reactive if you hear something difficult to process.
  6. Talk to each other about what betrayal, breach of trust, sabotage, withholding, and deceptive choices have meant to both of you in the past. Ask each other for examples of lies that would be totally unacceptable to either of you and those that are “understandable” in certain situations. If you feel courageous, actually tell each other times in the past when you’ve withheld your truth, distorted facts, or made up stories to avoid confrontations in other relationships, and what the results were.
  7. Promise each other to try to reveal as much of your internal worlds between you so that your decisions are made on the most complete information.

Even if you fully intend to be as authentic and open as you can with your intimate partner, it is highly likely that you will lie to each other at some future time. Whether a deliberate misleading, inventing or exaggerating the truth, withholding delicate thoughts or feelings, or intending to divert away from a painful situation, both of you are going to continue wrestling with situations that are just not that easy to resolve. But if you’ve followed the guidelines above and continue to process them as you go along, you may find yourself opening up to discussions that were off limits before. You may even learn to face situations together that you could not have in the past.

Consistent honesty and authenticity are not easy for anyone in every situation, and perhaps they shouldn’t always be the first choice. It is up to each couple to expand and deepen their intimacy by mastering every skill possible to make that happen. I deeply believe that one of life’s most beautiful experiences is to be deeply known and still beloved. The pursuit of mutual transparency is the path to that goal.

Dr. Randi’s free advice e-newsletter, Heroic Love, shows you how to avoid the common pitfalls that keep people from finding and keeping romantic love. Based on over 100,000 face-to-face hours counseling singles and couples over her 40-year career, you’ll learn how to zero in on the right partner, avoid the dreaded “honeymoon is over” phenomenon, and make sure your relationship never gets boring.

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