She looked to be about 26 years of age, with a bright happy face and a smile that was coupled with a hint of sheepishness. I didn’t catch her name, but I’ll call her Jasmine.
“Hey Elly, can I ask you something? In your view, when is it OK to lie to your partner?”
Such a big question thrown out there as if she was asking something clear cut such as whether you want one or two sugars in your coffee.
It was the afternoon break at a conference, just after my presentation. I had ignited thoughts for the audience about how truth, and the lack of it, can impact our lives, from the boardroom to the bedroom and every room in between.
Before we tackle the question as to when it is OK to lie to your partner, let’s put a few things on the table.
The truth is, we all lie. We lie to each other, actively or passively, much of the time. We are surrounded by deception from moment we wake up and check our instagram feed, to pouring a glass of red, and switching on the evening news.
We lie at home, we lie at work, we lie to our kids, we lie to strangers, we lie to loved ones, we lie in interviews, we lie in business, and we lie to ourselves.
Why Do We Lie?
A myriad of reasons. Humans are complex. Relationships are complex. Organisations and societies are complex. Truth and deception is not black and white, it’s a deeply nuanced spectrum from transparent to opaque.
Humans are great at minimising, rationalising and justifying lies. Some lies slip past our lips and are quickly forgotten. Some stay with us for a lifetime. Quite often telling a lie seems like the best, or only, course of action at the time. Many people tell me that ‘white lies’ are absolutely acceptable and often necessary to keep the peace, save face, or keep a conversation flowing.
Whenever we choose to lie there is always motivation. Put simply, motivation can be boiled down into making a gain or avoiding a pain.
I’ve been working with the topics of truth and lies for almost 20 years, blending these topics into training programs around workplace communication, risk management, interviewing skills and investigations.
I also worked with Mars Venus International as a relationship coach, helping people improve relationships or have a better experience in the search for new love. I’ve heard many stories about lies and broken trust or love that has quickly turned to contempt because of a lie.
Like most people, in my personal life at times I’ve chosen to hide the truth and I’ve had the truth hidden from me. I understand the stress and the pain it can cause.
Back to Jasmine, who was eagerly awaiting my answer to her question. I needed more information to be able to help her. She went on to tell me that she met a man on Tinder (Man A) and dated him for a while. They decided that friends was a better option for them.
As that relationship was fading, she met another man on Tinder (Man B) who is now her boyfriend. She kept in touch with Man A as friends and over time things got more serious with Man B. Jasmine’s problem was that she told Man B that she met Man A through other friends rather than him being a fellow Tinder candidate and former lover.
Jasmine believed that if she told Man B that Man A was the guy that came before him, that she would seem to be ‘too active’ on the dating scene and she didn’t want to appear that way. So, she avoided the pain of telling the truth at the time for the gain of appearing a certain way in Man B’s eyes.
But now she was feeling really uncomfortable. The lie was eating her up and she was thinking about it daily. She didn’t know what to do.
Is Truth Good and Lies Bad?
Truth and lies are complex topics and I believe it is too simplistic to say we should always tell the truth or we should never tell a lie. What I have come to learn over the years is that we always have a choice. We make the choice about how truthful we are based on what is at stake and, once we have chosen to lie, it can be difficult to ‘undo’ the lie.
There are situations in life where the best choice may be to hide the truth. I don’t think the truth is always good and a lie is always bad. But in context of this article, specifically relating to personal relationships, I believe that truth is at the core of trust and trust is at the core of truly great and happy relationships.
Where Do You Stand On The Spectrum?
Imagine a line in front of you. To the very left is TRUTH and at the other end is DECEPTION – this is the TRUTH-DECEPTION Spectrum.
At the TRUTH end of the spectrum, nothing is hidden. Communication is clear and transparent. At that end, truth is shared freely and there is openness, clarity, authenticity and candid behaviour. It’s like looking through a crystal clear glass window.
Now imagine the other end of the line. Down at the DECEPTION end, the truth is blocked and masked or hidden by an opaque screen. You can’t see through it. You have to guess, assume, or stay in the dark.
