Sometimes the truth hurts. That fact of life leads many people to bury their heads in the sand and ignore the reality of the world. But what about in romantic relationships? Do you prefer comforting falsehoods instead of the painful truth? Do you want your romantic partner to always be reassuring, telling you your new haircut looks good, even when they don’t think so? Or would you rather they gave you the stinging truth?
In short, do you want your romantic partner to lie to you? My research suggests that, surprisingly, many people prefer that their partners conceal painful truths from them. They want their partners to lie to them. In return, they feel morally obligated to lie and hide uncomfortable truths from their partners too.
Although lying is widely denounced and stigmatized, it is still quite commonplace. On average, people report telling about two lies each day. These lies are told to strangers, co-workers, and loose acquaintances, but lies are also peddled to those closest to us, including dating partners and spouses.
To be fair, many of these lies are not selfish and corrupt untruths or the concealment of heinous crimes. Instead, they are often little white lies motivated by prosocial goals, such as sparing another’s feelings or avoiding social awkwardness. We say things like, “That was a fun party!” even when we don’t mean it. Many of these benevolent lies are viewed as entirely harmless and occur without a second thought.
From a very early age, we are taught to be sensitive to the feelings of others. This instruction includes lessons about discretion, such as when we should withhold our true opinions to spare others’ feelings. That discretion sometimes involves using deceit to conceal uncomfortable truths.
For instance, what happens if a child is asked if they like a birthday present from their aunt, yet they happen to find the gift boring and useless? Children are taught to conceal that unpleasant truth and provide a positive response, such as, “I love it. Thanks!” In fact, when people choose to answer honestly in such situations, they are viewed as insensitive social misfits. As kids, we all learned the craft of weaving socially acceptable falsehoods for the good of the relationship.
In romantic relationships, there is an expectation of sensitivity and care toward partners, and there is also a high expectation of honesty. Can we meet both of those obligations? Despite the high premium that people seem to place on honesty in romantic relationships, it turns out that lying to lovers is fairly common. In one study, the researchers found that people lied in about 10 percent of their interactions with spouses. That number ballooned up to 30 percent of interactions if the couple was not married. Another study found that people lied to their romantic partners about five times a week.
Interestingly, less than a third of people believe that complete honesty is critical for the success of a romantic relationship. Instead, most think that the importance of honesty with their partner depends on the situation. For instance, people view lying about infidelity as impermissible, but they have forgiving views about lying to a partner in order to strengthen a relationship, avoid fights or emotional blow-ups, or to boost a partner’s self-esteem. In this sense, people seem to take a utilitarian view of lying, using the outcome of a lie to determine whether the lie was immoral or not.
Essentially, lies that harm people are bad, and lies that protect or help people are good. People tend to view white lies, those attempts to mislead for the purpose of protecting another, as the most acceptable and beneficial form of lie. It turns out that benevolently intended white lies are the most common types of lies told in romantic relationships. In fact, people often see telling a benevolent lie as the most appropriate response when the truth would lead to a romantic partner’s suffering.
In a study I published with my colleagues several years ago, we examined 255 people’s beliefs about whether they should tell benevolent lies to their romantic partners. We asked how much they agreed with statements such as, “I believe that it is better to tell my romantic partner a little white lie rather than risk hurting him or her by telling the truth,” or “I see nothing wrong with lying to my partner as long it is in his or her best interest.”
We also asked people about how honest they thought their romantic partners should be with them by asking them how much they agreed with statements such as, “I believe that it is better for my romantic partner to tell me a little white lie rather than risk hurting me by telling me the truth,” or “My partner should see nothing wrong with lying to me as long as it is in my best interest.”
The main finding from our study was that people endorsed benevolent lying in their relationships. Most people thought they should tell their partners some white lies, and they also thought that their partners should lie to them as well. It turned out that there was a small gender difference, with men endorsing more benevolent lying in their relationships than women.
There was also one interesting twist in our findings. It turned out that people thought it was more appropriate for them to lie to their partner than for their partner to lie to them. They seemed to think, “It’s fine if I lie to you, but you should be more honest with me.” This type of moral hypocrisy is a common finding in psychology. We tend to castigate others for their bad behavior, but we let ourselves off the hook for doing the very same thing.
It looks like as much as we prefer honesty, most people carve out exceptions where they deem lying to be permissible or even desirable, even in romantic relationships. One important takeaway from our study was that everyone was different. Some preferred to always be shielded from painful truths, while others demanded complete honesty at all times. With so much variability in expectations about honesty, it seems that every couple must navigate its own set of rules and practices about candor and truth.
One last point to consider is the outcome of using benevolent lies instead of the truth in our love lives. It turns out that people who are always honest, even when the truth hurts, tend to have more satisfying and fulfilling relationships. Even though a little white lie might help smooth things over in the moment, telling the truth pays relational dividends in the long run.