At the cloudy deception end there is also a sticky web of lies. When someone chooses to lie, and there is guilt, shame or remorse associated with the lie, then it is likely that there will be a little, or perhaps a lot, of sticky web that spreads over the lie teller. The trapped feeling in the web is that feeling of regret or fear that you are going to get caught out. That emotion is there because there is likely a clash with your personal values of honesty and integrity.
A lie takes more effort to tell and uphold, as not only do you need to mask the truth, but you also need to come up with a plausible lie. Then for any one lie you tell, you have to invent more to cover the first one. That’s when the sticky web can spread and you become even more tangled.
A lie can also have a ripple effect, spreading to people who know about the lie but feel obligated to protect the liar. They too become covered in sticky web, feeling powerless to break free as they believe the truth is not theirs to tell.
Back to Jasmine at the conference. Some might say the lie she told was no big deal. Some would say not to tell him, others say tell him and see what happens. To Jasmine, the issue was big and she was afraid. I told her that a ‘lie is fear’s bodyguard’ and to identify what she is really afraid of.
She identified that her fear was that Man B would be angry that she lied to him. I explained that it was not my job to tell her what to do, but I asked her this question:
“What sort of relationship do you want to create with this guy – average or sensational?”
Jasmine thought about it and told me that she really did want to create something special and have a relationship that is transparent, with a core of open and honest connection. I asked her if she thought a sensational relationship comes with hidden truth, ongoing fear and a sticky web? She said no.
I reminded Jasmine of the story I told on the stage at the conference about a couple I spoke to last year, Ben and Amanda. Ben navigated the stress of a lie that he carried around for 3 years. Ben had been covered with an ever increasing amount of sticky web after he lied to Amanda on their very first date. He had lied about his age.
Amanda was 25 when they first met and when she asked him how old he was, Ben decided right at that moment to lie. He looked young for his age but the truth was that he was 42. He thought there was no way that she would date a guy that was 17 years older than her, so he told her he was 35. They started dating, months went by and then years. The relationship was going well.
But the stress was building for Ben. Three years went by and throughout that time he had to keep telling the lie and some more to cover the cover lies. For 3 years, Ben had to hide anything that had his date of birth on it and he even pretended that he didn’t like celebrating birthdays.
The stress built and eventually the truth came out. It got to the point that Ben wanted to ask Amanda to marry him, but knew the truth needed to be revealed. He accepted he would need to come clean, no matter the consequence.
When I interviewed him last year, Ben told me that it was actually a big relief to step on at the TRUTH end of the spectrum and finally shake off all the sticky web that had been growing over him for 3 years. He said he was fearful the relationship would end, but decided he no longer wanted to live a lie. The lie had caused him significant stress and it was beginning to affect his mental and physical health.
The couple did break up for a number of weeks as the trust she had in him was shattered. Thankfully love saved the day and they were able to work together to rebuild the relationship with a strong commitment to always operate from at TRUTH end of the spectrum, no matter what.
I said to Jasmine that we get to choose in life how truthful we are with other people and also with ourselves. I also told her, with my older, wiser mentor hat on, that the best and most connected relationships I know of have a core of intentional truthfulness. I told her I could back this up by many stories and my personal experiences.
So, when is it OK to lie to your partner?
Answer: In my view it depends on what sort of relationship you want. We all get to decide the answer to that question based on our own values, justifications, desires and standards.
Don’t beat yourself up if you’ve told a few fibs in a relationship. Reality is, you can’t travel back in time to change your decision, but you can decide when it’s time to step on to the TRUTH-DECEPTION spectrum at the truth end if you’re done hiding behind a lie.
If you make the choice to live your relationships at the truth end of the spectrum, the truth is, you won’t ever have to deal with the stress and discomfort of being covered by a sticky deceptive web.
If you want a phenomenal relationship – if that’s your priority, if you’re really committed to that level of connection and success – then the answer is that it’s probably never OK to lie to your partner. Lies are not an element of truly great relationships (maybe except when you’re organising a surprise birthday party!).